Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Accompanied by my client, today I visited my next project site in Louisiana - the town of Colfax. Like my prior visit on Friday the 13th, it rained, but today the weather let up long enough to walk the site over and get a good look around. If I had thought that the Town of Jena, the site of my current Louisiana project, was racially charged, I was even more dismayed to learn of the Colfax Massacre 136 years ago.

Colfax is the seat of Grant Parish, Louisiana. The town’s origins trace back to the decision in 1859 by Meredith and Mary Calhoun to abandoned Louisiana for a tasteful Parisian pied-à-terre, leaving control of the sprawling sugar and cotton Calhoun Plantation to their hunchbacked son, Willie. By 1869, Grant Parish, named for President U.S. Grant, was carved out of the Plantation, with Colfax, named for Grant’s vice-president Schuyler Colfax, established as its parish seat.

The Colfax Massacre occurred on April 13, 1873. What follows is what I’ve gathered from Wikipedia, PBS' American Experience, a NY Times review of two recent books (The Colfax Massacre - The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction by LeeAnna Keith and The Day Freedom Died - The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction by Charles Lane), and a conversation today with a very patient and accommodating city official.

The violence apparently grew out of the complexities of Reconstruction-era politics. Prior to the Civil War, white Southern Democrats enjoyed a great deal of governmental power. But by 1868, the federal government, under the control of radical Republicans, had forced Louisiana to rewrite the state constitution to guarantee African-Americans equal rights, including the right to vote. Immediately, black voters swept into office a full slate of Republicans committed to Washington’s agenda.

As a result, a "shadow" government formed that included its own army, the White League, which had started forming chapters across the state beginning in 1874. Similar to the Ku Klux Klan, which had also been growing in strength in the South, the White League intimidated and attacked Republicans and blacks all over the state.

Every election in Louisiana between 1868 and 1876 had been marked by rampant violence and pervasive fraud. In 1872, both candidates in the race for the Governor’s office had claimed victory. Although the state election board at first declared the Democrat and his slate elected, the board later split and a pro-Republican faction declared the Republican the winner. Both candidates held inauguration parties. With support from the Federal government, Republican William Kellogg, a former colonel in the Union Army, assumed control as Louisiana governor. As soon as the results were in, enraged whites refused to cooperate and took up armed resistance against the new government.

The violence was particularly ferocious in Colfax. Willie Calhoun, having inherited his fortune from the labor of 700 slaves, had taken a black woman as his common-law wife and became the region’s foremost radical Republican. When trouble came to Colfax, Willie stood by the men and women he had once claimed to own. Colfax became a Republican stronghold anchored by the area’s black majority, but local whites mounted a sustained campaign of terror against party loyalists. Black and white Republicans were threatened, beaten and killed, all in a desperate bid to drive them away from the polls and out of office. In 1872 — after four years of bloodshed — the Republicans finally cracked. Amid widespread intimidation and obvious fraud, white supremacists, running as Democrats, swept that year’s election in Colfax.

But the Republican governor, whose legitamacy in office was not accepted by the white Democrats anyway, refused to accept the parish election results. So 1873 began with two factions claiming to be Colfax’s legitimate government. The conflict peaked in March, when a black Republican militia occupied the courthouse in the center of town. The white Democrats promised to drive them out. For three weeks, the two sides prepared for battle. On Easter Sunday, 165 white men armed with rifles and a small cannon, probably including members of the White League, attacked. Within a few hours they had overrun the Republicans’ defenses, set the courthouse on fire, and took many black prisoners. White Republican officeholders were not attacked.

Estimates of the dead varied. Only three whites had died, but a military report to Congress in 1875 identified the deaths of 105 black men. Of those, nearly half were murdered in cold blood after they had already surrendered and been held as prisoners for several hours. In addition, 15-20 bodies of unidentified black men were recovered from the Red River.

The Justice Department charged nine of the massacre’s ringleaders with conspiring to deprive their victims of the civil rights guaranteed them by the 14th Amendment. White Democrats particularly hated the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to blacks and declared that no state was to deprive them of "life, liberty, or property." The Southern Democrats feared that as a result blacks would have to be considered equal to their white former masters.

“I look forward to the day,” the attorney general told the justices at the close of oral arguments, “when we can consider ourselves not a nation of inharmonious and warring sovereigns, but a Union whose broad shield shall protect ... her people from one end to the other.” The defendants’ lawyers countered that the 14th Amendment didn’t empower the federal government to prosecute citizens in such a way; that responsibility remained with state governments.

In March 1876, the court ruled against the federal government’s position and the Colfax defendants were set free. The Supreme Court had ruled that the Colfax prosecution was unconstitutional, and everyone understood that Southern state governments wouldn’t prosecute whites who murdered blacks. White supremacists were free to wage war against African-Americans with absolute impunity, and racial violence spiked everywhere in the South. Within a year, Reconstruction was dead. Federal troops sent to restore order by President Grant remained in Louisiana until 1877, and the United States began its descent into a systematic segregation so powerful it would endure for almost 100 years.

An historical marker outside of the parish courthouse today refers to the events as "The Colfax Riot," although considering the body count and the racial distribution of the dead, "Massacre" is probably a better term. As I had mentioned, a very patient and accommodating town official who was helping to provide access to the project site also had time to provide his version of the story. Meeting in the very courthouse in which the Massacre had occurred, he told the story as the noble uprising by brave townsmen against insidious carpetbaggers, bringing the hateful Reconstruction to an end.

I cannot hold the events of 136 years ago against the current residents of Colfax. And who can blame people for considering the actions of their ancestors in the most favorable light? What historical fantasies are you still harboring?

The tragic events of Colfax need to be remembered and its lessons learned, but if we are to look forward to the day when we can consider ourselves not a nation of inharmonious and warring sovereigns, but a Union whose broad shield shall protect her people from one end to the other, we need to also embrace forgiveness and put the past behind us.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Skeptics

According to a letter in this week's The Buckhead Reporter, our weekly neighborhood newspaper:

"The Second International Conference on Climate Change in New York concluded March 10, and a brief summary of the findings follows:
  • The current global temperature rise since the end of the Little Ice Age (1850) is normal and part of the natural cycles in global temperature that has occurred for thousands of years.
  • Carbon dioxide produced by human activity has negligible influence on climate or global warming.
  • Computer models for predicting future global warming are inaccurate and should not be used for decision-making.
  • Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide has beneficial effects on plant growth and food supply.
  • The greatest threat to humans is the attempt to control global temperatures by restricting the use of energy sources that produce carbon dioxide.
The last item deserves particular attention because programs to restrict the use of fossil fuels and tax production of carbon dioxide will have devastating effects on those with lower incomes in the United States and other industrialized nations. Residents of undeveloped nations, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, will be doomed to meager lifestyles because their only hope for improvement lies in the availability of abundant and economical energy resources."
- James H. Rust, professor of nuclear engineering, Georgia Tech

The Second International Conference on Climate Change, not to be confused with the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, was put on by The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based libertarian/ conservative think tank. In addition to their efforts concerning climate change, the Institute has been actively involved in opposing restrictions on smoking and has criticized science which documents the harms of secondhand smoke. In 2006, the Heartland Institute began a formal partnership with the National Organization of Tobacco Outlets to advocate for legislation favorable to the tobacco industry.

The Institute is a member organization of the Cooler Heads Coalition, an ad-hoc group focused on "dispelling the myths of global warming." In testimony before the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight (House Science Committee), it was disclosed that ExxonMobil contributed a total of $560,000 to the Heartland Institute between 1998 and 2005. The board of directors for the Heartland Institute includes the Economic Policy Analysis Director for General Motors.

The Heartland Institute has not been without controversy. According to Wikipedia, their list of "500 Scientists with Documented Doubts of Man-Made Global Warming Scares" included at least 45 scientists who neither knew of their inclusion as "coauthors" of the article, nor agreed with its claims regarding global warming. Dozens of the scientists asked the Heartland Institute to remove their names from the list. Gregory Cutter of Old Dominion University wrote, "I have NO doubts . . . the recent changes in global climate ARE man-induced. I insist that you immediately remove my name from this list since I did not give you permission to put it there." Dr. Robert Whittaker, Professor of Biogeography, University of Oxford wrote "Please remove my name. What you have done is totally unethical!" The Heartland Institute refused to remove any names from the list, writing that "They [the scientists] have no right—legally or ethically—to demand that their names be removed from a bibliography." The Institute did rename the list from its original title (chosen by its public relations department) to "500 Scientists Whose Research Contradicts Man-Made Global Warming Scares," to clarify that the scientists in question do not doubt global warming.

The Heartland Institute called the Second International Conference on Climate Change "the largest-ever gathering of global warming skeptics" and billed itself under the subheading “Global warming: Was it ever really a crisis?” While skepticism is an important and even integral part of the scientific process, one must wonder whether the conference seriously debated the relative merits of climate change theory, or was merely a meeting of the converted preaching to the converted.

As for the findings of the conference, they are easily debunked as follows:

  • The argument that today's warming is just a recovery from the Little Ice Age relies on an implicit assumption that there is a particular climatic baseline to which the earth inexorably returns -- and thus that a period of globally lower temperatures will inevitably be followed by a rise in temperatures. There is no scientific basis for this assumption or evidence of such a baseline. Another problem is that temperature has now risen to levels higher than the assumed baseline. So even if some recovery were to be expected, why have we now exceeded it? Secondly, this argument does not explain why a 35% increase in CO2 would not affect global temperature. Basic physics predicts temperature will rise given increased CO2, so how or why is this not happening?

  • It is true that carbon dioxide produced by human activity is much less than that from natural sources. But for roughly the last 10,000 years, until the industrial revolution, every gigaton of carbon going into the atmosphere was balanced by one coming out. What humans have done is alter one side of this cycle. We put approximately 6 gigatons of carbon into the air but, unlike nature, we are not taking any out. Thankfully, nature is compensating in part for our emissions, because only about half the CO2 we emit stays in the air. Nevertheless, since we began burning fossil fuels in earnest over 150 years ago, the atmospheric concentration that was relatively stable for the previous several thousand years has now risen by over 35%. So whatever the total amounts going in and out "naturally," humans have clearly upset the balance and significantly altered an important part of the climate system.

  • It is utterly untrue that the computer climate models are inaccurate. Many modeled predictions of global temperature have been validated. Every year of increasing global mean temperature is one more year of "success" for the climate models. The acceleration of the rise is also playing out as predicted, though to be fair, decades will need to pass before such confirmation is inarguable. Putting global surface temperatures aside, there are many other significant model predictions made and confirmed, too numerous to list here. It is only long-term predictions that need the passage of time to prove or disprove them, but we don't have that time at our disposal. Whether we take the many successes of climate models as strong validation for their long-term predictions is a legitimate policy question, but to deny the accuracy of the models in light of their demonstrated successes is not.

  • The argument that increased atmospheric CO2 has beneficial effects on plant growth and food supply sounds almost desperate, in that it implicitly accepts the argument that the skeptics are otherwise denying. While it may be true that some flora might flourish under increased CO2 conditions, others likely won't. Geologic history demonstrates that dramatic climate changes - up, down, or sideways - are a tremendous shock to the biosphere and usually cause mass extinctions. All in all, that is not likely to be a good thing.

  • Finally, to say that an attempt to control global temperatures by restricting the production of carbon dioxide is a greater threat to human well-being than climate change itself in no way implies that global warming is or is not occurring. One cannot come to a rational decision about the reality of a danger by considering how hard it might be to avoid. The corollary is to say that combating global terrorism is too difficult, so therefore there must not be such a thing as global terrorism. But even if mitigating global warming would be harmful, given that famine, droughts, disease, loss of major coastal cities, and a potential mass extinction event are on the table as possible consequences of doing nothing, it may well be we are faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils. I challenge anyone to conclusively demonstrate that such catastrophes as listed above await us if we try to reduce fossil fuel use.

The mainstream climate science community, as demonstrated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (not the Heartland Institute's International Conference on Climate Change), has provided a well-developed, internally consistent theory that accounts for the climate effects we are now observing. It provides explanations and makes predictions. The skeptic community has not shown how CO2 would not affect temperature. They provide no evidence of other natural forcing, like the Milankovich cycles that controlled the Pleistocene Ice Ages.

In terms of conservation and a global switch to alternative fuels, the people who oppose doing this for climate change mitigation are forgetting something rather important. Fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource, and as such we have to make this global economic transformation regardless, whether we do it now or a bit later. Even if it turns out that climate mitigation was unnecessary, we would still be in a better place as a society by making the coming switch sooner rather than later.

I recognize that the latter argument does not itself prove or disprove climate-change theory, but there you have it anyway.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Weight of Wood

Frequent readers of this blog might have noticed that yesterday's (Friday's) post didn't actually go up until Sunday (tomorrow, actually today), as like with this entry, I was unable to post until Sunday due to yet another power failure due to yet another fallen tree.

I'm fortunate to be living in what is effectively a small urban forest - a pocket of green within the City of Atlanta. The road I reside along splits to surround a steep-banked stream where construction would be generally impossible, and the resultant little park had a large number of tall sycamores, pines and poplars. My property and that of most of my neighbors are also heavily forested, so the neighborhood is a little oasis of green, a nature sanctuary in the middle of the city. Even though the creek is fairly well contaminated and lifeless due to urban runoff, we're still visited by occasional hawks during the day, and at night we have owls as well as sightings of foxes and even the rare coyote.

But all of these trees also create problems. Not only are we fairly inundated by falling leaves in the autumn, but by buds, blossoms, and catkins in the spring, leaves and twigs following summer thundershowers, and larger branches during winter ice storms. Droppings have their season just like anything, and all year round there are pine cones and acorns.

A small price to pay for the canopy we enjoy and for all the shade that keeps my block at least five degrees cooler than the rest of the city during the long, hot Georgia summers. But the steeper payments are due to the fact that what goes up, must come down. Falling trees are our big concern.

A big tree went down last August only two houses down from mine, blocking off the road and narrowly missing a parked car and a house. Just around the corner from that, a tree came down following Hurricane Dennis back in '05, also blocking the road and causing structural damage to an unfortunately located house.

Both of these trees came down not during the rain and storms but on the days following. It seems that the soil gets soaked and soft and incapable of retaining the tree, and then gravity takes over and does its thing.

Today, Saturday (actually yesterday), another tree came down across the park from my home. The heavy rain that flooded my job site in Jena blew over to Georgia, and we had fairly intense rain here Friday and Saturday. Shortly after the rain stopped, I heard a crash and then the sound of a transformer popping, and then I lost power. Looking outside, I saw that the power lines in front of my house were bouncing up and down like a schoolgirl's jump rope. Then I noticed the tree that had fallen across the way, once again blocking off the road but this time smashing in the trunk of a neighbor's car.

Fortunately, no one was hurt. Several neighbors and I walked over to get a closer look - the tree took down a power pole as it fell, pinning the wires to the ground, and the downed wires pulled two other power poles down, so that there were live electric wires draped all over the front yards of the neighborhood.

We looked at the damage, but there wasn't really much we could say or do about it. A fire truck came along and blocked off the area, and soon the power company was over to work on the lines and poles. I personally left my darkened, powerless house and went out shopping (when the going gets tough . . .). Amazingly, power was restored after only about three hours, but kept lurching back off and on as the work outside progressed. Any time I got on line, the power went out again before I could post anything, so as a result, both Friday's post, which was admittedly a little behind schedule anyway, and this post couldn't go up until tomorrow, Sunday (which is actually today). It's probably not as confusing as it is difficult to describe.

However, I do still have a certain amount of concern, or even anxiety, over trees falling on my home. I have several very tall trees behind me, and given the slope of my land, the bases of these trees are higher than the roof of my house. If any one of them were to fall, the impact would be from the full momentum of the fall, as the house wouldn't be able to absorb the shock as it was falling. It would hit hard.

A man was killed a couple years ago here in Atlanta while sleeping in his bed when a tree came down on his house. A couple were killed in the Virginia-Highlands neighborhood when a tree fell on the car they were in. As I lay in my bed contemplating the weight of wood over my head, these stories and the memories of trees coming down in my neighborhood do not give me comfort.

Irony: the City of Atlanta, in its great wisdom, has passed an ordinance to prohibit residential landowners from cutting down trees on their property without an expensive and difficult-to-obtain permit. Although the law was passed to protect and attempt to maintain the city's once extensive canopy, lobbyists for developers successfully exempted their clients from the rule, even though most tree loss is due to new development, not residential landscaping. So now the canopy is still never-the-less disappearing, but residents are being killed by old trees falling on their houses and cars.

But not in my neighborhood, at least not yet. So far, the falling trees are only inconveniencing traffic, causing power outages, and resulting in insurance claims. But at least it allows us residents to come out of our houses and socialize a little as we inspect the damage.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Water Dissolves Schedules

Up north near the source of the Mississippi River, up around Fargo, it's apparently flooding or close to flooding. Down at the south end of the river, my territory, swamp-thing country, incessant rains are flooding us out, too.

As I've mentioned, I'm managing the removal of about 10,000 tons of creosote-contaminated soil from a site in Jena, Louisiana. Although it's probably the largest project of this kind that I've ever managed, I wasn't there this week, but the work is going on without me. On my last day on site, back on Friday the 13th, it rained, and that rain continued through the weekend. Long story sort, the hole that we had excavated filled up with 100,000 gallons of rainwater. The picture above is from Monday the 16th.

We scratched our heads wondering where all that water came from. Sure, it rained hard, but enough to fill a 100,000-gallon excavation? A rainy weekend usually doesn't fill a swimming pool. Some water probably entered the hole by overland flow, despite our efforts to divert that flow with berms, and some might have entered through soil seepage and a rising water table. Whatever - we still had a lot of water to get rid of.

The sewer authority wouldn't take it (we asked), and we couldn't discharge it to surface water without a permit (not that it would have been a good idea, anyway, because of the contamination). The landfill was willing to accept it, but they would have to mix it with flyash to solidify it before they could dispose of it, making the landfill option prohibitively expensive.

We wound up mixing the water ourselves with the soil that we were shipping to the landfill anyway - not enough to make it a runny, soupy mess, but enough to get rid of it by so many gallons per truckload. After a week of pumping, mixing and hauling, we had managed to get rid of all the water and we filled the hole back up with clean fill.

However, while we were doing this, the rest of the crew was excavating another area of the property. This provided us more soil for mixing and also kept the project progressing. However, rain hit again this week, and despite even more vigilant precautions (berms, diversion ditches, plastic sheet covers, etc.), now the new hole has an additional 100,000 gallons of water.

One step forward and one step back. The rain came down so hard - and for so long - that the crew was forced to stop work for three days. We won't know the full extent of damage until we return on Monday. I'm going back there personally to assess the damage.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Blast From The Past

A classic Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention clip from an English broadcast in 1968. I believe the musicians are Frank Zappa (guitar), Roy Estrada (vocals and bass), Don Preston (keyboards), Ian Underwood, Bunk Gardner, and Motorhead Sherman (saxophones), and Jimmy Carl Black (drums), but I may be wrong.

The vocals. At first, it sounds like Estrada is deliberately attempting to sabotage the song by singing in at least one register too high, but as the song progresses you realize that it's the perfect pitch - there's really no other way that it could be sung. On a second or third listen, you realize that he's nailed it.

There's really not too much more that I can say about this video that Zappa himself doesn't say at the end. To quote: "We're involved in sort of a low-key war against apathy. I don't know how you're doing on apathy over there but we got a lot of it, boys and girls. A lot of what we do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might just for a second question enough of their environment to do something about it. As long as they don't feel their environment and they don't worry about it, they're not going to do anything to change it."

"Something's got to be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it."

That was 41 years ago, friends.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Associated Press
updated 1:28 p.m. ET, Mon., March 24, 2008
NAHA, Japan - At a Zen Buddhist temple in southern Japan, even the dog prays.

Mimicking his master, priest Joei Yoshikuni, a 1 1/2-year-old black-and-white Chihuahua named Conan joins in the daily prayers at Naha's Shuri Kannondo temple, sitting up on his hind legs and putting his front paws together before the altar.

It took him only a few days to learn the motions, and now he is the talk of the town. "Word has spread, and we are getting a lot more tourists," Yoshikuni said Monday.

Yoshikuni said Conan generally goes through his prayer routine at the temple in the capital of Japan's southern Okinawa prefecture (state) without prompting before his morning and evening meals.

"I think he saw me doing it all the time and got the idea to do it, too," Yoshikuni said.

The priest is now trying to teach him how to meditate. Well, sort of.

"Basically, I am just trying to get him to sit still while I meditate," he explained. "It's not like we can make him cross his legs."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nah, that's not really true - I've neither been extremely depressed the past week nor have I stopped blaming things on George Bush.

I had to leave work early today to drive downtown to attend a meeting of the advisory committee for the Beltline project. Nothing much of significance, other than the Beltline has survived yet another near-death experience, this time involving Amtrak wanting to take over its light-rail route with their heavy-duty lines. The Beltline is beginning to resemble a nine-lives cat with its multiple near-fatal experiences.

I had to leave that meeting after 2 1/2 hours even though its was still in progress to drive to a neighbor's house for a meeting between the neighborhoods and the local hospital. While we cherish the hospital in our neighborhood, there are issues relative to the traffic it generates, the noise, and the stress. A Health Impact Assessment was recently completed by a professor at Georgia Tech that indicated that these factors had more of a net negative impact on our health and well-being than the positive contributions from the health-care facility.

So we've organized a group of community leaders to act as a liaison between the hospital and the neighborhoods. The goal is to allow this group to express community interests to the hospital and for the hospital to get community input on new development plans and such. We seem to be off to a good start, as the hospital was quite receptive to our overtures.

Finally, speaking of the neighborhood, last week I met one of my near neighbors and learned that she teaches yoga and Qigong, and leads a spirituality group that meets at her house. When she learned that I teach Zen meditation, she insisted that I meet with her group, and that we explore opportunities to bring meditation practice to her group.

I'll give it a shot.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dogen also related the following story:

When the wife of former President Bill Clinton was Secretary of State, she once attended a special party. She took a seat near the Vice President. George Bush was also there and was making a disturbance.

The Vice President told Hillary to restrain him.

She replied, “Give your order to Obama. He is the President.”

The Vice-President said, “But, you are right here.”

Hillary replied, “It is not my position to restrain him.”

These were admirable words. She was able to administer her office because of such an attitude. Students of the Way today should have the same attitude. You should not scold others if you are not in the position to do so.

(updated and very loosely translated from Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 8)

I apologize for the unskillful change in cast, but the original version of the story involved shoguns and samurai and various obscure Japanese clans of the Kamakura Period. When the historical footnotes become longer than the actual story, it's time for an update.

The point of this story is not that the social or political order must be upheld, but simply that you should not scold others if it is inappropriate. Dogen had concluded the previous chapter with the words, "You should not point out others’ faults or speak ill of them. You must be very, very careful. When you see someone’s faults and think they are wrong and wish to instruct them with compassion, you must find a skillful means to avoid arousing their anger, and do so as if you were talking about something else."

In my updated story, Hillary knew that by attempting to restrain an unruly George Bush, she would be crossing certain party lines and gender roles. There was also the issue of the rival Clinton and the Bush political dynasties. She knew that the best way to restrain an ex-President was to have the current President intervene, and she disobeyed the chain-of-command by telling the Vice President to give an order to the President. She mindfully used a skillful means to deal with the situation, and for this Dogen praises her.

We must be very careful correcting the faults of others.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Sangha

According to the Buddhist calendar hanging on my kitchen wall, yesterday was Sangha Day. I don't really know what that means - we've never observed it at the Atlanta center - but I commemorated it with my monthly trip up to Chattanooga to sit with the Zen Center up there.

Sangha is one of the Three Treasures, and Elliston Roshi, our teacher, has described the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) like a mountain. The top of the mountain is Buddha practice - the air up there is thin and few make it up to that altitude, but the views, the insights, are incredible. Buddha practice is the practice of shikantaza.

Dharma practice is like the side slopes of the mountain. The effort is strenuous and long, but there are occasional glimpses of the views that are available up on the Buddha summit. Dharma practice is reading and studying the sutras, the koans, and the words of the ancestors.

Finally, Sangha practice is like the foothills, the Piedmont, of the mountain. The mountain cannot exist without the base, and the terrain is more level and the going is easier, but one can get hung up in the brambles and undergrowth at these lower levels. Sangha practice is joining the harmonious community and working with others.

The brambles and undergrowth of sangha practice are the personal relationships and associated social entanglements. While there are many in both the local and the universal sangha whom I consider good friends, there are some with whom I gladly practice but probably would never have gotten to know in any other walk of life - and there's probably some who would never have otherwise associated with me. And while we can put aside all of this baggage while we're sitting in zazen, when the bell rings and we arise, all of the usual societal issues reappear. While the community is harmonious, it is not without the occasional petty rivalries, political differences, and class issues. And then there's the added entanglements of the romantic kind.

But still, a Sangha encourages our practice and helps carry us through the difficult times, and is truly one of the Three Treasures. It is said that any time four or more Buddhists are together, they form a sangha, and such an association should be revered.

The Chattanooga sangha has always been very kind to me. After the Sunday service, we went and dined outside at a local restaurant (four of us - a sangha!) and enjoyed the beautiful spring day and our conversation. And I was able to get home while it was still light and enjoy the remains of the day.

Friday, March 20, 2009


The Frozen Mammoth

This Creature, though rare, is still found to the East
Of the Northern Siberian Zone.
It is known to the whole of that primitive group
That the carcass will furnish an excellent soup,
Though the cooking it offers one drawback at least
(Of a serious nature I own):
If the skin be but punctured before it is boiled
Your confection is wholly and utterly spoiled.
And hence (on account of the size of the beast)
The dainty is nearly unknown.

Hilaire Belloc

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dinosaurs, Fossils, and Feathers

144 million years ago, the beginning of the Cretaceous Period. South America, Antarctica, Australia, Africa and India are starting to break away from the supercontinent Gondwana. Consequent changes in climate plunge the world into a cold period. Only a few flowering plants grow in the temperate forests of coniferous trees and the plains of ferns that cover the northern and southern parts of the globe, and there are correspondingly few pollinating insects. During this period, dinosaurs apparently grew feathers.

Finding feathers on dinosaurs is now becoming a relatively common occurrence. In China's Liaoning Province, fine-grained sedimentary rocks often contain fossils of dino-feathers with exquisite details still intact. But all of these feathered fossils have been of the bipedal, carnivorous lineage, which includes Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. Tyrannosaurs are actually closer cousins to birds than they are to the large plant-eating Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus. A few years ago, there was even a movement to make T. rex the state bird of Montana.

Dinosaurs are divided into two main orders: saurischians, which have forward-pointing pubic bones, and ornithischians, which have backward-pointing pubic bones. "Ornithischian" literally means "bird-hipped," but the resemblance is in fact superficial and confusing, as birds actually descended from the saurischians, and all feathered dinosaurs discovered to date have belonged to the saurischian order. Only one ornithischian fossil has suggested the presence of anything that even approximates feathers: Psittacosaurus, which has bristle-like structures on its tail that have been hotly debated.

However, Chinese paleontologists have recently discovered a dinosaur fossil in Liaoning that has long feather-like structures sticking up from its body. The species has been identified as a heterodontosaurid, an ornithischian from the Early Cretaceous period. This in itself is remarkable, as heterodontosaurids are exceptionally rare, and previously unknown from Asia. They were most widespread during Late Triassic times, more than 65 million years earlier, and animal groups rarely survive for such long periods of geological time. This fossil confirms that heterodontosaurids, one of the oldest groups of dinosaurs, survived into the Cretaceous. Dubbed Tianyulong confuciusi, it was likely small, active, and agile based on the bones found, and probably ate a mix of insects, small vertebrates and plants.

The feathery structures found on T. confuciusi are not like those found on modern birds or even on some of the smaller, more bird-like dinosaurs. Whereas modern feathers are flexible and have a central shaft with vanes that run off either side at angles, the feathers on T. confuciusi are all relatively stiff and lack vanes.

The fossil supports the idea of a single evolution of feathers. If both saurischians and at least some ornithischians had feather-like structures, the origin of feathers must have occurred back in the Triassic, when the saurischian and ornithischian lineages split. There are still gaps in the fossil record between T. confuciusi and the feathered dinosaurs, but future discoveries may fill these gaps. If so, then many dinosaurs may once have sported feather-like structures, with descendant species losing the characteristic later on.

At present, no one is sure of the function of the protofeathers. If they were indeed protofeathers, then they were not related in any way to flight. The fact that the filaments over the tail are so long and stiff suggests a possible display function, not unlike the peacock.

Dinosaurs were clearly highly visual animals that not only modified their skeletons for show, but exaggerated their effect through external structures. It doesn't take that much to imagine dinosaurs as colorful as birds, their evolutionary descendants.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Everything we do is music. Everywhere is the best seat. -- John Cage

Like almost everyone else in Atlanta these days, I've formed a band.

We don't have a name. A name is a label and a label is a limitation. If we were to give the band a name, then by definition, everything else would automatically not be the band. That would be a limitation that we cannot accept, so the band officially does not have a name.

Similarly, the band does not have any identified members. Membership is elitist and non-egalitarian. This way, no one can reinforce their ego by saying, "I'm in the band," or worse, "You're not in the band." No one knows if they're in the band or not. For all you know, you might be in the band. If you were, you wouldn't know. I may not even be in the band - I formed it as an open structure and now, by design, have no way of knowing whether, once formed, it still includes me or not. Who would I ask?

We will probably never be offered a contract to record, but if we were, we would refuse. To record music is to take it out of the context of the moment in which it was performed, and to sell recordings would be to comodify the music, to make it into an "object" rather than an experience. Even if the sales were merely on-line downloads with no tangible substance - even if it were offered for free - it still would be a form of capital and not art in the pure sense that we envision.

We refuse to play live. Playing to an audience is ultimately pandering for approval or attention. Our music is too important to us to make it someone else's entertainment or an evening's meaningless lesiure. We will not alter or modify our music to match our perception of an audience's mood and preferences. So since we refuse to play live or to record, no one will ever hear us.

But before you call us snobs, realize that we also refuse to play alone. Playing for ourselves is self-indulgent and solipsistic. In fact, we refuse to play at all - we never have and never will play as much as a single note.

John Cage famously composed a piece titled 4'33", which consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. John Lennon and Yoko Ono once recorded Two Minutes Silence. We take minimalism even further by refusing to put a title or a time limit on it. And while 4'33" was four minutes and 33 seconds of John Cage not playing music, and Two Minutes Silence was John and Yoko, our silence is not by any person or persons in particular. It is all silence and no silence. It might be your silence. Further, both the Cage and Lennon-Ono pieces could only exist in the context of the music played before and after - it was 4 minutes, 33 seconds, or 2 minutes, of silence after the previous composition and before the next. The silence was defined by the preceding and succeeding music (emptiness defined by form). Our silence is absolute - emptiness existing in emptiness.

So there you have it - my band (which may no longer include myself): no name, no members, no recordings, no performances, no instruments, no playlists, and no commercial potential.

Eat your hearts out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Global Dimming

As you probably know by now, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere in relatively small amounts can cause global warming because these "trace" gases trap solar energy absorbed at the earth's surface and prevent it from being radiated as heat back into space. However, these gases are transparent and have no effect on atmospheric visibility. Sunlight passes right through them, just as it does through the oxygen and nitrogen that are the main constituents of our atmosphere.

While the climate warming impacts of increased greenhouse gases are clear, the effects of increased aerosols are not. Aerosols are solid particles or liquid droplets suspended in air. They include soot, dust and sulfur dioxide particles, and are what we commonly think of when we talk about air pollution. Aerosols come, for example, from the combustion of fossil fuels, industrial processes, and burning of tropical rainforests.

Aerosols can be hazardous to both human health and the environment. They can also affect global temperature by either reflecting light back into space, thus reducing solar radiation at the Earth's surface, or absorbing solar radiation, thus heating the atmosphere. The variable cooling and heating effects of aerosols also modify properties of cloud cover and rainfall. However, studies of the long-term effects of aerosols on climate change have been largely inconclusive up to now due to limited aerosol measurements.

In the March 13 issue of Science, it was announced that scientists have recently compiled the first database of aerosol measurements over the past 35 years, making possible new research into how air pollution affects climate change. Using this new database, researchers now can compare long-term temperature, rainfall and cloud cover data with aerosol measurements.

The database includes visibility measurements taken from 1973 - 2007 at 3,250 meteorological stations all over the world and released by the National Climatic Data Center. Visibility is the distance an observer can see clearly from the measurement source. The more aerosols present in the air, the shorter the visibility distance. A preliminary analysis of the database measurements shows a steady increase in aerosols over the period from 1973 to 2007.

Increased aerosols in the atmosphere block solar radiation from the earth's surface, and have thus caused a net "global dimming," particularly in south and east Asia, South America, Australia, and Africa. The only region that does not show an increase in aerosols is Europe, which has actually experienced a "global brightening." Trends in North American stations were relatively flat.

It's worth noting that previous studies of "global dimming" have been based on "all-sky" observations, conditions that include clouds, which are obviously a big factor in how much sunlight gets to the surface. However, the new study considered only clear sky conditions (i.e., only when there are no clouds) to better attribute the effects of aerosols independent of the effects of cloud cover.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Shadow World

I basically have writer's block this evening, but that's understandable after Monday Night Zazen. Not that the practice inhibits creativity (quite the opposite, in fact) but that it goes beyond the realm of words. Why say anything when words are such imperfect symbols of the true nature of reality?

It's funny - even to say " words are such imperfect symbols of the true nature of reality" falls so short of what the truth actually is. So why bother?

Besides, tomorrow I have reports to write, telephone conferences, and meetings to attend back in the shadow world. Better to save my breath tonight.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tax Man

The day of reckoning has descended upon me - I finally found the chance today to get all of my paperwork together for my annual income tax filing. Time to take the fiscal measure of the man.

In 2008, I made slightly more money that I did in 2007 despite less rental income, mostly due to performance bonuses. But I didn't have tenants in the Unsellable Condo in Vinings from July to November, and the tenants that I did have in the first half of the year basically stopped paying rent in May. And then the repairs that I had to perform on the condo after I finally got them out added up to $10,265. During the year, I just held my nose and paid what was needed - today was the first time I actually totalled the full amount spent. Which is to say, I lost over $19k on the property last year when all expenses (mortgage, taxes, association fees, etc) are considered. Last year, I lost "only" $8,000. Wanna buy a condo?

Other than my real estate misfortunes, my 2008 taxes are not noticeably different than those of 2007, reflecting a somewhat stable lifestyle. Although I had my house on the market for a while in anticipation of a planned move to Portland, I suffered no expense even though neither the house nor I moved.

So, in a few days I will complete my return and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's (actually, I'll be getting a refund - I basically gave Caesar a loan all year).

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Yes, the song is old, but then so am I. One of the nice things about getting old is that you're no longer expected to be hip, and there's a kind of freedom in that. You can post a two-year-old video and get away with it.

Anyway, I like this song and I like the video, and I hope that you do to.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Swamp Thing, Day Four: Man Arrested After Streaking Through Hotel Lobbies

(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) Atlanta police arrested a 53-year-old man on charges he ran outside his Walton Street apartment without a stitch of clothing. He first ran into the Glen Hotel on Marietta Street, according to a police report. When hotel staffers called police, he ran down the street and into the lobby of the nearby Omni Hotel. Security guards detained him, called police and covered him with bed sheets until officers arrived, the report said.

He was arrested on a charge of public indecency. He also was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital for a mental evaluation, the report said.

For the record, it wasn't me and I have the alibi to prove it - I was in Cenla.

Actually, today was a rain out. As Abner Doubleday might once have said, "You win some and you lose some. And some get rained out." Today was the latter.

The cold front that had blown through Jena, Louisiana on Wednesday morning settled into rain by Thursday afternoon, and by this morning, a steady downpour made it near impossible - and certainly unsafe - to continue excavation work. The entire job site was turning into a a mud-slickened, soupy mess. We covered the stockpiled soil up with plastic sheeting to protect it from the rain and called it a day.

I used the time to visit what will likely be my next job site in Louisiana - another former wood-treating plant in the town of Colfax. I drove Louisiana Route 8 from Jena through the Kisatchie National Forest, a mostly flat stretch of second-growth pines, to Grant Parrish, arriving at Colfax at about noon. There really wasn't much to see there, so I went back to Alexandria and killed a couple of hours at a coffee shop with free wireless internet access to catch up on email, etc. until my flight back to Atlanta at 6 pm.

Eliot the Cat met me in the living room when I got home. I had left two large bowls of cat food for him and opened the trap door so that he could go outside as he pleased in my absence, but I still wondered if after four full days he wouldn't have just decided to move on, to cut his losses here and find another sucker to take him in. But no, I was happy to find him still occupying my house, patiently waiting for my return. Much purring ensued - and he expressed his happiness to see me finally returned as well.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Swamp Thing, Day Three

My third day in Cenla, and I've already settled in to a routine. Although the job site is in Jena, and the construction crew is staying there, I am staying elsewhere. Before I left for this trip, the construction foreman called me to advise me that the local hotel was fine, but I should bring my own pillow and he'll take me over to Walmart so I can buy a pad for the hard mattresses. I heeded his advise and booked a room 36 miles away at a Hampton Inn in Alexandria.

So each day, I'm up well before sunrise, shower and shave my head, and eat breakfast at the buffet at the Hampton. Then I'm off to Jena, carefully setting the cruise control to obey the speed limits and avoid getting pulled over again.

By the time I get to the job site, the day's work has already begun and I spend the next half hour trying to catch up on what's going on. After everything's been settled, I can log in to my email, and keep up with my other projects as I monitor the day's activities at the job site from the field trailer.

After the crew has finished for the day, I get to drive back to Alexandria in time to change my clothes and go out to dinner with one of the project geologists who's also staying here instead of at the hotel in Jena. After dinner, I go back to the hotel and am asleep by 10 o'clock so that I can get up for the next day.

Such is my life this week.

Meanwhile, I see in the newspaper that although many of his policies are geared more toward big cities than rural areas and he hasn’t spent too much time south of the Mason-Dixon line, that doesn't necessarily mean that President Barack Obama doesn’t like the South.

“I love the South,” Obama told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution yesterday. Asked why his cabinet and senior staff at last count includes seven Midwesterners, five Northerners, six Westerners and so far only two Southerners — namely spokesman and Alabama native Robert Gibbs and EPA administrator and New Orleans native Lisa Jackson — Obama acknowledged he doesn’t keep geography in mind when looking for advisers.

“I’ve got to admit that we have thought a lot about finding the very best people for the jobs, and haven’t been thinking with great intensity about regionalism,” said the president. “Because partly — except for food and sports teams and the weather — we’re one country,” he said. “And I think people are so mobile these days that I tend to think of ourselves as all just Americans.”

Obama may love the South, but his Vice President clearly hates Idaho. According to the Washington Post, “Vice President Biden hosted officials from every state but Idaho for a conference today designed to serve as a workshop and warning on how they should use their billions of dollars from the stimulus package.”

Idahoans apparently need not apply, but Obama said, “If you’ve got some great Southerners who want to work for us, please let me know, because we’re always open.”

I hereby announce that I will accept a nomination to the Obama cabinet. I think there's still an opening at the Department of Commerce, but I'll accept anything.

You can tell the Administration that I've never even been to Idaho.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


That's what they call this area - Cenla, as in "Central Louisiana." I'm here in Cenla, Jena to be specific, kicking off the excavation of 10,000 tons of contaminated soil from a former creosote wood-treating site.

It's one of the larger projects I've managed. We have a crew of five working on the excavation, as well as a field trailer, and various yellow-metal equipment. Continuous-recording air-quality monitors. Silt fences and sedimentation control. Surveyors, geotechnical technicians and laboratory analysts. And one very busy, 50-something, Zen Buddhist trying to play ringleader over this circus.

But all this effort may be in vain because Louisiana's apparently sinking. The Economist reports that the state is subsiding, rather rapidly by geological standards. Southeastern Louisiana may sink up to six feet over the next century and New Orleans and its suburbs will become thin strips of lowland walled off by levees and surrounded by open water on three sides, much more vulnerable than they were when Katrina struck.

Land subsidence in the Mississippi delta is largely caused by human interference. When the river was allowed to flood over its banks every year, the silt that settled out of the floodwater creating more and higher land nearby. This is why the highest ground in New Orleans is along the riverfront, one of the only areas of town not to flood after Hurricane Katrina.

However, levees have changed that. Until Katrina, the Mississippi had not flooded in or around the city in almost 80 years. During that period, wetlands in the region were drained for development. As the water was drained, the ground sank, and without the once-annual dose of Mississippi silt, the subsidence continues.

Cenla is up and off off the Mississippi Delta, but not by much. Although it may not sink, it is vulnerable to threats from sea-level rise, increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes, and other effects of global warming. However, a recent Gallup Poll shows that 41% of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated in the news, the highest level of public skepticism about global warming seen in more than a decade. As recently as 2006, a significant majority of Americans thought the news underestimated the seriousness of global warming. Now, according to Gallup's 2009 Environment survey, more Americans say the problem is exaggerated rather than underestimated, 41% vs. 28%. The increased skepticism is seen mainly among Republicans and independents, and those over the age of 30. In other words, the people who live here in Cenla.

Not that the people here aren't among the nicest I've met. Everyone in Jena has been incredibly helpful and kind to us, and our project here has been much the better for it. Even the cop who pulled me over for speeding coming the job site yesterday was nice enough to let me go without a ticket and only a gentle warning, even though he clocked me going 71 in a 55 mph zone. However, I think he mainly let me go because he found out that I wasn't a Texan - a large part of my gentle warning was about how fast Texans apparently drive through his parish.

The weather was even kind enough to cool off from the humid mid-80s earlier in the week to the low 50s of today and forecast for the rest of this week. It's downright chilly, the last thing I expected in Cenla. I'm glad I packed a jacket for the trip.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

By the way, did I mention that I was in Jena, Louisiana today?

Monday, March 09, 2009

During an evening talk, Dogen once said,

"When my late master Nyojo was the abbot of Tendo Monastery, while the monks were sitting zazen in the sodo (monks hall), he slapped them with his slipper or scolded them with harsh words in order to keep them awake. Yet each of them was thankful to be hit and highly respected him.

"Once in a formal speech he said, 'I have gotten old. I should have retired from the monastery and moved into a hermitage to care for myself in my old age. Nevertheless, I am the abbot and your teacher, whose duty is to break the delusions of each one of you and to transmit the Way; therefore, I sometimes use harsh language to scold you, or beat you with the bamboo stick. I regret having to do this. However, this is the way to enable the dharma to flourish in place of the Buddha. Brothers, please have compassion on me and forgive me for my deeds.'

"Upon hearing these words, all of us shed tears. Only with such a spirit can you teach and propagate the dharma."

(from Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 7)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Field Report: One Week With A Cat

One place where I am drawing a line in the sand is that this will not be a blog about my cat. At least not after this one post.

Alert readers will recall that a week or so ago, during an unseasonably late snow in Atlanta, a cat who had been loitering around my house came running in out of the cold. I fed him, gave him some water, and put him up for the night. He's stayed ever since, and I've named him "Eliot," after the poet.

Wanting to make sure that I wasn't imprisoning a cat, I opened the door for him several times to allow him to escape. Each time, he would walk halfway out, look around and sniff the cold air, and then turn back into the house. Can't say I blame him - it was cold out there.

But Wednesday morning, as I was leaving for work, he saw a bird and darted out. The bird escaped unharmed, but Eliot wouldn't respond to my calls to come back in. Eventually, I drove off to work, leaving him locked out of the house for the day.

When I got home, he wasn't waiting on my front porch as he used to before I took him in. But when I called his name in my back yard, he came running and meowing, purring and rubbing against my leg before heading for his food dish.

Pretty much the same thing happened on Friday. He again spent the day locked out of the house, but this time when I got home, he came running up the stairs in front of my house, returning from whatever feline adventures he had been off on.

I had given him ample opportunities to leave, so I'm convinced that he's now here on his own volition. And who can blame him? After all, here he's got constantly full bowls of food and water, occasional cat treats, warmth, affectionate companionship, and plenty of soft and safe places to sleep. And since I know he comes back home from his escapades outside, I've opened up the little trap door that the previous owners of this house had conveniently installed in the back door for pets. Now, Eliot can freely choose to be inside or outside the house, and he comes and goes as he pleases.

He's a good cat - he immediately understood the purpose of the litter box and he doesn't claw the furniture. He quickly learned the meaning of the word "no" (it took only one squirt from a water bottle) and he knows to leave me and my food alone when I'm eating. He is not overly needy for affection. In fact, although he likes being petted and purrs whenever touched, he doesn't like to lie or sit on me - he seems to prefer sitting next to or near me but not on me, allowing me my freedom to move about the house as I please. As I write this, he is sleeping in the sunlight on the window sill next to my computer.

Shunryu Suzuki once said, "To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control them. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them."

So it is with cats. To keep him imprisoned does not feel right; to keep him as a castrated housepet and mutilate his paws so that he can't claw the furniture seems like the worst policy. His spacious meadow is access to my house when he wants to share his company with me and access to the outdoors when he wants the company of nature. That feels like the better policy.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
- T.S. Eliot

Friday, March 06, 2009

Severn Suzuki (age 12) vs. The U.N. Earth Summit

You might recall that one of the guests at President Obama's address to Congress last month was Ty'sheoma Bethea, an eighth grader from Dillon, South Carolina, a small town near Augusta, Georgia. Bethea wrote Obama and asked that money from the stimulus go to her dilapidated school. She had reportedly never been on a plane before, but Obama's people flew her and her mother to Washington D.C. for the speech.

The president referenced Bethea's story in his remarks, and quoted her letter:
I think about Ty'Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina - a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She has been told that her school is hopeless, but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this room. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters."
This is not the first time the heartfelt and honest words of a little girl affected world leaders. Witness the speech above, delivered at the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Brazil by 12-year-old Severn Suzuki. Born and raised in Vancouver, Suzuki and some friends started the Environmental Children's Organization, a small group of children committed to learning and teaching other kids about environmental issues. Suzuki's powerful speech deeply affected and silenced some of the most prominent world leaders and had such an impact that she has become a frequent invitee to many UN conferences.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Cedartown, Georgia

Tonight I'll put her on a train for Georgia.
Gonna be a lot of kin folks squallin' and a-grievin',
'Cause that Cedartown gal ain't breathin'.

Spooky stuff from Waylon Jennings. That's from his 1971 album, Cedartown, Georgia, and I bring it up because did I mention that I was going to be in Cedartown today?

Cedartown is the seat of Polk County in western Georgia, hard on the Alabama line. The purpose of today's trip was to visit a facility at which I've worked for a number of years, but I'm preparing to do a larger environmental clean-up, excavating several tons of contaminated soil.

Peter (with whom I had crossed Siskyou Pass last year) and I drove out to Cedartown today, ending at Wissahickon Avenue. According to our client, "Wissahickon" is the Cherokee name for "River of Many Cedars," fitting enough for Cedartown, but according to Wikipedia, "Wissahickon" is Lenape (Delaware) for "Catfish Creek" or "Stream of Yellowish Color," which sounds rather urinary.

Cedartown does not have the most glorious history. In 1838, under the direction of Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act, a fortification was built at the white settlement of Big Springs for the purpose of forced internment of the Cherokee people, who were then forcibly migrated down the Trail of Tears to Indian reservations in Oklahoma. The town of Big Springs became Cedar Town in 1852, but the city was burnt to the ground by Union forces in 1865, repotedly leaving only one mill standing on the outskirts of town. The Rome Plow Company, headquartered in Cedartown, later produced jungle-clearing vehicles used during the Vietnam War, although now it produces agricultural vehicles. Waylon Jennings' 1971 murder ballad is the town's only cultural/artistic landmark.

But Cedartown's karma may have worked itself out by now. Everybody was kind and pleasant enough, and we took our client out for a nice little lunch of country fried chicken at a local, family-owned restaurant. The weather was great and all in all it was not an unpleasant day. I was back in the office before the workday was over, and will probably be back out in Cedartown, Georgia once the actual soil removal project begins.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Leonard Cohen

At age 74, the accomplished singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen is once again back on the road. He began touring last year with several dates in Europe and his native Canada; a “Live in London” CD is due out soon. Cohen’s world tour is scheduled to continue through the end of this year.

At 74, Leonard Cohen is two years older than John McCain, but he is still remarkably limber - even on the longest flights, Cohen reportedly sits cross-legged and straight-backed in his seat. Asked whether he does yoga to build strength and agility for his stage shows, Cohen smiled and replied, “That is my yoga.”

Cohen has quipped that he once tried a course of religious study, but “cheerfulness kept breaking through.” Religious devotion seems to weigh heavily in both music and life for Cohen, and it takes many forms. Performance and prayer are both treated as aspects of the same larger divine enterprise. His best-known songs mingle sacred concerns with the secular and the sexual. “Tell me again when the filth of the butcher is washed in the blood of the lamb,” he once sang.

Cohen had once left touring for a five-year stint in a Zen monastery. Cohen was officially ordained as a Zen monk on August 9, 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center. He was given the dharma name Jikan (Silent One) by Sasaki Roshi, a Japanese teacher famous for his extremely rigorous style of Rinzai Zen. “There’s a similarity in the quality of the daily life” on the road and in the monastery, Cohen said. “There’s just a sense of purpose” in which “a lot of extraneous material is naturally and necessarily discarded,” and what is left is a “rigorous and severe” routine in which “the capacity to focus becomes much easier.”

Not unlike Zen, in Cohen's songs the comforts are few (“I’ve seen the future, brother/It is murder"), and the contradiction many (“Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful/Ah, give or take a night or two”). About the meaning of those songs, Cohen is diffident and elusive. Many are, he acknowledges, “muffled prayers,” but beyond that he is not eager to reveal much. “It’s difficult to do the commentary on the prayer,” he said. "I feel it doesn’t serve the enterprise to really examine it from outside the moment.”

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in."

If he has one great love, it is his search for God. Cohen is an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath even while on tour, and performed for Israeli troops during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. When asked how he reconciled his Jewish faith with his continued practice of Zen, he replied, "Well, for one thing, in the tradition of Zen that I’ve practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief.”

Zen has helped him to learn to “stop whining,” Cohen said, and to worry less about the choices he has made. “All these things have their own destiny; one has one’s own destiny. The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.”

"I know the burden’s heavy
As you bear it through the night,
Some people say it’s empty
But that doesn’t mean it’s light."

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Beltline

After a long day of work, I went to the Neighborhood Planning Unit meeting tonight to help get approval of the draft Beltline Master Plan.

The Beltline, Atlanta's visionary plan for 22 miles of new transit and 33 miles of multi-use trail, has not been without controversy - last year, I got embroiled in the dispute over whether or not a segment of the multi-use trail should or shouldn't run through the middle of our local park, the last natural greenspace in this part of town (we eventually arrived at a compromise route). But despite that and numerous other controversies, the plan is not without merit - there's a lot to be said for more mass transit and more alternatives to automotive mobility in this city.

The Master Plan that was finally produced showed the trail along the correct compromise route (the earlier draft did not), but I did have a few issues with the plan as written, mostly regarding the proposed density of development in my neighborhood. And some of my neighbors had specific complaints about specific locations - unwanted side streets, poorly conceived intersections, etc.

At last month's meeting of the Neighborhood Planning Unit, I aired my concern to the community and listened to their complaints. Following that meeting, I worked with one of the neighbors to develop a list of "conditions" that we needed to see resolved before we could endorse the draft Master Plan. At tonight's meeting, I presented those conditions to the Beltline representatives in attendance.

The purpose of this evening's meeting was for a vote to either endorse or reject the draft Master Plan. After hearing my issues and following a spirited discussion among the neighbors, a suggestion was made that in these hard economic times, no government funds should be spent on this project, and the development should occur in the private sector. A motion was then made to reject the Plan in its entirety.

That would have been unfortunate. As I've said, despite my concerns, there's a lot to like in the Beltine and there's no other new mass transit proposal on the table right now. And while our "nay" vote would not have killed the Master Plan, our specific concerns would not have been heard. Fortunately, the motion did not get enough votes to carry.

At that point, I made a motion to endorse the Master Plan, subject to changes needed to address the conditional list of concerns we had drafted. The motion carried by a large majority.

Those opposed to the Beltline altogether are, I think, really opposed to the future. Growth is going to come to the City, recession or not, and the future will be more densely developed, more crowded, and more urban. The Master Plan acknowledges this growth and gives us the opportunity to direct it, plan for it, and create the infrastructure for it. Those who don't want to see the infrastructure really just don't want to see the inevitable tide of population growth here in Atlanta. And those who want to see the project developed not by the government but in the private sector are still living in a Reaganesque fantasia.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Snow Leopards of Atlanta

A major snowstorm has hit the Eastern U.S., and this time it hasn't spared Georgia. In Atlanta, it started snowing at about noon and continued until the late afternoon. The picture out my front door was taken around 1 pm. Most of the snow melted soon after falling, but freezing temperatures tonight threaten to make the roads icy in the morning.

For what it's worth, the City of Atlanta doesn't own even a single snowplow. The strategy here is to just wait until it melts, which in most cases works within 24 hours.

Snow is not the norm in Atlanta, although it does tend to snow here about once a year. However, snow in March is more unusual. I can already hear the neo-cons at my office saying that this unseasonal weather is proof that global warming is bunk, although even a sixth grader knows the difference between "weather" and "climate."

But the big news here in the Shokai residence is the new arrival of a cat. A couple weeks ago, when I returned from my Sunday trip up to Chattanooga, a cat was on my porch, sitting on the mat in front of my door. As I approached, it ran away but the next morning, as I left for work, it was back again - we were both a little startled to encounter each other when I opened the door.

As you might have guessed, when I came home from work on Monday, it was still there. Although I tried to call it to me, it still ran away any time I got near. But every day, it was back again on my porch.

Eventually, I put a bowl of food out for it and saw it eating from the bowl several times (it looked a little skinny). Although apparently appreciated, the food offering didn't make it any less afraid of me - it still ran at the first sight of me. This went on for about two weeks, and I finally stopped putting the food out last Friday after I saw a raccoon devouring the meal.

Alert readers might recall that I rescued a raccoon from starving at the bottom of my garbage bin last summer. I would like to think the now fat raccoon eating the cat food was the same animal, but there's no way of telling for sure. In any event, the local raccoons have benefited from my kindness.

Anyhow, while I was taking the picture above during Atlanta's unseasonal snowfall, the cat darted past me and into the house. Despite its fear of me, it must have been more dismayed by the weather. I just so happened to have kitty litter and a box left over from a former cat, now off living with an ex, so I set up a little area for the cat including a bowl of food, water and a litter box, and figured we'd ride out the snowstorm together.

It hid under the bed for an hour or so, but I didn't disturb it. It came out a few times but darted right back under the bed at the first sight of me. However, I eventually found it sleeping up on top of my bed and, approaching slowly, began to stroke it. As I demonstrated my lack of meanness, the cat slowly came to accept me.

Now it's following me every step around the house, almost tripping me as it's beneath my feet. He (I determined it's a male by his big fuzzy balls) won't be in a room without me. He seems generally healthy and free of parasites, and I can't tell if he's someone's lost pet or a true stray. I opened the door several times to let him outside, but after he had a look at the weather, he opted to stay in the house. I really can't blame him - it's cold and wet out there.

So it seems that now I have a cat, or, more accurately, it seems that a cat has adopted me. He's an orange and white tabby, with leopard spots on his sides and tiger stripes on his flanks and tail. I'm still working on a name - I've already named cats "Karma" and "Joshu," so I'm open to new suggestions. So far, though, I'm leaning toward "Elliott."