Monday, February 28, 2005

Ordinary Mind

Joshu earnestly asked Nansen, "What is the Way?"

Nansen answered, "Ordinary Mind is the Way."

Joshu asked, "Should I direct myself towards it, or not?"

Nansen said, "If you try to turn toward it, you go against it."

Joshu asked, "If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is the Way?"

Nansen answered, "The Way does not belong to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion. Not knowing is blank consciousness. When you have really reached the Way beyond all doubt, you will find it is as vast and boundless as the great empty sky. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?"

At these words, Joshu was suddenly enlightened.

This koan has been read to me many times during my Zen practice. Yesterday, Arthur gave a dharma talk in Chattanooga on "Ordinary Mind," and the Sunday before that, he gave more-or-less the same talk at the Atlanta Center. I'm not complaining - if he was giving it again next Sunday (and he well might - next Sunday is sesshin, and Arthur is doshi), I would gladly sit through it again.

So why is Ordinary Mind so hard to realize? It's like Viv Stanshall's question, "Why can't I be different and original, like everyone else?"

I have been staring at the computer screen for 20 minutes wondering how I can describe Ordinary Mind. Cutting and pasting from another web site certainly won't get me there. In fact, it is beyond words.

"The spring flowers, the moon in autumn.
The cool breezes of summer, the winter’s snow.
If idle concerns do not cloud the mind,
This is man’s happiest season."

Which is to say that I got back from yesterday's trip to Chattanooga and did my grocery shopping, paid my bills, blogged, showered and went to bed. This morning, I got up, went to work, opened the zendo in the evening, came home and blogged. Tomorrow, I'm likely to shower again, go back to work, sit through an NPU Meeting and probably even blog about all of that.

Happy March, y'all!

Sunday, February 27, 2005


Yesterday, after I got back from the recon hike up Springer Mountain, L. came over and we went to dinner at Salsa, a local Cuban restaurant. After dinner, we went to the Alliance Theater and saw "The Guardsman," a 19th-century Hungarian comedy of manners. Strange choice for an Atlanta playhouse . . .

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today, Arthur and I drove up to Chattanooga to attend the Chattanooga Zen Center's Sunday service, where Arthur provided the dharma talk and dokusan. Dokusan, or private instruction, provides an opportunity for Zen students to work directly with a teacher in a confidential, face-to-face setting. In the early days of Buddhism in Asia, interactions between Buddhist masters and their students usually occurred in public gatherings of the monastic community, or in spontaneous interchanges during work and other temple activities. Over the centuries, particularly in Japan, such interactions became increasingly private and formalized. In time, these private meetings, known by the Japanese term dokusan, became an integral aspect of Zen training.

Today in the West, dokusan is an essential element of practice for many Zen students. During dokusan, students may bring up questions relating to practice, may present their understanding, or may simply sit quietly with the teacher. Dokusan may be brief or it may last a while, the length of time being no indication of the quality of the encounter. Maintaining absolute honesty and a respectful confidentiality in the teacher-student relationship, both inside and outside of dokusan, helps to establish the trust so essential to working closely and deeply together. This unique relationship, grounded in the fundamental integrity of Mind itself, can be a great help to the student in dealing with inevitable difficulties and doubts that arise, and helps to foster a meaningful involvement with the practice itself.

Of course, driving up to Chattanooga and back with Arthur, I got the opportunity for two 2-hour dokusans, although the length of time being no indication of the quality, etc.

Anyway, as I predicted Friday, it was an eclectic weekend - a bluegrass concert Friday night (even if we didn't stay for the feature act), Appalachian Trail hiking Saturday (even if only a reconnaisance), a play Saturday night (even if a Hungarian oddity), and a Zen service Sunday (even if in Tennessee). At least I got some more folks signed up for the final hike while I was up in Chattanooga.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Hiking the Three Treasures

Today I took the reconnaissance hike up Springer Mountain. The trip is not for another two weeks, but I wanted to make sure that the Forest Roads were still open, to check on the parking situation, and to look for good spots for meditation along the trail.

The hike itself is a five-mile loop along the Benton MacKaye Trail to Big Stamp Gap, then up Ball Mountain and over to Springer Mountain (the start of the Appalachian Trail), and then down Springer on the Appalachian Trail back to the parking lot. In many ways, the hike reminded me of the Three Treasures in Buddhism (Sangha, Dharma and Buddha). The first mile or so was along the Benton MacKaye Trail, south of Forest Road 42. This section was relatively accessible and flat. However, there were a lot of downed trees and branches across the trail, which required stepping over, under, around or through, and which clutched at my clothes as I hiked.

Similarly, the Sangha, the harmonious community of Buddhists, is also very accessible and the rewards are easily achieved. The Sangha supports us in our practice and encourages us on our path. However, one can also get caught up in personality conflicts, rivalries, petty jealousies and other impediments, which are like the branches, limbs and briars on this otherwise "easy" section of the trail. There is a nice campsite along a creek at the end of this section which would make an excellent spot for the group to sit and meditate on the theme of Sangha practice.

The second section of the trail crosses back over Forest Road 42 at Big Stamp Gap and begins the ascent up Ball Mountain. Here, the branches, limbs and briars are fewer, but the trail is steeper and requires more effort. However, I was rewarded with some beautiful views and vistas, particularly on the west side of Ball Mountain, which would make the second good spot for group meditation as we sit and contemplate the second of the Three Treasures, the Dharma, while looking out over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

This section of the trail is like the Dharma, the incomparable teachings, in that one rises above the entanglements of the Sangha but must also make a greater individual effort. Although this effort is more strenuous, the rewards are also greater.

After the beautiful view from Ball Mountain, the trail begins the steepest part of the climb, the final ascent up Ball Mountain and then across to the summit of Springer. Here the trees were spaced further apart and were notably upright, and the vistas enjoyed were like the one on the side of Ball Mountain, but in all directions, not just one-sided like before. Also, I could plainly see the summit, so that it was clear where I wanted to go and what I had to do to get there, and the views opening on all sides of me encouraged me to keep on climbing.

This section of the trail is like the Buddha, the world-honored one, in that it is free of one-sided views. At this stage of our practice, the goal can be plainly seen, but great effort is still required, even more than during the Dharma practice. And then one reaches the summit . . .

Of course, the three treasures are not Springer Mountain, and one does not sequentially engage first the Sangha, then the Dharma, and then the Buddha. In one's practice, one is continually involved with all three of the treasures. Also, one does not "attain" Buddhahood like one can summit a mountain. Where does one go after reaching the summit? Nothing is "attained," because you already are a Buddha, each and every one of you.

The hike with the Zen group will be on Saturday, March 12, 2005, leaving the Atlanta Soto Zen Center at around 8:00 a.m. Please email me if you would like to go, and I will send you details about the trip.

Friday, February 25, 2005

You know that you're really getting old when you go to see Donna the Buffalo at the Variety Playhouse and you're mildly perturbed to see on the tickets that the show doesn't start until 9:00 p.m., but you go anyway and get there at 8:30 so as to get a good seat only to find that the band doesn't actually start playing until 9:30 but they're pretty good so you kick back and enjoy them until you realize that it's not Donna the Buffalo on stage but only the warm-up act and they go on until 10:00 o'clock and now it's a full hour after you thought that the band was going to start and an hour and a half since you arrived but you sit back and wait for the feature act to take the stage by watching the old hippies walking up and down the aisle for first 10, then 20, then 30 minutes, and now its 10:30 goddamnit and Donna the freaking Buffalo still isn't on stage and you've been sitting in these uncomfortable seats which smell like piss, mind you, for two hours thinking you were going to see the show at 9:00, but NO! they're taking their own goddamn sweet time and now it's 10:45 and you're thinking I have a whole weekend ahead of me and don't need to be sitting here all night waiting for Donna the fucking Buffalo to decide to finally grace us with their presence so you get up and walk out of the Variety Playhouse and drive home without ever seeing the goddamn fucking band that you came there to see in the first place.

You know you're lucky when your companion through all of this is the lovely L. and she's right there with you also thinking that it's time to leave. . . .

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The rain finally came last night and drenched the entire State of Georgia in a pounding storm, leaving the soaked ground too wet for anything other than the easy retrieval of earthworms by robins and cardinals.

It had better clear up by this weekend. It's time once again to lead the quarterly hike of Buddhists through the forest - this time we're off to Springer Mountain, the starting point of the Appalachian Trail (or ending, dependent upon your orientation). But first, I need to take a recon hike to scout the current parking situation, find good places to sit, etc. I'm planning on going this Saturday, weather permitting, for the reconnaissance, but the hike itself is in two weeks, so if I don't do the recon this weekend, I'll only have one more chance the following weekend. And Murphy's Law will dictate that if there's only one opportunity to go on the recon hike, it will rain on that one opportunity.

However, this weekend looks like it should have a fairly high overall potential for fun. Friday, I'm going to Variety Playhouse to see Donna the Buffalo with L. Traveling across the country in a 1960 tour bus, Donna the Buffalo has developed a fervent following and fans of all ages. Dubbed "The Herd," Donna's fanbase trails the band as they make their way from state to state. The band has performed at The Merle Watson Festival, Telluride Bluegrass Festival and The Newport Folk Festival. Funky and danceable with a message of tribal philosophy and celebration, Donna the Buffalo's music is a unique blend of reggae, rock, country, zydeco, cajun, and folk traditions. Donna's pointed lyrics issue moral challenges as their topic material moves effortlessly between political, historical, personal, and spiritual themes, with ideas of social and moral responsibility that spring from the band members core beliefs. The interchange of energy and emotion between the band and the fans turns each concert into an experience that actualize the ideas of community, responsibility, and celebration heard in the band's lyrics.

Or so I'm told.

Anyway, after the Saturday hike, L. and I are off to the Alliance Theater to see "The Guardsman" by Ferenc Molnar. "Ferenc," as I learned in Budapest, is a popular name in Hungary. The play is billed as a romantic comedy about the troubled, young marriage of a vain actor and actress. Sure to catch his wife cheating, the actor disguises himself as a soldier and courts her incognito. His gambit sets off a comedic chain of events with the moral that true love conquers all. László Marton directs.

Sunday, I'm heading back up to the Chattanooga Zen Center with my friend Arthur for their Sunday service.

So, that's my weekend: some music, some theater, some Appalachian Trail hiking, some Zen, and some time with the lovely L. It all looks good from here, and sure as hell beats out unstructured time.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Here it is, Wednesday, the middle of the week already and the second full moon after the winter solstice.

The days are getting longer. And warmer. It was a beautiful spring day today, mid 70s and sunny - the kind of "winter" weather that makes you glad you live in Atlanta.

Yesterday, as you could tell from the previous post, was L.'s birthday. I arranged for a bouquet of roses and lilies to be delivered to her at work, and bought her a Japanese vase as a birthday present. I offered to take her out to dinner at Bachannalia, but she wasn't feeling quite 100% and requested that we make it some other night when she felt better and could enjoy it more.

No problem.

Instead, we went to the movies and saw "Bad Education," the new Almodovar. According to, Almodovar attended a Catholic boarding school in the 1960s where some of his fellow students were abused by priests, although he asserts that he himself wasn't. However, he spent 10 years writing the script for "Bad Education," which is based upon a short story he wrote as an adolescent about his experience at boarding school. "Bad Education," then, is about the making of a fictional movie about the experiences of two former boarding school students. In the movie, the script was written by one of the former students and directed by the other. Not to give anything away, but obviously the clergy doesn't come out looking too good in the film.

But anyway, L. and I had a great birthday night together. We had spent some of Sunday afternoon together over lunch and shopping after the morning service at the zendo, and Monday she showed up at the evening service and we had dinner (take-out Thai) at her place afterwards. Saturday, I stopped over and helped her clean her place up for an office party she was hostessing.

As I'm writing, the rumble of thunder outside signals an approaching storm. I should have known this pleasant weather was too good to last.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson Was the Sandra Dee of My Generation

Hunter S. Thompson, the maverick journalist and author whose savage chronicling of the underbelly of American life and politics embodied a new kind of nonfiction writing he called "gonzo journalism," died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado, yesterday afternoon. He was 65.

In order to maintain the karmic balance in the mortal world, and to compensate for the loss of Thompson's dark genius, the grim reaper also took out Sandra Dee, the actress who first played "Gidget" in the movies.

"It's a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die. A fat man will feel his heart burst and call it beautiful. Who knows? If there is, in fact, a Heaven and a Hell , all we know for sure is that Hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix---a clean well lighted place full of sunshine and bromides and fast cars where almost everybody seems vaguely happy, except for the ones who know in their hearts what is missing. . . and being driven slowly and quietly into a kind of terminal craziness that comes with finally understanding that the one thing you want is not there. Missing. Back-ordered. No tengo. Via con Dios. Grow up! Small is better. Take what you can get. . .

Heaven is a bit harder to figure. And there are some things that not even a smart boy can tell you for sure. . . But i can guess. Or wonder. Or maybe just think like a gambler or fool or some kind of atavistic rock & roll lunatic and make it about 8-1 that Heaven will be a place where the swine will be sorted out at the gate and sent off like rats. With huge welts and lumps and puncture wounds all over their bodies. Down the long black chute where ugliness rolls over you every 10 or 16 minutes like waves of boiling asphalt and poison scum. Followed by sergeants and lawyers and crooked cops waving rule books. And where nobody laughs and everybody lies and the days drag by like dead animals and the nights are full of whores and junkies clawing at your windows and tax men jamming writs under your door and the screams of the doomed coming up through the air shaft along with white cockroaches and red stringworms full of AIDS and bursts of foul gas with no sunrise and the morning streets full of preachers begging for money and fondling themselves with gangs of fat young boys trailing after them. . .

Ah. . . but we were talking about Heaven. . . or trying to. . . but somehow we got back into Hell.

Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish---a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found out a way to live out there where the real winds blow---to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whiskey and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested. . .

Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll.

Paradise Valley"

- excerpt from 'Author's Note,' Generation of Swine

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Top 10 Achievements of 2004

Okay, there's only eight, which seems somehow appropriate for this Darwin Awards-type list (except that no one dies in these) . . . .

1. WILL THE REAL DUMMY PLEASE STAND UP? AT&T fired President John Walter after nine months, saying he lacked intellectual leadership. He received a $26 million severance package.

2. WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM OUR FRIENDS: Police in Oakland, CA spent two hours attempting to subdue a gunman who had barricaded himself inside his home. After firing ten tear gas canisters, officers discovered that the man was standing beside them in the police line, shouting, "Please come out and give yourself up."

3. WHAT WAS PLAN B??? An Illinois man, pretending to have a gun, kidnapped a motorist and forced him to drive to two different automated teller machines, wherein the kidnapper proceeded to withdraw money from his own bank accounts.

4. THE GETAWAY! A man walked into a Topeka, Kansas Kwik Stop and asked for all the money in the cash drawer. Apparently, the take was too small, so he tied up the store clerk and worked the counter himself for three hours until police showed up and grabbed him.

5. DID I SAY THAT??? Police in Los Angeles had good luck with a robbery suspect who just couldn't control himself during a lineup. When detectives asked each man in the lineup to repeat the words: "Give me all your money or I'll shoot", the man shouted, "That's not what I said!"

6. ARE WE COMMUNICATING??? A man spoke frantically into the phone: "My wife is pregnant and her contractions are only two minutes apart". "Is this her first child?" the doctor asked. "No!" the man shouted, "This is her husband!"

7. NOT THE SHARPEST TOOL IN THE SHED! In Modesto, CA, Steven Richard King was arrested for trying to hold up a Bank of America branch without a weapon. King used a thumb and a finger to simulate a gun. Unfortunately, he failed to keep his hand in his pocket.

8. THE GRAND FINALE!!! Last summer, on Lake Isabella, CA, some folks new to boating were having a problem. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn't get their brand new 22-foot boat going. It was very sluggish in almost every maneuver, no matter how much power they applied. After about an hour of trying to make it go, they putted into a nearby marina, thinking someone there may be able to tell them what was wrong. A thorough topside check revealed everything in perfect working condition. The engine ran fine, the out-drive went up and down, and the propeller was the correct size and pitch. So, one of the marina guys jumped in the water to check underneath. He came up choking on water, he was laughing so hard. Under the boat, still strapped securely in place, was the trailer!

Saturday, February 19, 2005

On the Singular Strangeness of Japan

"Listen. God only exists in people's minds. Especially, in Japan, God's always been kind of a flexible concept. Look at what happened after the war. Douglas MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person."
- Haruki Murakami, "Kafka On the Shore"

A couple weeks ago, during the Atlanta ice storm, L. and I watched a DVD of Miyazaki's anime fantasy "Spirited Away." The movie is strange and wonderful, and evokes a world where ghosts and spirits, gods and monsters are not only accepted, but expected. The Radish Spirit, Noh Face and other supernatural beings come and go throughout the film to the surprise of no one, and certainly without the fear or even horror associated with supernatural beings in the West (can you imagine "Poltergeist," or even "Ghostbusters," with no one particularly interested in the fact that ghosts share the house with people?).

Much in "Spirited Away" seems very strange to Americans, just as much of Zen also seems rather strange. Where does this strangeness in Zen in particular and Japanese culture in general come from?

Much has been written about how Buddhism, when it arrived in China, encountered Taoism and eventually produced a kind of uniquely Chinese variant of Buddhism, called chan. Chan Buddhism later emigrated to Japan, where it became Zen. However, for all of the talk on how Buddhism incorporated the previously existing Chinese culture, I've read very little on how Chan adopted to Japanese culture when it came to the island, or even of the nature of that original Japanese culture.

So, with that in mind, I found the following passages of John Updike's review in a recent New Yorker of Haruki Murakami's new novel, "Kafka On the Shore," particularly interesting:

"The religious history of Japan since the introduction of Chinese culture in the fifth century A.D. and the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth has been a long lesson in the stubborn resilience and adaptability of the native cult of polytheistic nature worship called, to distinguish it from Buddhism, Shinto. Shinto, to quote the Encyclopedia Britannica, 'has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, in the strict sense, and no fixed dogma.' Nor does it offer, as atypically surviving kamikaze pilots have pointed out, an afterlife. It is based on kami, a ubiquitous word sometimes translated as 'gods' or 'spirits' but meaning, finally, anything felt worthy of reverence. One of Shinto's belated theorists, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), defined kami as 'anything whatsoever which was out of the ordinary.'

"A tenacious adherence to Shinto in the Japanese countryside and among the masses has enabled it to coexist for a millennium and a half with Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and to be subject to repeated revivals, most recently, from 1871 to 1945, as the official spiritual weapon in Japan's imperialist wars. After Japan's defeat in the Second World War, Shinto, under the direction of the Allied occupation force, was disestablished, its holidays were curtailed, and the emperor's divinity - based on the first emperor's purported descent from the sun goddess - was renounced. But Shinto shrines remain, in the imperial precincts and in the countryside; its rites are performed, its paper wish-slips tied to bushes, its amulets sold to tourists Asian and Western. Shinto's strong aesthetic component, a reverence toward materials and processes, continues to permeate the crafts and the arts. Kami exists not only in heavenly and earthly forces but in animals, birds, plants, and stones."

And there you have much of what is unique to Zen Buddhism - the devotion to the arts, the reverence of nature, and even the casual references Dogen makes to demons, to gods, and to hungry ghosts.

The "Spirited Away" DVD has been long since returned, but Friday night, L. came over with the DVD of "Donnie Darko," another rather fantastical, although very Western, movie. We watched the movie on my new sofa with a nice fire burning in the fireplace after we had enjoyed a good steak dinner at Bone's. For those keeping score at home, we got along fine on our first date following our breakup of last week.

Friday, February 18, 2005

A tourist walked into a curio shop in San Francisco. Looking around at the exotica, he noticed a very lifelike, life-sized bronze statue of a rat. It had no price tag, but it was so striking he decided he must have it.

He took it to the counter. "How much for the bronze rat?"

"Twelve dollars for the rat, one hundred dollars for the story," the owner said.

The tourist gave the shop owner twelve dollars. "I'll take the rat. You can keep the story."

As he walked down the street carrying the rat, he soon noticed that a few real rats had crawled out of the alleys and sewers and began following him. This was disconcerting, so he began walking faster. But within a couple of blocks, the herd of rats behind him had grown to hundreds, and they began squealing. He began to trot toward the Bay, but looking back he saw that the rats now numbered in the millions, were squealing ever louder, and coming toward him faster and faster. Now scared, he broke into a run, then a full Olympic sprint to the edge of the Bay where he threw the bronze rat as far out as he could muster.

Amazingly, the millions of rats all jumped into the Bay after the bronze rat, and they all drowned.

The man walked back to the curio shop.

"Aha!" said the owner. "You have come back for the story."

"No," said the man, "I came back to see if you have a bronze Republican."

Thursday, February 17, 2005

More Cayman Island Pics

Some more pictures from my November 2004 dive trip to Grand Cayman Island were sent to me today, this time taken by Darren:

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Happy Kyoto Day

SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE - Recently, I completed our corporate-required sensitivity training regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. One of the lessons they taught us was that women may feel uncomfortable or threatened (and hence, "harassed") if, when being addressed, one does not maintain eye contact but instead allows one's gaze to wander over their bodies.

Okay, fair enough. Let's look at some examples, shall we? Below, we see a picture of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, meeting with his countrypersons. See how Chavez maintains eye contact with the woman he's addressing? See how he's not distracted? Granted, he's using a hand on her shoulder to keep himself focused, but one has to admire his self-control.

Now, look at the bodyguard standing behind him. Look where his gaze is falling. That is why Hugo Chavez, a great Venezuelan, is the President of his country and the bodyguard is, well, only a bodyguard.

Now below, I offer you George W. Bush, who amazingly enough, was recently elected President of the United States after already serving one term. Notice Mr. Bush's lack of concentration. Notice his lack of discipline. See how he's so easily distracted? See how he cannot maintain eye contact?

If this were Venezuela, Mr. Bush would be only a bodyguard . . . .

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Bidding a Soldier Farewell

By Alison Waldman
Published in the Asbury Park Press 02/12/05

NEPTUNE -- In the week following the death of Sgt. Stephen R. Sherman, family and friends gathered to share stories about the fallen soldier — some evoking laughter, others bringing tears.

"We Irish have long ago learned the healing power of stories," said the Rev. Brian Butch of Holy Innocents Roman Catholic Church.

At the memorial Mass Friday for the 27-year-old Neptune man who died Feb. 3 in Iraq, family, friends and even strangers gathered to share the story of Sherman's life. Through music, words, laughter and tears, they remembered Sherman and bid him goodbye.

Rev. Butch spoke of a young man with a sharp mind, good looks and a caring heart. A man who used his time and talents — from athletics to music — to help others. "He excelled in life," Butch said. "He reached out in love to so many people."

With a vision of a better world, one where faith could be practiced freely, Sherman went to Iraq, Butch said. "Stephen chose to go and bring light into a place of great darkness."

Sherman died near Mosul after a homemade bomb hit the vehicle in which he was traveling, according to the Army and his family.

He had enlisted in the Army in April 2003, completing basic and advanced individual training as a chemical operations specialist by the following October. He was deployed to Iraq a year later with his unit — the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Wash. — serving as a nuclear, biological, chemical noncommissioned officer.

While in Iraq, he developed a fondness for its children. When writing to the classes of his cousins, he would ask them to pray for the children of Iraq.

In their eulogies, Sherman's three younger siblings described a caring big brother who always looked out for them. He was a source of inspiration and encouragement, they said.

"Stephen did more in 27 years than most people do in 100," said his younger brother, Eddie, who shared a tale from a canoeing trip in Canada he took with Sherman. He said his brother carried a canoe for two miles and then returned to help others along the trail.

"He was my hero long before he suited up and went to war," said Danny, his other brother.

Sherman's youngest sibling, Caitlin, struggled through tears as she told the crowd of several hundred people that the real loss was for those who never knew her brother. "I will go on in life a stronger, better, more able person because I knew him," Caitlin said. "We were lucky."

Sherman's uncles, Tim and Terry Wildeman, followed their eulogies with a heartfelt performance of "Ripple" by the Grateful Dead, one of Sherman's favorite bands.

Some who came to Friday's service said they felt compelled to attend although they never knew Sherman. "We just wish that we had," said Cheryl Chando of the Normandy Beach section of Dover Township. Her son shared a class with one of his cousins, she said.

As the service drew to a close, mourners flowed out of the church into the cold, dark night, each carrying a lighted candle. They huddled together in silence as bag pipers played and Sherman's casket — draped with the American flag — was placed into a waiting hearse.

He will buried Monday in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Postscript - Sgt. Stephen R. Sherman was the nephew of a co-worker of mine - Shokai

Monday, February 14, 2005

Happy Lupercalia!

"This year the average consumer will spend approximately $97 on Valentine's Day, according to the National Retail Federation's Valentine's Day Consumer Survey. Total estimated spending is predicted to be $13.2 billion, which is up just over 1 percent from last year. The most popular gift given on Valentine's Day is a greeting card, followed by flowers, candy and an evening out." Source:

Every February 14, Valentine's Day is celebrated by giving flowers, candy and cards to lovers or those we hope to love. Even though Valentine's Day falls on February 14, the feast day of several Christian martyrs named Valentine in the third century A.D., its customs probably began eight hundred years prior to the establishment of Valentine's Day with a couple of Roman pagan celebrations.

The custom of sending lover's greetings on February 14 may have no connection with any saint, but dates from the later Middle Ages, when it was believed that this day marked the beginning of the mating season for birds.

"For this was Seynt Valentine's Day when
every foul cometh ther to choose his mate."

- Chaucer, "Parlement of Foules"

So the priest's martyrdom may have just provided a name for the annual celebration of avian sex.

In ancient Rome, February 14th was a day honoring Juno, the principal goddess of the Pantheon and the wife of Jupiter, worshiped as the goddess of women, marriage, childbirth and the moon, and as the protector of the state.

The following day, February 15th, began the Feast of Lupercalia. This celebration originated as a tradition in the third century B.C. During this time hordes of wolves roamed outside of Rome where shepherds kept their flocks. The God Lupercus, Roman God of flocks and fertility, was said to watch over the shepherds and their flocks and keep them from the wolves. The feast was in honor of Lupercus so that no harm would come to the shepherds and their flocks.

The celebration featured a lottery in which the names of girls were written on slips of paper and placed into a vase. Young men would draw a girl's name from the jar, making these two partners for the duration of the festival. The girl assigned to each man would also be his sexual companion during the remaining year. Often, they would fall in love and would later marry.

In the year AD 312, something happened that would change Roman religion forever. In a dream, Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome (306–337 A.D.), received a sign from the god of the Christians the night before an important battle. Emperor Constantine won the battle and thereafter showed his gratitude to the Christian god by turning his entire empire over to this new religion.

As Christianity became prevalent, attempts were made to replace old heathen practices, especially the erotic festivities at the Feast of Lupercalia.

In 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius changed the name of the Lupercalia festival to St. Valentine's Day, and ordered a slight change in the lottery. Instead of the names of young women, the box would contain the names of saints. Both men and women were allowed to draw from the box, and the game was to emulate the ways of the saint they drew during the rest of the year. Not too surprisingly, this prudish version of Lupercalia proved unpopular, and by the Fourteenth century they reverted back to the use of girls' names.

In the Sixteenth century, the Church once again tried to have saintly Valentines, but it was as unsuccessful as the first attempt.

Although the church had banned the lottery for women, the mid-February holiday in commemoration of St. Valentine was still used by Roman men to seek the affection of women. It became a tradition for the men to give the ones they admired handwritten messages of affection, containing Valentine's name.

But the early Christians were anything but quitters, so it was on to Plan B: modulate the overtly sexual nature of Lupercalia by turning this "feast of the flesh" into a "ritual for romance."

Since St. Valentine had been martyred on February 14, 269 A.D., the Church could also preempt the annual February 15 celebration of Lupercalia. The only problem was that St. Valentine was a chaste man, unschooled in the art of love. To make the chaste Saint more appealing to lovers, the Church may have "embellished" his life story a little bit. Since it happened so long ago, records no longer exist. While it can't be proven historically, there were seven men named Valentine who were honored with feasts on February 14th. Of these men, two stories link incidents that could have given our present-day meaning to St. Valentine's Day. Sometimes these versions are all woven into one, as all of the seven Valentines eventually evolved into one.

One of the men named Valentine was a priest during the reign of Emperor Claudius II (268 to 270) - full name, Marcus Aurelius Claudius Gothicus (A.D. 214–270), who defeated the Goths in 269. Emperor Claudius was heavily recruiting men to serve as soldiers for his wars without much success. The men preferred not to leave their wives, families and sweethearts to fight in foreign lands. The Emperor wanted the men to be heartless and fearless soldiers, free of wives and girlfriends. Claudius decreed that no marriages should be celebrated and that all engagements be broken off immediately.

Father Valentine thought this to be unfair, and secretly performed marriages in and around of Rome. Found out not too long later, Father Valentine was imprisoned, where he either 1.) languished and died, or 2.) was beaten with clubs and then beheaded when all attempts to make the priest renounce his faith had proved fruitless. Devoted friends buried him in the church of St. Praxedes on the fourteenth of February, 269 or 270 AD.

Father Valentine was a kind and wise person who had a lot of friends. They begged the Emperor to free him and sent letters and flowers to jailed Valentine. Many think that these were the first "Valentine" letters and flowers sent.

The second Valentine was an early Christian in the time when Rome was unfriendly to the upstart religion. For helping some Christian martyrs he was seized, dragged before the prefect of Rome, and cast into jail.

There he was said to have fallen in love with and cured the jailor’s daughter, Julia, of blindness. When news of this miracle spread, Rome's leaders gave orders that Valentine should be beheaded. The morning of the execution, he is said to have sent Julia a farewell message signed, "From your Valentine," words still used on cards today.

That gets us back to A.D. 496, when Pope Gelasius declared the day of the Feast of Lupercalia in honor of St. Valentine. Despite the efforts of the Church, Valentine's Day continued to echo Lupercalia in at least one respect - men and women would draw lots to select a "Valentine." The couples would exchange gifts. The custom of lottery drawings to select Valentines persisted well into the Eighteenth century. Gradually, however, a shift took place. No longer did both parties exchange gifts; instead, gift giving became solely the responsibility of the man.

This new twist helped to finally bring an end to the random drawing of names, since many men were unhappy about giving gifts (sometimes very costly) to women who were not of their choosing. And now that individuals were free to select their own Valentine, the celebration took on a new and much more serious meaning for couples.

Other Valentine Customs - In medieval Europe, a young girl was supposed to eventually marry the first eligible male she met on this day. If a girl was curious and brave enough she could conjure up the appearance of her future spouse by going to the graveyard on St. Valentine's Eve at midnight. She would then sing a prescribed chant and run around the church twelve times.

In England, little children went about singing of St. Valentine and collecting small gifts. It was also customary to place Valentines on their friends' doorsteps.

Sunday, February 13, 2005


There's a new scam being pulled on innocent motorists in Atlanta.

What happens is that when you stop for a red light, a young nude woman comes up and pretends to be washing your windshield.

While she is doing this, another person opens your back door and steals anything in the car.

They are very good at this.

They got me 7 times Friday and 5 times Saturday. I wasn't able to find them on Sunday.

Okay, my house isn't a Pottery Barn catalog, okay? My living room, even with their sofa in it, doesn't look like the picture I posted yesterday. That was the catalog picture. Here's my living room (picture taken this morning) as it now appears:

An improvement from the big empty room that it was before, I'll be the first to admit, but I've still got long way to go. I need a better ottoman and rug, but the next step is to install an appropriate window treatment.

I got an email from L. in New York last night. Regarding the Christo installation, she had this to say: "The gates, the gates the gates.

"I saw them in the gloaming. They were just up.

"Honestly, I was prepared to be swept away by the magic and majesty of the scale and texture. But, no. The color looked like a taxi cab or the "POLICE LINE" barriers. You almost can't help but think of these things. Or the bright orange of construction crews. It isn't really transforming into something romantic / wonderful / awesome. Instead, the neon color says "industrial" or "functional," and doesn't elevate either meaning or sense.

"Also the gates remind one of walking into a dressing room, the fabric flutters like a dressing room drape. Or a stage curtain. Obvious associations like - i am walking through along the path of my life, under the arbor of circumstance...etc, etc... are inescapable. And heavy-handed, frankly."

She went on to say that she was going to the Park this morning with a girlfriend to see The Gates up close and personal. We'll see whether or not her opinion changes after the visit.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Shokai Gets His Groove Back

This morning, my sofa finally arrived. I ordered it from Pottery Barn on January 6, and as they predicted, it took about six weeks to arrive. I received a call yesterday from the delivery company saying that they would arrive between 9 and 1, and I was all prepared to wait around for them all day, but they arrived at about 9:05 a.m.

Here's what the sofa looks like in the Pottery Barn catalog:

Don't be alarmed: I didn't order it in white. The sofa that arrived today is described by the catalog as "Sage Green."

The good news was that the early delivery left me plenty of time to make it to my 12 o'clock karate class.

L. is in New York this weekend, preparing for a lecture she'll be giving later this year. Even though she's now out of my life, I wish her well, and hope that she gets some time to see "The Gates," Christo's installation opening up in Central Park today.

My mother called me this morning after reading in this blog that L. and I broke up again (yes, my mother reads my blog), and I think she was surprised to find that I was doing well. Even though L. is now gone, I had a fun month with her, and now I'm back to where I was the morning of January 9, when I re-met her for the third time. It's not a bad place to be, this pre-January 9th place, and I haven't really lost anything that I had back then.

Life goes on.

Friday, February 11, 2005

A Broken Heart Can Harm Your Health

Let's see . . . what shall I blog about today? Global warming? Negativland? Dharma teachings? I think I've covered all of those recently. How about this, then: last night, L. and I broke up again, after only about a month back together.

The Buddha taught that our suffering comes from our attachments. Not recognizing the emptiness of all things, we fail to grasp their impermanence and wish that those things we cherish could last forever. But life is change, and we're disappointed when we realize that everything is temporary, that nothing lasts forever.

The secret of happiness is simply accepting the brief moments of joy when they occur, and not cling to them or try to make them last any longer than they would on their own. It's like holding water in your hands, the tighter you squeeze it, the more it just squirts out. It's better just to let it run naturally through your fingers, like a hand under a faucet, than to try to hold on to it.

A broken heart harms your health
by Jessica Ebert,
Nature, February 9, 2005
Emotional stress causes an unusual type of heart disease.

Being 'broken-hearted' as a result of emotional trauma may be a more apposite turn of phrase than we imagined. US researchers have shown how sudden emotional stress can release hormones that stun the heart into submission, resulting in symptoms that mimic a typical heart attack.

People suffering from stress cardiomyopathy, or 'broken-heart syndrome', seem to be having a heart attack: they have chest pain, fluid in the lungs, shortness of breath and heart failure. But although the ability of the heart to pump is significantly reduced and the heart muscle is weakened, it is not killed, or infarcted, as in a classic attack.

"The tissue is alive," says Hunter Champion of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, who led the study. "It's just not moving."

The researchers found that initial levels of hormones called catecholamines (particularly adrenaline) in the patients with broken heart syndrome were 2 to 3 times greater than those in classic heart-attack patients, and between 7 and 34 times greater than in healthy people. "This is the first time the strong association of elevated catecholamine levels and this syndrome has been shown," says Dr. Champion.

Stress cardiomyopathy has been known for ten years in Japan, where it is called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, after an octopus trap with a round bottom that resembles the appearance of a stunned heart. The disease has so far gone relatively unrecognized in the West, but studies such as Dr. Champion's are bringing it to the fore.

It will be important that doctors appreciate the difference between broken-heart syndrome and classic heart disease when examining patients. By spotting broken-heart sufferers, unnecessary procedures could be averted. What's more, as doctors learn to recognize the syndrome's unique features, more cases are likely to be documented.

"This may be the tip of the iceberg," says Dr. Champion. "It may occur much more frequently than we think."

Great. Now I may not even make it to May 5, 2028 after all . . .

Thursday, February 10, 2005

2005 May Be Warmest Year Ever Recorded

2004 was the fourth warmest year on average for our planet since the late 1800s, according to data released February 8, 2005 by NASA. However, that record may be surpassed by an even warmer 2005. Compared to the average temperatures from the 1951 to 1980 period, the largest unusually warm areas of 2004 were in Alaska, near the Caspian Sea, and over the Antarctic Peninsula. But compared to the previous five years, the United States as a whole was quite cool, particularly during the summer.

Globally, 1998 was warmest year on record, with 2002 and 2003 coming in second and third, respectively. "There has been a strong warming trend over the past 30 years, a trend that has been shown to be due primarily to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," said Dr. James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The main source of such gases is smokestack and tailpipe emissions from burning coal and oil.

Global temperatures vary from year to year and place to place, but weather stations and satellite data provide accurate records. By recording the temperatures over time, scientists have developed a record of the climate, and have been able to see how it's been changing.

Some of the changes in climate are due to short-term factors like large volcanic eruptions that launched tiny particles of sulfuric acid into the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) in 1963, 1982, and 1991. These natural events can change climate for periods of time ranging from months to a few years. Other natural events, like El Ninos, when warm water spreads over much of the tropical Pacific Ocean, also have large short-term influences on climate. The large spike in global temperature in 1998 was associated with one of the strongest El Ninos of recent centuries, and a weak El Nino contributed to the unusually high 2002-2003 global temperatures.

Even though big climate events like El Nino affect global temperatures, the increasing role of human-made pollutants plays a big part. Scientists, like Dr. Hansen, have been trying to predict how human impacts on climate will affect the annual world temperature trends in the future.

Dr. Hansen said Earth's surface now absorbs more of the Sun's energy than gets reflected back to space. That extra energy, together with the weak El Nino, is expected to make 2005 warmer than the years of 2003 and 2004 and perhaps even warmer than 1998, which had stood out as far hotter than any year in the preceding century.

The unusual nature of the recent warming was separately corroborated by a new analysis of 2,000 years of indirect temperature records in tree rings, stalagmites, seabed layers, and other evidence from around the Northern Hemisphere. That study, published in the journal Nature, found that previous peaks of warming, particularly during medieval times about 1,000 years ago, were as warm as the 20th-century average but that no spikes in the last 2,000 years matched the warming since 1990.

This is one of several recent studies challenging a longstanding view that temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere were relatively unvarying until the recent warming, a pattern enshrined in a graph scientists have taken to calling the hockey stick for its long horizontal "shaft" and upward-hooking "blade."

The lead author of the new paper, Anders Moberg of Stockholm University in Sweden, said it was important to recognize that natural influences on climate could either amplify or mask human-caused warming in years to come. But his paper "should not be a fuel for greenhouse skeptics in their arguments," Dr. Moberg said, adding that there were ample signs that the warming was now outside nature's recent bounds.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Reading My Email

Sent: Sun 2/6/2005 10:53 PM
Subject: Asia Ofices Closed

Singapore office will be closed noon Feb 8 - 11 for the Lunar New Year.
Shanghai and Beijing offices will be closed from Feb 9 to Feb 15 for Chinese Lunar Year.
Malaysia office will be closed too...... from the 9th Feb to 11th Feb to celebrate the Year of the Rooster!
Wishing all Chinese colleagues "Gong Xi Fa Cai."

Juliana D.

Meanwhile, speaking of Asia, what a mess in Nepal! Last week, the king ended the country's 15-year experiment with democracy and took power for himself, imposing a state of emergency and suspending civil liberties, including freedom of expression. Those in politics and the news media feel particularly under siege.

In a televised address last Tuesday morning, King Gyanendra said he was taking power for three years because the political parties had failed to hold elections or bring Maoist rebels to peace talks. As he spoke, phone lines and Internet connections were being cut, political and student leaders were being detained and soldiers were arriving at news organizations' offices to take on their new role as censors.

Nepal now has no freedom of assembly, expression or opinion; no right to information, property or privacy; and no protection from preventive detention. The government has banned any criticism of the king's action for six months, and any public comment that could affect the morale of the security agencies.

Widespread international condemnation has done nothing to slow the arrest of political and student activists, with the military insisting that the detentions are necessary to prevent protests against the king. The new government acknowledges having 27 politicians under house arrest or in detention, but human rights activists say dozens more people, many of them student leaders, have "disappeared" into custody. Those who have not been arrested have gone underground or to India.

Sent: Mon 2/7/2005 12:58 PM
Subject: News

As some of you may know, a nephew of Mary's was killed last week in Iraq. As you can imagine, it is a very sad time for her and her family. She will be out of town and not working this week - and possibly some of next week.

Well, that certainly brings the war back home. This interoffice email at my place of work profoundly saddens me. Maybe I’ve been sheltered, but this is the first direct contact I’ve had with the impacts of that myopic war in Iraq. My heart goes out to Mary and her family – words cannot express the sense of loss they must feel.

Sent: Wed 2/9/2005 3:58 PM
Subject: Watch Out!

In 2029, an asteroid is expected to fly past Earth inside the orbits of some satellites, and will be visible to the naked eye. No other asteroid has ever been clearly visible to the unaided eye. The flyby will be visible from Europe, Africa and western Asia.

Two house-sized asteroids have made closer passes, but they were not visible without telescopes. The approaching asteroid is roughly estimated to be a little more than 1,000 feet wide. A stony meteoroid about 10 feet wide can produce an explosion of around 20 kilotons, similar to the bomb that flattened Hiroshima.

The rock, catalogued as 2004 MN4, was discovered last June. For a time, scientists said it had the highest odds of hitting Earth ever given to a space rock. Subsequent observations refined the future path and eliminated those odds for the 2029 flyby. It’d not expected to hit the Moon, either. On April 13, 2029, the asteroid will be about 22,600 miles from Earth's center. That is just below the altitude of geosynchronous satellites.

Of the ten known closest asteroid flybys, 2004 MN4 is by far the largest object. Only two have come closer, and they were only tens of yards wide. On average, one would expect a similarly close Earth approach by an asteroid of this size only every 1,300 years or so.

Were an asteroid the size of 2004 MN4 to hit Earth, it would cause local devastation and regional damage, similar to the Tunguska event, an aerial explosion that occurred in Siberia on June 30, 1908. The size of that blast was later estimated to be between 10 and 15 megatons, similar to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and felled an estimated 60 million trees.

At around 7:15 AM, Tungus natives and Russian settlers in the hills northwest of Lake Baikal observed a huge fireball moving across the sky, nearly as bright as the Sun. A few minutes later, there was a flash that lit up half of the sky, followed by a shock wave that knocked people off their feet and broke windows up to 400 miles away. The explosion registered on seismic stations across Eurasia, and produced fluctuations in atmospheric pressure strong enough to be detected by the recently invented barographs in Britain. Over the next few weeks, night skies over Europe and western Russia glowed brightly enough for people to read by.

Had the object responsible for the explosion hit the Earth a few hours later, it would have exploded over Europe instead of the sparsely-populated Tunguska region, producing massive loss of human life.

In any event, since I am going to die on May 5, 2028, I will miss this event by one year. Also, the Inca calendar, developed upon their astronomical observations, ends in December 2028, meaning either that the world will have already ended before the asteroid approaches, or one set of calculations – either the Incan end-of-time or the modern asteroid flyby – is off by a few months.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Negativland, Part Two

As if the storm of controversy over Christianity Is Stupid wasn’t hectic enough, what Negativland did next was nearly enough to do itself in permanently. In 1991, while the world was anxiously awaiting the next U2 album, the song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For had been in the Top Forty for quite some time, and Casey Kasem had introduced it so many times he was sick and tired of it, Negativland did something truly original.

With barely any advance publicity — but all too suspiciously timed to appear just before U2's Achtung Baby album was to be released — Negativland let out a two-song single called U2. The record’s contents were two radically different versions of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, incorporating the song lyrics with a bizarre background of Casey Kasem outtakes in which Kasem swore and repeatedly bashed the song (i.e. “It’s dumb and I have to read this shit about some fucking dog that died? These guys are from England and who gives a shit?”).

Barely a week had passed before Negativland was hit with a 117-page lawsuit, taking the band for all that it was worth. First U2’s label forced the release to be withdrawn after only a few days of being in the stores (supposedly without the knowledge of U2's members themselves). Mr. Kasem found out what happened as well and launched his own lawyers onto the case. Things then got even worse for the band when SST Records suddenly turned on the group, with Mr. Ginn seeking to recoup his financial losses via the bandmembers. The ensuing barrage of claims and counterclaims found Negativland beset by legal and monetary woes that almost sank it.

At the same time, what had been a joke and a dare soon became a new focus for the bandmembers, who inadvertently made a name for themselves as crusaders for both artistic integrity and a freer interpretation of copyright law in opposition to corporate control. According to a 1998 statement released by the band:

"Negativland is an experimental-music and art collective that has been recording and self-releasing music/audio/collage works since 1979. Negativland has become, by necessity, interested in copyright law and the ‘fair use’ statute within it. What began as a natural attraction to found sound in a society overflowing with disposable media has now become a conscious desire to show by example the crucial difference between pirating or counterfeiting another’s work straight across in order to profit from the saleability of that single source, and the creative transformation of material from multiple sources into new, ‘original’ works. This is known in the art world as COLLAGE and it has had an undisputed legitimacy in virtually all art forms since the turn of this century. However, the owners and operators of mass marketed music, being the latest medium in which collage is being practiced, continue to naively attempt to criminalize the technique of audio collage as if it was an illegitimate intruder on originality and nothing more than a form of theft."

This fresh direction, though one which grew naturally out of Negativland’s previous work, helped reinvigorate the group. After extricating itself as much as it could from the legal matters, as well as completely severing all links with Mr. Ginn and SST Records, Negativland kept on. The Over the Edge radio show continued as always, with an increasing number of old and new shows edited for presentation as formal releases.

Negativland's 1997 release, Dispepsi, looked to be another red flag, though whether out of foolhardiness or calculation is up to the individual to decide. Negativland wasn’t trying to pretend otherwise with Dispepsi — Pepsi, along with Coca-Cola and the whole conceit of advertising, were under the gun. The open courting of controversy didn’t pan out into as much attention as U2 (inadvertently?) gained, but the band had enough samples from commercials, speeches, and more to work with, and did. Nearly every song had to do with some sort of corporate branding, whether it’s the deadpan lyrics about things like Hi-C and Hawaiian Punch on the semi-folk singalong Drink It Up or the nature of the Coke-Pepsi “wars” on songs like I Believe It's L. Dispepsi alternates between semi-straightforward songs and elaborate sample/tape-loop constructions. Perhaps most unsettling in context are the continuous snippets from various interviews and speeches from industry insiders and observers about the psychology of marketing. Though the band’s general fears and contempt for advertising and branding are clear enough here to make Naomi Klein happy, the wistfully off-kilter humor of the whole presentation sugared this particular pill. Regardless, Dispepsi didn’t bring down the wrath of Pepsi-Cola on the band’s head even though the cover art was clearly a riff on the brand’s distinctive logo.

FCC and copyright laws have yet to figure out what to do with the increased use of sampling in postmodernist music. As Mr. Hosler stated:

"Almost everything we do is illegal. Usually I do it first and find out later . . . of course I steal a lot of stuff. I just play all kinds of things like on TV and radio and records . . . People just, you know, basically want to be entertained. They don't care whether what you're doing is actually legal or not."

However elaborate Negativland's albums are, they are more successful with the live multimedia performance with videos, film, ad-lib sampling, etc. Instead of using album material at their shows, Negativland produced completely new, conceptual spectacles, such as the “Mercury Monarch” show in which they gave away a group member’s car in a game-show format, and “The Last Supper” based around food and religion, complete with kids dressed as singing/dancing toast.

“A live show has to be more than listening to a record. It has to be very tactile and visual. We try to think about that -- all of the different aspects of what ‘being present’ means, which is sound, sight, smell and everything.”

Monday, February 07, 2005


"AS ARTISTS, our work involves displacing and displaying bites of publicly available, publicly influential material...."

"THE URGE TO MAKE one thing out of other things is an entirely traditional, socially healthy, and artistically valid impulse which has only recently been criminalized in order to force private tolls on the practice (or prohibit it to escape embarrassment). These now all-encompassing private locks on mass media have led to a mass culture that is almost completely "professional," formalized and practically immune to any form of bottom-up, direct-reference criticism it doesn't approve of."

- Negativland, 1999

Negativland take their name from a track by the cult German band Neu!. Based in the San Francisco area, Negativland originally revolved around the talents of Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons, multi-instrumentalists with an ear for tape manipulation of all sorts. Their inspired stroke of genius was to recruit David Wills, more famously known as the Weatherman in later years, to make up the original trio. Mr. Wills, a cable TV repairman by trade, was just as obsessed with home recording and experimentation as the other two, and his wry, drawling vocals became the core trademark for many of Negativland's most notorious releases.

In 1981, the band recruited Don Joyce. Mr. Joyce had started a free-form radio show, Over the Edge, on the Bay Area’s KPFA station that explored humor and social commentary much like Negativland itself. As a result, Negativland appeared on the show shortly after it began, and since then Mr. Joyce has not only been the only constant member of Negativland aside from Mr. Hosler, but Over the Edge has become the regular sonic testing ground for most of the band’s releases, still running strong after 20 years.

In the postmodern era, where the “real thing” is irrelevant, distinguishing the “cool” from the “uncool” is difficult. Former notions of “selling out” to the capitalist market are no longer the simple litmus tests that they used to be. Nearly everything is mixed up with corporate music industry one way or another. So “cool” postmodern music, while not totally escaping the properties of commodity, is not merely filler between commercials, or a commercial in itself. In turn, it avoids the effect of turning a reader/spectator into a decentered, schizophrenic, paralyzed vegetable. “Cool” postmodernist music does not exclusively use pastiche. Parody, humor and fun are also important.

Another facet of “cool” postmodernism is an agenda of counter-hegemony. Such an agenda goes against leading hegemonic features of postmodern society including the increased power of advertising and the electronic media, the advent of universal standardization, neocolonialism, institutional xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, the schizoid pastiche of the fading sense of a history, and the “consciousness industry.” Baudrillard's “consciousness industry” is the new predominance of technologies and practice concerned with the exchange, promotion, distribution and manipulation of signs, from raw information, to cars, to fashion, to the images of pop stars, actors and governments, as well as the fabrication of public opinion. Counter-hegemonic postmodernist culture might offer ways of resisting or surviving its most baleful tendencies.

Negativland are one group of “cool” postmodernists who have been especially successful in going beyond even parody to play with and manipulate the texts around them, even creating "real" news fiascos to supply new ammunition for their work. The members are an anti-group -- a middle-aged polar antithesis of the Village People. They are computer programmers, graphics designers, nursery school teachers, telephone salesmen and cable TV installers. Sometimes appearing only to please themselves, other times they appear to be willfully courting adverse attention without consideration of the possible results.

Negativland play with the ambiguous, blurred distinctions between “reality” and “fiction:”

DON: We have a definite appreciation for found stuff, even if it's our own stuff.
MARK: When you talk about something on the radio show that's really going on with enough bizarre details that people believe that it's real, then you throw in enough things that you just made up or that fit in with what the rest of that particular show's about, then you create that weird middle zone where people don't know what they're hearing, psychodrama, or
DON: Docu-fiction.
MARK: Like that time I accidentally bit off a piece of my tongue on the air.
CHRIS: But that was real.

The trio’s debut self-titled release was notable as much for its packaging (each album featured individually wallpapered covers) as for its fragmented songs and textures. Apparently the still-teenage Mr. Hosler wanted it completed in part so he could feel he had accomplished something by the time he graduated from high school, a reasonable enough goal.

The next official Negativland album was the group's unquestionable breakthrough, 1983’s A Big 10-8 Place. Negativland’s first truly ambitious work was cut from literally a million tape edits to reinflate the classic story of going home to suburbia. Threaded throughout the aural collage are directions to 180-G, leading to a house in a nearby California suburb.

DAVID: Somebody followed the directions and went there and disturbed the people who live there.
CHRIS: Do they have a copy of the record?
MARK: Imagine if you were this normal family in the suburbs, would you like it if you got a record album in the mail that described to the whole planet how to get to your house? It would terrify you!
CHRIS: Talking about your dogjuice and your orange carpet and the ants in the mailbox.
DAVID: Whipped cream on the Corvair. That was one thing left out. [long silence]

Synthesizing the band’s love of aural theater and subversion of expected pop and rock approaches. When asked to do a video of Theme from A Big 10-8 Place, Negativland declined. According to Mr. Hofler:

"If we were going to make videos, we weren't going to turn around and make videos to our music. We'd start from scratch and make something totally new. The radio show doesn't try to be the records and the live shows don't try to be the radio shows. They're all different and they all try to utilize the medium to its best advantage."

A Big 10-8 Place was an at once hilarious and quietly harrowing vivisection of suburbia, winning them new fans and a growing reputation. Their reputation grew to the point where they were formally signed to Greg Ginn’s legendary punk label SST Records, a decision that would have unexpected consequences some time later.

Negativland decided to use the mass media itself to its best advantage after their 1987 Escape From Noise album, which took the scope of A Big 10-8 Place to even wider levels, touching on everything from a rendition of Over the Rainbow sung by a little girl plagued with hiccups to how many time zones are covered by Russia, featuring a well-known personality at ABC who has his own talk show. The found speech on the album is examined and repeated, revealing many rhythms and melodies not apparent after one listening. A reviewer in Greed magazine said,

"That's the point of the album - you don't need bands to make up songs for you. They're out there happening all around, on radio talk shows & television soap operas, on playgrounds, in McDonald's, at riots, on subways . . . If you can't listen to this album, how can you even go outdoors? It’s a sonic life. Live it."

Maintaining Negativland’s blend of wit and darker themes, the album might have simply remained a cult classic were it not for the appearance of the throbbing, creepy song, Christianity Is Stupid. The song features a found sample vocal of Reverend Estus Pirkle from a sermon recorded in 1968, and consists of a loop repeating, “Christianity is stupid. Communism is good. Give up,” and ends with “Shop as usual . . . and avoid panic buying.” It was soon going to be used for an even grander effect.

A few months after the album’s release, a teenager, David Brom, committed mass murder against his family in Rochester, Minnesota. The Broms were described as a devout Roman Catholic family, and an article mentioned that the murders may have resulted from an argument over a music tape that David listened to. Having seen tour plans fall through at around the same time, Negativland decided to send a phony press release to SST Records which attributes the cancellation of the tour to pressure from “Federal Official Dick Jordan” who has advised the band not to leave town pending an investigation into the Brom murders. The release implied the tape in question in the Brom case was their song Christianity Is Stupid.

Many stories soon appeared, restating the “facts” from the Negativland press release with no trace of skepticism, even though no one verified the story with the source. When Hal Eisner from KPIX Channel 5 interviewed the band, they did not comment on their link to the Brom case, but discussed the American news media, their appetite for the sensational and their tendency to create their own “news.” This discussion was cut from the air, and the lead story took the purported connection for granted, and included footage of the Brom family being carried from their home in body bags. Many following stories got the “facts” wrong as a result of their dependence on other media stories as their only source material, which resulted in a slew of publicity and confusion over what the truth of the situation was.

Some condemned the group’s actions as tasteless exploitation, but Negativland preferred to think of it as an examination of media assumptions, and the whole affair became the backbone of 1989’s Helter Stupid. “It is now abundantly clear that the major source for news is other news,” wrote Negativland in their liner notes for the Helter Stupid album.

"We all swim in an ocean of mass media that fills our minds with people and events with which we have no actual contact at all. We commonly absorb these media presences as part of our own “reality,” even though any media experience consists only of one-way, edited representations of reality. Negativland uses this electronic environment of factual fictions as both source and subject for much of our work, keeping in mind that to experience a picture of a thing is not to experience the thing."

In postmodernist fashion, Negativland tossed a pebble in the mass media ocean, watched the ripples turn into tidal waves, sampled them and played them back in a sharp-witted aural collage, including the Channel 5 tapes and a call from Rolling Stone that would make any newsperson red in the face. In their version of counter-hegemony, Negativland condemns the media witch hunt that sells papers at the expense of all involved and sensationalizes the story for all it was worth without checking the facts. In turn, they condemn the “uncool” properties of postmodernist society -- information for commodity, not knowledge, lack of interaction and accountability in media, and the creation of an uncritical audience of decentered, schizophrenic spectators who will consume any bogus “facts” from the “media meat grinder.”

Sunday, February 06, 2005

I'm A Believer

If you happen to be looking for a good '60s mashup, this Beatles-meet-The-Monkees file might be just the thing for you.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Michael Crichton and State of Fear

"This is a work of fiction. Characters, corporations, institutions, and organizations in this novel are the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, are used fictitiously without any intent to describe their actual conduct. However, references to real people, institutions, and organizations that are documented in footnotes are accurate. Footnotes are real."
- disclaimer from "State of Fear" by Michael Crichton

As Bruce Barcott pointed out in the New York Times, "there's a problem with Michael Crichton's new thriller, and it shows up before the narrative even begins. . . Footnotes? Yes, there will be footnotes."

Much has been made of the footnotes in Mr. Crichton’s new book, "Stae of Fear." However, all this talk of footnotes may lead those who haven’t read the book to think that his position on global warming (he thinks it’s all just a conspiracy by ill-informed, or worse, malevolent, tree-huggers) is a well-researched and considered opinion, presented in the form of an intriguing novel.

Nothing could be further from the truth. "State of Fear" is a ham-handed, sorry excuse for a thriller, a pot-boiler of the most pedestrian sort, occasionally punctuated with random and misleading footnotes, charts, manifestos and appendices.

Mr. Crichton’s writing abilities have clearly suffered a decline. Consider, for example, the following segment which opens up Section IV of State of Fear, unfortunately named "Flash:"

"What are we going to do?" Sarah asked, panicked.
"Take your clothes off."
"Now. Do it." He was stripping off his shirt, ripping it off, buttons flying. "Come on Sarah. Especially the sweater."
She had a fluffy angora sweater, and bizarrely, she recalled it had been a present from her boyfriend, one of the first things he ever bought her. She tore it off, and the T-shirt beneath.
"Skirt," Kenner said. He was down to his shorts, pulling off his shoes.
"What is this?"
"It’s got a zipper!"
She fumbled, getting the skirt off. She was down to her sports bra and panties. She shivered. The computer was counting backward. "Ten . . . nine . . . eight . . ." (page 283-4)

That passage is so poorly written, it’s almost painful. The masturbatory fantasy of Kenner the commanding and powerful ("he was stripping off his shirt, ripping it off, buttons flying") barking orders at the confused but compliant Sarah is, frankly, embarrassing. And why does Mr. Crichton feel compelled to add that the "fluffy angora sweater" (are there non-fluffy angora sweaters?) was "a present from her boyfriend?" How could Kenner be "down to his shorts" if he hadn’t yet taken off his shoes? And which character is asking "What is this," and which replies "It’s got a zipper?" At least Mr. Crichton included the countdown for those of us unsure what a computer counting backward might sound like.

His technical challenge to global warming isn’t presented much better. For example, on page 43, he cites a paper that appeared in the journal Climatic Change in the first of the much-ballyhooed footnotes. The selected quote seems to suggest that the climate in Greenland is not "following the current global warming trend." This reference is particularly amusing because if we are to accept the legitimacy of the paper, we have to accept its premise that there is in fact a "current global warming trend," exactly the opposite of the argument that Mr. Crichton is trying to make. So eager is Mr. Crichton to identify an anomaly, that he doesn’t even seem to realize that he is documenting the opposing argument.

The graphs make their first appearance on pages 84-88, with two more footnotes, one explaining the source of the graphs, the second a non sequitur from a 1996 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research. The reader is spared any more footnotes for the next 150 or so pages, with only a single graph appearing on page 190. However, a few more footnotes appear between pages 247 and 249, and then he gets back to the graphs and footnotes again in pages 369-381. Another footnote on page 384. More graphs on pages 393-394.

On page 406, a single footnote plugs a book by fellow anti-environmentalist Alston Chase, and a footnote on page 421 discuses the current retreat of the Sahara across the African Sahel. Much has been made by the anti-warming crowd of the fact that desertification of the sub-Sahara seems to have stopped. However, their reliance on this observation merely underscores their misunderstanding of the mechanics of global warming. The prior advance of the desert across the region was not a result of the Earth getting warmer, but of a prolonged, but unrelated, drought.

The dam bursts by page 421, where Mr. Crichton has placed no less than 14 footnotes between pages 421 and 426. There’s a single footnote on page 442, but it has nothing to do with global warming – it’s about the toxin of the blue-ringed octopus, which Mr. Crichton had worked into a poisoning subplot. There’s no dramaturgical or scientific reason for the footnote, it appears to be there just to keep the reader feeling that this must be a well-researched book.

Another random footnote appears on page 457, this time documenting his estimate of the cost of "the phony power-line cancer scare." Two more footnotes appear on pages 478 and 479, and seven footnotes about DDT are provided on pages 487-489. The final footnote is a non sequitur about cannibalism on page 503.

And that’s it. A book of over 600 pages, and less than 40 footnotes, at least half of which are condensed into two short, gratuitous and self-indulgent sections (pages 421-426 and 487-489), and at least a half-dozen of the remainder total non sequiturs.

In a 2003 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Mr. Crichton said:

"Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it's a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.

"There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

"Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday---these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs. They may even be hard-wired in the brain, for all I know. I certainly don't want to talk anybody out of them, as I don't want to talk anybody out of a belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God who rose from the dead. But the reason I don't want to talk anybody out of these beliefs is that I know that I can't talk anybody out of them. These are not facts that can be argued. These are issues of faith.

"And so it is, sadly, with environmentalism. Increasingly it seems facts aren't necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It's about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them."

Clever words, and there’s probably some truth in them. But merely because concern about the planet we live on, that sustains us, may in certain people have some interesting similarities to religion, doesn’t mean that the fundamental and basic science behind global warming needs to be ignored or rejected.

Mr. Crichton suggests that belief in environmentalism is a matter of faith, not fact, and in his 2003 speech throws up his hands at any attempt to try to change the minds of the eco crowd. So, what is one to make of the footnotes, charts, flip charts and drop-down graphs in State of Fear? Has Mr. Crichton changed his mind, and is now attempting to convince the unconverted that global warming is a sham? Or is he merely preaching to the choir, the Rush Limbaughs and Creationists and other denizens of the ark that doesn’t believe in rising sea levels?

This, in turn, brings up a more disturbing series of questions. Was the book written specifically to be pitched to the Ann Coulter crowd to increase sales? And if so, does Mr. Crichton, the former medical student and scientist, really believe the narrow and unscientific views he proposes, or is he just writing what he thinks will sell? If the latter, the book is not only cynical and manipulative, but also irresponsible and dangerous, as it will only serve to reinforce the public opinions and government policies that have led to the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto protocols and under-regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

And Mr. Crichton is not very well positioned to be criticizing others about blind faith in quasi-religious beliefs. In his 1988 book "Travels," Mr. Crichton documents his experiences and unblinking acceptance of, among other things, clairvoyants, faith healers, seeing auras and astral projection. Now, I’m the last person in the world to criticize another for their religious beliefs, but I’ve always despised hypocrisy. Wouldn’t it have been more honest of Mr. Crichton to state in his opening disclaimer, instead of "Footnotes are real" (not to mention his closing statement, "Everyone has an agenda. Except me."), something along the lines of "I do not accept the science of global warming, but I do believe in mind-readers, prognostication, divination, levitation, and talking cacti?"