Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Seven Snow Whites

"You really do have to take your knee off the reader's windpipe at some point," instructs Virgil crisply. "You can't leave people straining for a silver lining every time, and feeling sick at their stomachs just because you've got an appointment with the truth." These were harsh words from my endearing alligator mentor, and they lodged very quickly in my heart. But when I looked at him, Virgil was, as usual, flecked with pixie dust, and his eyes were twinkling as he sat perched on the connecting rod of his Civil War locomotive. "Enough of all these verbal incitements," he admonished. "Let's forget about roadside bombs for a while, and figure out some entrancing piano charms to soothe an old alligator's breast, okay?"

A person never knows when a knock on the door may come, or a sneak-attack satori. I was trying to figure out how to honor Virgil's request (he doesn't ask for much) when suddenly, both of the above came my way, in the form of some Katzenjammer friends I rarely see, who turned up for a cosy visit and a glass of wine over the weekend. Ann Kilkelly and Carol Burch-Brown are professors at Virginia Tech and live in the valley adjacent to mine. They arrived with two black ukulele cases and a friend in tow. The friend, Celeste Miller, was visiting them from Atlanta and wanted to meet me.

Celeste, it turns out, is a performance artist (as are Carol and Ann); she was once described by the L.A. Times as "a female Garrison Keillor." I've not seen any of her performances, but it seems she takes fairy tales and Bible stories and then retells them as cautionary tales, wrapping herself around the words with dance movements. She described a recent workshop experience at Grinnell College, in which she had orchestrated her own rendition of "Snow White (Retracted)" with a group of 15 people, mostly children, ages 6-45. The children were allowed to choose their own parts--and as a result they ended up with 7 Snow Whites and only 2 dwarfs, Something about this equation struck a rogue note in my mind, and I found myself positively wiggling with excitement in my seat when I heard it.

Then Ann turned to Carol. "Don't you think it's time?" she said. And before anyone could say George W. Bush or anything else, out came the ukuleles, and my living room was suddenly filled with gossamer sounds and the beautiful azure harmonies of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, Pretty Bubbles in the Air."

Virgil was all ears. "Ah," he said. "You see how music takes away the sting of adversity? That's because it never pretends that things are going as planned. It doesn't rely on privileged access or subterranean beliefs, and it will never cause credibility damage to a sitting president. Music doesn't need frameworks of right or wrong to cope with life--it is just so gorgeously palate-cleansing." You might have thought he was giving a graduation address to music students at Julliard.

Meanwhile, I still can't stop thinking about those 7 Snow Whites. Taken to its extreme, I'm wondering if the world might well have turned out differently--fewer siren wails and helicopter noises overhead--had there been a different story line, a different plot, from the very beginning. One in which those 7 dwarfs, coughing up fur balls, were replaced by 7 Snow Whites, tasting of raspberry sorbet....

This would've been among my program notes, had anybody asked.

Friday, July 27, 2007


I've always had a single, insistent thought about this, even before we invaded: Iraq is not our country, and we don't belong there. Six years after the misbegotten invasion, we are trapped in a gruesomely stupid venture, and our incapacity to face the truly horrific predicament we are in is helping to keep us trapped there. When he stepped down as Secretary General of the U.N., Kofi Annan publicly proclaimed that the worst moment in his career was being unable to prevent the U.S. from going into Iraq. In a nutshell, we are now fighting to prevent what our invasion made inevitable: the spread of terrorism and Islamic extremism. Our policies have been the biggest destabilizing force in the region. What follows here is a sum total of thoughts (my own and others), ideograms, key insights, and information I have gleaned over several years of tracking and reading. --Any terrorist threat present in Iraq today was 100% created by our invasion of that country in 2003.

--GWB and Dick Cheney have never acknowledged that anything they have done has generated the chaos in Iraq or the incredible levels of anti-American sentiment now activated throughout the Muslim world.

--All of our actions are framed by Al Qaeda as evidence of the West's malevolence toward Muslims. What we have designated as the "war on terror," they describe as the "war on Islam." The jihadist propaganda machine teaches that our agenda is to invade Muslim lands and destroy Muslim culture. They don't have a hard sell. As a result of our occupation of Iraq, we are now the feared advocates of preemptive war and imperialism.

--We claim we are promoting "freedom," but Islamic fundamentalists like al Qaeda and the Taliban want to live according to 7th century Sharia law, as presented in the Koran. They want no part of our concepts of democracy, secularism, or religious and political pluralism. They are hellbent on destroying democracy, and care nothing for international law. Jihadists want to dominate the planet. "The whole idea of exporting democracy...is one of the most destabilizing things in the world today," says Michael Scheuer, a form chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit.

--The invasion of Iraq has not brought us anything in terms of fighting terrorism. Quite the reverse: it has furthered bin Laden's goal of inciting the Islamic world to fight against us and to persuade Muslims that Islam and the West are at war. What was previously a fringe movement has now metastasized into a full-fledged, incurable threat. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's chief deputy, wrote in 2003 about us: "If they withdraw they will lose everything, and if they stay they will bleed to death." No wonder Congress can't figure it out.

--GWB will never admit defeat, even if his desperate need to "win" does the world in. He will not pull out before his term ends. His only exit strategy is to exit himself out of the presidency: drag things out, delay recognition of defeat, hand the problem over to someone else. Blame the Democratic Congress for the failure, and if that doesn't work, the Iraqi government. You have to wonder whether he is lying to the American public when he says we can win, or just to himself. Or does he actually believe his own lies? Try figuring that one out!

--Iraq never did pose a direct threat to the U.S., and now, after all this war and death and obscene expenditure, we are back to where we started six years ago. So put on your pearls, girls, and follow the arguments to where they lead. Here are the choices:

--We can pull out our troops and watch things disintegrate, or we can keep our forces there and watch things disintegrate. We can postpone the day of reckoning, but we can't escape it.

--Then, there's all the STUFF to consider. If we withdraw our troops, we also have to take with us 24,000 Humvees, 679 Bradley vehicles, 366 MI Abrams tanks, 192 M88 Recovery vehicles, 3,282 Heavy Trucks, 912 Trailer Trucks, 60 Kiowa helicopters, 121 Apache helicopters, 293 Blackhawk helicopters, 63 Chinook helicopters. And then there is the 100 million pounds of combat gear and equipment from hundreds of outposts, supply depots, fuel centers, and ammunition-storage facilities. Better get out of the way!

--"Nothing in excess" were the words engraved above the temple of Apollo at Delphi.

--If we leave, there is much fear of the ensuing blood bath, civil war, terrorist haven, failed state, etc. But this "aftermath" of our leaving is already happening, and nothing we can do will prevent it.

--The war was a horrible mistake. Now that we know this for sure, continuing it becomes something much worse than a mistake. We spend a lot of energy trying not to see what is staring us in the face. Accepting the loss and the pain may be the precondition for any significant change.

--So I agree with Alice Walker. Even if there is nothing you can do personally to stop the war, it's important to have awareness of what has happened. When asked about whether finding more things to weep about wouldn't be likely to make one even more depressed, she answered: "Have the courage to be more depressed. In a world like this, where we are--as Americans anyway--paying for so much suffering, who wants to be Little Miss Sunshine? It's scary."

--Today's headline by Arianna Huffington on her blog, the HuffingtonPost: "Bush sets the table for September: Who You Gonna Believe, Petraeus or Your Own Eyes? Finally, a question that is easy to answer.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Virgil Speaks!

At least one of my blog readers is wondering what's become of Virgil. That boy alligator who knows "how life works" has his own weightless fame. He's created an image, like Andy Warhol. Virgil is definitely the alligator-who-has-everything, the-host-with-the-most on the ball. So where is he, anyway?

First let me make clear that I have no control over Virgil's comings and goings, even if sometimes it might look that way. Virgil definitely has his own life, a bit like Jung's Philomen--a sort of private mahatma who often said things to Jung which he had not consciously thought himself, but always offered superior insight. At times, Philomen seemed to Jung to be quite real, as if he were a living personality. He was a kind of guru conveying illuminating ideas, who had first appeared to him in a dream as a winged spirit with a lame foot, sailing across the sky. But then he turned out to be an old man with the horns of a bull, a hybrid being clutching a bunch of four keys. Personally, I've not made a study of Philomen so I can't tell you what the keys meant, but I don't think Philomen was possessed of quite the same quirkiness as Virgil, who seems to positively enjoy his role as the "rabbi of everybody."

Truth be known, I've been missing Virgil too. With some difficulty I was finally able to reach him on his cell, and told him some of us were wondering why he was playing dead.

"Not to worry," he said. "I'm just zoning out, doing a bit of spear-fishing again with King Leopold III of Belgium, and having a great time. But don't misunderestimate what I'm saying. There's no skittishness involved. Collaborating with you remains the most important political alliance of my career. But there are still limits. Even though I am a relentless, entrepreneurial, idea-oriented disrupter of the old order, I would never try, for instance, to eat an eel at the wrong time, or introduce sarongs to Muslim women. Basically I operate best in free fall, where I can play and dive and wriggle. (Just watch me go after a moving ruffle.) But right now, the scales have shifted. You're becoming a firebrand, jumping from one day to the next in and out of moral mazes. You've become a pressure group unto yourself, asking pesky questions, provoking knotty problems. And this difference changes everything. Taken to its extreme, this is the way social movements usually announce themselves."

As to whether or not he would be home any time soon, Virgil was a bit cryptic. "You know, I'm not interested in informing people of things. I just want to be evocative. However, like the angels, I will continue to demonstrate my presence through synchronicities, whenever conditions demand it. But don't expect me to be eating eel, unless the time is right."

With that, Virgil transformed himself from a solid into a gas, and hung up.

Friday, July 20, 2007


Reading some of these blogs may seriously damage your peace of mind. That's what I told Natasha Walter, who wrote me from England recently, requesting a phone interview for an article she was writing on art and ecology for the English magazine, Resurgence.

Perhaps you should read my blog first, I cautioned her, because it might cause you to change your mind. I wouldn't want my point of view to compromise your possibilities with the magazine, I explained. I've published many times, myself, in Resurgence, with very happy results, but the last piece I sent them was flatly rejected by the editor, Satish Kumar, a good friend of mine. He considered that it was too "negative," and for that reason, was not resonant with the primary aim of the magazine: to inspire hope for a turnaround in the environmental crisis. Nor did it present any positive solutions for all the problems that confront us.

The rejected text in question was a taped conversation between a friend of mine, James Marriott, an old friend and environmental artist who was visiting me from England where he lives and works in an arts-activist collaborative called PLATFORM. The date was April 16th, 2006, which, as it turned out, was James's birthday, and he had requested that we do the conversation as his birthday present. Since both of us are well known to Resurgence, we decided to do it with the magazine in mind.

James kicked off by asking exactly what I had meant the day before, when I had said to him that perfume had no future and the ship was going down. I found myself, by way of a response, stating that I thought our present circumstances were taking the human race to a whole new context in which, for the first time, its survival was uncertain. That thought caused me to compare our situation to Sir Ernest Shackleton's journey to the Antarctic, in l914, when his ship, the Endurance, broke up in the ice, leaving Shackleton and his crew of 27 men stranded, helpless on an ice floe and isolated from the world, for two sunless and utterly dark Arctic winters. They survived there for two years, hunting seals and penguins, uncertain if they would ever be rescued or make it back to the land of the living.

I had suddenly perceived Shackleton's situation as a metaphor of things to come for the human race. We are like sailors who have lost our ship. For the first time, our future is uncertain. James responded:

"If you consider Shackleton’s story, there must have been period of time—I don’t know how long, maybe a few days or hours when they were all thinking Help! Are we going to get stuck in the ice? Are we not going to get stuck in the ice? And then there’s suddenly the point when they go—Help! We’re stuck in the ice! It’s very difficult to project just when that moment will come for us, for us to see it. In a sense, we need to heighten our perception to be able to say, okay, this is the moment when we’re stuck in the ice...In terms of Shackleton’s plight, it was pretty useful. He had to come to the point of saying, okay, we’re obviously stuck in the ice. Now what are we going to do? At the moment, I don’t think we collectively understand the fact that we’re stuck in the ice. Maybe that moment hasn’t yet arrived, but when it does, we will need to see it clearly."

And I said: "Others have likened that moment to throwing a frog into boiling water. If the water is already boiling, the frog will jump out, but if the water is heating up slowly, the frog won’t recognize the dangerous moment when the boiling point comes, and it will die. Now the phrase being used for this moment is the “tipping point.” It seems as if we may have already reached the tipping point. For several decades we had all those World Watch studies foretelling disaster scenarios, and saying that we had a window of opportunity—20 or 30 years to turn things around. But when does the window of opportunity close?"

So the question became, in our conversation, What do we do in the face of something that may now be unsolvable? I realized then that to face such a possibility is almost impossible for our way of thinking, which assumes that humans have always risen to the challenge of inventiveness--and always will. We have a "fix-it" mentality. But with the current scale of the disasters happening, and the tipping point reached, these assumptions may no longer hold.

In case you don't know the story, Shackleton and his men did get out, and every member of the crew survived their ordeal. When it finally became clear to Shackleton (after two years on the ice) that no one was coming to rescue them—they had been gone for so long people assumed they must all be dead—he set out with five of his men in a ridiculously small boat to find help. They had to travel 800 miles by sea from Elephant Island to South Georgia, then travel 29 more miles on foot across the island, which required scaling perpendicular headlands and glaciers, to arrive at the small whaling station of Stromness. Miraculously, they did it. It took 3 more months and several failed attempts, however, before they succeeded in returning to rescue the other men who had been left behind. What is so amazing about this story is how those men survived under such unthinkable conditions. It would seem that the primary reason for the phenomenal success was hidden in the character and personality of Shackleton himself, a man with extraordinary leadership abilities, comparable perhaps to Martin Luther King or Gandhi. Chalk one up for human resilience and ingenuity!

Meanwhile, Natasha read my blog and was undeterred, so we did the interview for her article. Synchronistically. however, while all this was going on, the latest issue of Resurgence happened to arrive. Satish had written an editorial in it, in which he states, in the opening paragraph:

"Pessimism is in fashion. Scientists, environmentalists and climatologists are claiming that collapse is around the corner and civilization is coming to an end. Book after book tells us that we have passed the tipping point and have reached the point of no return." And he's still not having any of it. To meet the challenge of global warming, he claims, we need to change from being consumers to being artists, producing beautiful objects to use, which need not require the use of fossil fuel to make. I agree that craft belongs to a humbler relationship with nature and that high-tech society is destroying our ecological base.
But I see very little evidence that this is where our civilization is headed. Satish, however, ends his essay with: "It is 'cool' to be an optimist."

Monday, July 16, 2007

"Outta the Gilded Gulag"

Before I talk about more about Joe Bageant, the "Sartre of Appalachia," let me say that my eyes were downright popping out of their sockets when I read this comment by William Kristol, one of the original neocon Iraq war-supporters, in a one-page essay he published in the July 16th issue of Time:

"It may well be that no other country has ever been stronger than the U.S. today--[surely he has to be kidding about that?] and it may be that no other people in human history have had it quite so good."

What handwriting on the wall, what kind of tea leaves, is Kristol reading anyway? We may all be on this earth, but surely we are inhabiting vastly different planets. That said, don't say I didn't tell you already that the universe is self-organizing. You only have to let it do it's magic. No sooner had I published my last post on Jane in Nepal, when lo! a new email informed me [via my Bageant blog-watcher, Bob Walker] that Joe Bageant [see my previous post of July 5th on "The Sartre of Appalachia"] has flown the coop! I mean, he's opted out of Western civ for good. Bageant wouldn't agree with Kristol that "no other people in human history have had it quite so good"--to the point where he's even willing accept shortfalls on toilet paper and cold showers, just so he can live far away from the "consumer zombie parade." Listen to this latest gorgeous rant:

"It is near midnight and the dogs sleeping in the sand under my cabana, Rex and Pluto, emit happy, gurgling growls, as if chasing imaginary rabbits in their dreams. I lie in bed just breathing in and breathing out and feeling so free that I've laughed out loud a couple of times tonight, something I have never done in my life. At least not while simply looking at the ceiling. Tomorrow I will not worry about losing my ass in the declining real estate market. I will not commute three nerve grinding hours a day, or nervously engorge myself in front of my laptop for hours on end. Nor will I or wake up with the crimes of the empire running like adding machine tape in my head, annotated with all the ways I contributed to those crimes by participating in the American lifestyle. After more than two years of effort, I'm outta the gilded gulag, by damned, and tell myself that I have at last quit being part of the problem -- or at least as much as much as anyone can without living stark naked in a Himalayan cave and toasting insects over a dung fire.

When I arrived in Belize a few weeks ago I vowed never to write about this country, mainly because the Americans I write to are more interested in American politics, religion, class issues and the Iraq war. How the hell could anybody with more than an inch of forehead not be anxious over those things? But the contrast here is so stark it seems unavoidable to write about the view of America from Belize and Hopkins Village this one time. I must say that from down here the Empire does not look much different. No worse, no better. But the stress and stench of the empire is less in this Caribbean breeze and the mark of the beast is sharper from a distance.

The effect of moving was immediate. As one expat told me years ago what would happen, whole days go by when I do not think of America at all, much less rage against it, something I would previously considered impossible. But when you do, you do so more calmly and lose no sleep over the criminals presently running the enterprise up there. Occasionally the thought occurs that a peaceful mind could kill my pitiful little career as a pissed off lefty writer. Then I look around Hopkins Village at these eminently sane, if poor, Garibano (or Garifuna, a mixture of Carib Indian and African) people and think, "So what? Everything is a goddamned identity in America, writing included." Identity is a racket in a nation of media controlled clones. And besides, who wants to be a one trick pony in the consumer zombie parade? In the end though, leaving was absolutely a matter of saving my sanity. It came down to either becoming one of those bugfuck crazies ranting on the faaaaar left end of the Internet, or busting out of America to find something resembling balance near the end of a life marked by anxious imbalance and contradiction. The personal freedom to do that clearly lay elsewhere, and after some scouting, I decided on Hopkins Village, Belize. It simply felt more free. More real.

A Libertarian Wet Dream with Beach

In places like Hopkins Village you can still send your kid to the store to bring back cigarettes. Now the politically correct set up there in the States may be blowing soy milk out their noses at the thought, but it represents a degree of freedom from government control. And besides, it is not American's business how the black Garinago people of Belize run their lives. In Belize it is not against the law to drink and drive and there are no speed limits. Here in Hopkins you can build your house without a permit or inspections, sell real estate without a license, drink liquor openly while you happily burn trash in your front yard. You can peddle homemade darasa -- grated spiced banana wrapped and cooked in banana leaf wrappers -- or barbeque pork to the neighbors from your front porch with no interference from health inspectors.

Most of this non-interference is simply because it is not in the national character. And part of this non-interference is due to a lack of expensive regulatory infrastructure. Faced with choosing between running schools for children down in the wilds of the Toledo district, or busting Aunt Lula for peddling pig's tails stewed in red beans on the street corner, the government gives Aunt Lula a pass. It's a loose place, a Libertarian's wet dream.

In a hardscrabble, make-do country where everything is scarce, especially motor vehicles, looseness is a good thing. Hitchhiking ("riding thumb") is considered a respectable way to get around the country, and most folks will stop for you. Most people do not own cars, but there are taxis in the larger communities and busses to and from about anywhere. Otherwise, it's you and your trusty bicycle. If you've never brought home a load of eight-by-four foot sheet metal roofing in a taxi, or a ten-foot two-by-four on a bicycle, you haven't lived. In our village of 1,300 there are only about ten motor vehicles. There are days when I wish we had a tad more transportation infrastructure around here.

Yet, thanks to the dearth of material infrastructure, I fulfilled some ecological goals almost by accident. I use only three or four gallons of water per day, plus another five gallons on washday for a total of about 26 to 30 gallons a week. The average American household must use hundreds of gallons per person, when you figure in laundry, lawns, car washes, etc. But this is possible for me because sanitary maintenance of daily life is so much simpler. Two sets of shorts, one pair of khakis and a white shirt -- which passes for dressed up around here -- four tee shirts and my old fishing vest do not require much wash water. The cold water showers here (bear in mind that the water temperature is in the mid seventies most of the year, in the mid nineties if you have a water tank standing in the sun) run very lightly and use only a gallon or two on those occasions when we do not bathe in the sea after sunset. When it comes to petroleum, I'd guess that my transportation needs, a thirty-seven mile bus ride to Dangriga every week or so, do not even add up to a gallon, judging from the US$2.50 bus fare in a country where petrol runs over six US dollars a gallon. Of course, no one would advocate that Americans adopt third world methods, but there is such a thing as too much transportation infrastructure -- especially if it is unsustainable, high maintenance and mainly dedicated to buying fried chicken and bad tacos."

And before you leave virgilspeaks for today, you might just want to check out this site of a Seattle artist: http://www.chrisjordan.com/current_set2.php for an amazing bird's eye view of the "consumer zombie parade." It is art that definitely packs a punch, and shows "conditions on the ground" here in the old U.S. of A.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Jane in Nepal

In 1990, my painter friend Jane Vance made her first visit to Nepal, where she saw Tibetan art for the first time. Over time, she made many subsequent trips to both India and Nepal, and became fascinated with Tibetan culture and iconography, mastering its symbols and incorporating its imagery into her paintings. Jane considers herself a catalyst for what she calls "a kind of suturing" between East and West. Her paintings are a heady cross-cultural mix of images that flow together without boundaries, woven and looped like psychedelic lichen. Uncanny correspondences bristle and refract, categories overlap, unusual juxtapositions are invited in. Jane thinks of her paintings more like fireworks exploding in many places simultaneously rather than as linear narratives. I want to write like that.

On June 15th, Jane left Blacksburg for western Nepal, on the Tibetan border, to deliver a sublime portrait she made several years ago of her Tibetan friend, Amchi Tsampa, who presides over a small Himalayan village called Jomson. She painted the portrait while Tsampa was teaching Tibetan language and Tantric Buddhism for a semester at Virginia Tech, and living at her house. She and a friend, Jenna Swan, plus a group of other special friends, brought the painting to Jomson and are making a documentary film about the all-day-and-night ceremony performed in the village to celebrate its arrival there. While in Kathmandu, they had craftsmen sew the painting onto a traditional Tibetan brocade frame, transforming it into a hanging thangka. (Unfortunately my computer skills are insufficient for me to add an illustration here, but you can view the painting-thankgka in its finished state on their website blog: www.agiftforthevillage.blogspot.com .)

I've been receiving their blogs by email, and their adventure synchronistically insinuated itself into my ongoing alligator-wrestle with Western civilization: are we headed for higher consciousness or extinction? Jomson became part of my narrative because it offered me a firsthand glimpse into a world that is not based in technology, consumption, and the triumph of materialism. It shows a way of life virtually free of fossil fuels, television, computers, cell phones, cars, and taxes. It shows a society that seems to fit its niche in the Himalayan environment perfectly, raising the question of whether or not the civilizational advancements provided by science. technology, and the military-industrial complex really have provided us with the best of all possible worlds.The answer to this will undoubtedly lie very much in the eye of the beholder, but what follows are extracts from various emails, sent by Jane, Jenna, and their friend Reba, chosen at random and lightly edited by me.

"Shops in Jomsom town are closet-sized, displaying a few imported tubes of toothpaste, post cards, bottled water, practical hardware for kerosene lamps and gas cookers, and kitchenware, a few covered pans and a few drinking glasses. Then there is the tailor, the barber, the launderer, the airline ticket office for confirming tickets on the tiny planes that come in when the winds are not too harsh, and the little stone rooms constituting the schools, where we have been fortunate to visit and film and meet wonderful teachers. A few motorcycles now beep down the cobbled street each day--Tsampa's is the newest and most handsome, flown in a few months ago, a gorgeous candy-apple red concoction. Jenna noted that the last time we were here, at dusk, just outside the windows of The Dancing Yak, Tsampa would be curry-combing his horse, but today, he is mostly wiping off his red cycle."

"In the afternoons, especially if it rains, our group sometimes sits in a glassed-in rooftop room here [in the Dancing Yak], overlooking part of the village of Jomsom. We order roasted peanuts and masala chai, and write and read and watch this one-street town. From this vantage point, I can see nine trees, some of them junipers and the others, short willows. I see a bare-footed, bow-legged, short sadhu, a wandering Hindu pilgrim, walking alone down the street, with his right hand holding his gleaming brass cooking pot out from the plastic, possibly to gather rain for his evening drink. I see two Nepali women in plastic sandals, dressed in salwar khameezes, pants with calf-length shirts, drenched in their cotton head-scarves, clutching themselves against the rain. One wears mango and teal; the other , sky-blue and tobacco-brown. On the cobblestone street, half-yaks and mules and an occasional dog or horse wander by, seeming to go nowhere, but going somewhere, unsupervised. Puddles collect on the crooked grey pieces of inset slate. Here come twenty monks, in saffron and red, or burgundy and red, one of them in royal purple socks. This delegation is leading one plastic-swaddled monk on a white horse... We wonder, Who?"

"[During the ceremony] there was a lot of dancing-- traditional Tibetan dancers, and Nepali dancers and Indian dancers all in traditional costumes (they danced their hearts out to crackly tape cassette music) Tsampa presented Jane with a gift of a Lama table he had carved and painted. He presented the rest of our team with blessing scarves. Then FOOD was served to all the people in attendance (hundreds maybe??) Rice, curried veggies, Tibetan bread, and chai tea... Jane and Tsampa had on so many blessing scarves that their faces were getting covered up. The painting was taken down and carried like a banner, Tsampa, Jane and about 30 other riders on horseback led a parade down the street....We had singers, dancers, a member of parliament, the captain of the Mountain Warfare Royal Nepal Army, the District and Village chiefs, the big old lamas who were Tsampa's father's friends, and horses with riders racing down the main street at a gallop, the riders hanging off to one side trying to pick up prayer flags from the cobblestones. And then a procession to carry the thangka back to the Dancing Yak Hotel....We now have our documentary. We had the festival of festivals, and the painting is finally home, and it looks great."

On her way back home, Reba (who left early) writes: "We are back in Kathmandu and are enjoying the cushy life of real mattresses with sheets, hot showers and TOILET PAPER! Woohoo! My last night at the Dancing Yak in Jomsom, Jane and Jenna demanded that I only use 3 (single-ply) sheets of our shared toilet paper (You have to supply your own). Don't tell, but I used 5! (haha)
I am closer to getting back home where I want to be, but I desperately miss the rest of our crew and feel just a little twinge of jealousy that they are going into upper Mustang. Only a few permits per year are given to those who want to go into that region where it is even more untouched by change than the places we have visited.
I came here fully expecting to land into this totally foreign world, where nobody looks like me, talks like me, dresses or thinks like me, and everthing around me looks nothing like I have ever seen before. Part of that has proved to be true. I have never seen the likes of chaos like here in Kathmandu. I have never seen this much poverty. I have never seen landscapes like this, from the terraced crop fields to the gigantic mountains that are so huge, grey and snow-covered, that they cannot be real even though you are right there staring at them...The women offer you tea several times a day. They ask if you are hungry. As we walked these very long, dusty and rocky trails between villages, every person we would meet, whether they were in a group or carrying some obscenely large basket full of who-knows-what strapped to their heads, EVERY single person would meet your eye and say, "Namaste". Greeted warmly by every stranger you meet, that's Nepal."

"Wow!" says Virgil, who loves any ample opportunity for fish-out-of-water jokes. "Sure wish I'd been there, done that. But it's been fun just hitchhiking on other people's thoughts. I've never been fixated on toilet paper myself, or unisex cologne either, for that matter. But now that I'm older and sliding into home base, it really does seem like the infinite quantum field organizes every event in the universe that happens--and, if left to its own devices, the story will simply generate itself. All we have to do is leaf through the extracts as they appear."

Monday, July 9, 2007

More About Gore

Sometimes, if you are a writer and you find yourself suddenly on a roll, it can feel like you've been possessed by a demonic something that won't let you be. It's like, no rest for the weary. Not only do eccentric alligators converse with you on a regular basis, but sometimes the universe itself wants to throw in two cents. Messages arrive from everywhere, even when you're not looking for them.

It happened again today. I was, I admit, feeling a bit pissed over the matter of Al Gore's "Live Earth" extravaganzas. Why so? Because he'll never be our president now, I thought; he's obviously enjoying his life as a superstar too much. (Will success spoil Rock Hudson? kept bubbling up. It's definitely a possibility, I thought.) Why, realistically, would anyone trade in all that fun just to clean up somebody else's godawful mess in the White House? Why put on a helmet when you're already wearing a wonderful Spanish sombrero?

Then I thought about Mahatma Gandhi, and his humble life. Gandhi would never have wanted to stage a rock concert. Salt marches were more his thing. And fasting. Sometimes he did it for weeks on end, just to make a point. Certainly he didn't diet, in order to look good in front of the cameras.

So, I thought, maybe Gore isn't going to answer the call. Maybe he isn't even the man I thought he was. Then the universe shot back.

First I opened up the Huffington Blog, which appears on my email every morning, and this was the headline of the lead story, by Steven Weber:

"What Does Al Know That We Don't?" Weber was wondering, like me, why Gore isn't going to run for (and win) the presidency, since it's a no brainer that he is the best person for the job.

Weber concludes that even if politics holds no allure for Gore at this point, our country requires a real leader now to get its confidence and its moral credibility back. That's what we all know, he says, that maybe Al doesn't: how much his country really needs him.

"Maybe Al knows that America (to paraphrase Paddy Chayevsky) is a dying giant, that perhaps she is dead already. And the "business of government" is merely the scramble of organisms over the carcass's wan, flaking skin; any rumbles from within aren't the sounds of legislators engaged in constructive debate but the gasses issuing from the anuses of the bacteria digesting the sad corpse's putrefying innards. Are we destined to have the presidency so finally and utterly mediocritized that it no longer holds any attraction for the most qualified person in recent memory who would imbue it with the honor and prestige it -- and we -- deserve?"

Reading this, I again thought, will rock music spoil Al Gore? And again, the universe shot its answer right back at me. I turned off the computer and went on the porch to read a bit more of "Write Sideways." I had exactly half an hour before I had to get to exercise class. And there, right in my face, was this passage, with Quinn saying exactly the opposite of what I've been thinking and writing in my recent blogs--that decades have gone by without much changing, and that, if anything, things are much worse. Here's what Quinn says, on page 95:

"The intellectual climate has changed dramatically in the past fifteen years. The number of mind-changing books that are being published climbs every year. What we're looking for is...the 'tipping point,' the point where an accumulation of very small things--often quite suddenly and unexpectedly--produces enormous change."

Quinn cites as an example the sudden, unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union. No one had the slightest clue that it was about to happen; in fact, things appeared quite hopeless right up until that point. But there's more.

Quinn then pointed out that ROCK MUSIC had played a key part in the unexpected shift. "I would never have dared to put such an outrageous idea in print until Andras Simonyi, Hungary's ambassador to the United States, said the same thing, very forthrightly, last year. He spent an hour talking about it at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I remember that Western music was described as 'an open window of fresh air in a very repressive society.' That window stayed open for decades and clearly affected the way young people saw their world."

So, maybe that's something Al Gore knows that I didn't. And maybe he can still be a rock star impresario and our president as well.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Al Gore's Songlines

It's been a busy weekend: another one hundred or more Iraqis blown up; eight "Live Earth" concerts on seven continents; and I've finished reading Derrick Jensen's "Endgame," and started in on Daniel Quinn's "Write Sideways," a newly published volume that I found in The Dancing Moon bookstore in Boone last weekend. You have to know something is up when everything that you touch is saying the same thing, when everyone you read is infected with the same spirochete of civilizational wipeout. Or maybe my inner magnet is working more like a compass-in-disguise. Here's a little oratorio from Quinn:

"The people of the world simply must confront the fact that the period of mass extinctions that will end with our own has already begun, and that this isn't something we can just go on ignoring."

Al Gore's definitely not ignoring it. He's created these aboriginal songlines spanning the entire globe that are intended to have revolutionary implications. Can we sing the world towards a saner ecological future? Will Al succeed (where others before him have failed) in changing people's minds? Will I, to pull just one random example out of any random summer hat, be ready to give up my car any time soon?

And back to the older, previous question: Does art have enough revolutionary oomph to change the world? We'll see. I used to spend, as I've already said, a lot of time writing and arguing about that. In the meantime, things have changed drastically for the worse during the last ten years (the past 6 and 1/2 of them under the lobotomizing, traumatizing reign of GWB & Co), and now the planet is in real trouble. Now, the relevant questions are: does the human race have the will to change? and will it manage to survive against poor odds?

We have always assumed, here in America, that our way of life is the superior one, because we are the ones with all the "stuff." We are, after all, arguably the most advanced civilization the world has ever known, surely the most "evolved," and definitely the most envied. (Never mind that all of this comes at the expense of everyone, and everything, else.) Are we finally ready to look at these cultural assumptions?

Because I've been so caught up, Virgil--wise old excellency that he is--has taken to reading one of HIS favorite books, the one with the provocative title "Do Alligators Matter?" He received it a few years ago from my good friend Jane Vance, a painter who lives in Blacksburg and works at the Middle School as a teacher's aid. She found the book in a slush pile there, and retrieved it before it got thrown away.

Did you know, for instance, that alligators are related to dinosaurs, and go way back? Unlike the unlucky dinosaurs, however, they did not die out. This has made Virgil a tad cocky about his ability to survive even human extinction as well. "The best strategy," he says, "is just to hang on and see what happens next. If you are not living on your edge, you are probably taking up too much space. And if Kate Moss used banana peels as knickers, she'd triple the economy of Costa Rica overnight."

In the interest of full disclosure, I happen to know that Virgil cribbed this last arty comment from Vanity Fair. He's such a top-notch thief, however, that it's hard to reproach him for his stolen eloquence. He's promised not to indulge too often.

Did you know, Ho-ho!, that most reptiles DO NOT have a voice, but alligators do? Young alligators grunt. A grown male alligator has an earth-shaking bellow, and it makes his glands give off a strange, sweet smell. "It's really useful," says Virgil, "when you're doing fly-on-the-wall reportage."

Some alligators, those with true statesmanship like Virgil, who can double as king of the mambo beat, sometimes even achieve divinely inspired conversation.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Sartre of Appalachia

The current narrative of End Times, and how to look the Medusa in the face, continues. The following comments are excerpted by me from a long essay by Joe Bageant, found on his website by my friend Bob Walker. I don't know Joe Bageant, but it seems as if he, too, has been reading Derrick Jensen. He is described by one reviewer on Amazon as "the Sartre of Appalachia," and his prose as "white-hot and bourbon-fueled." He has written a book, "Deer Hunting with Jesus."

"The Ants of Gaia" (Excerpts)

by Joe Bageant

If mankind were discovered on a dog's hide the owner would give the dog a mange dip. Or if the earth were a Petri dish, we would be called pathology. Problem is though, mama earth tends to shed pathogens off her skin, which for us pathogens, is the ultimate catastrophe.

When forced to look at catastrophe on this order of magnitude, we either go numb in shock or look in delusion to something bigger, or at least something with more grandeur than Mother Nature flushing humanity down the toilet. Otherwise, one must accept the both ugly and the weirdly beautiful prospect of oblivion. Meanwhile, we begin too late to "make better choices." Grim choices that do nothing but postpone the inevitable, which are called better ones and sold to us to make ourselves feel better about our toxicity. Burn corn in your gas tank. Go green, with the help of Monsanto. But not many can be concerned even with the matter of better choices. Few can truly grasp the fullness of the danger because there is no way they can get their minds around it, no way to see the world in its entirety. The tadpole cannot conceive of the banks of the pond, much less the wooded watershed that feeds it. But old frogs glimpse of it.

Still, there is choice available, even a superior choice -- the moral one. Accept the truth and act upon it. Take direct action to eliminate human suffering, and likewise to eliminate our own comfort. We can say no to scorched babies in Iraq. We can refuse to drive at all and refuse to participate in a dead society gone shopping. We can quit being so addicted to the rationality and embrace the spirit. Rationality simply turns back on itself like a mobius strip. Too much thinking, too much cleverness on the monkey's part leads it to believe it can come up with rational solutions for what ration [sic] itself hath wrought.

All the green energy sources and eating right and voting right cannot fix what has been irretrievably ruined, but only make life amid the ruination slightly more bearable. Species gluttony is nearly over and we've eaten the earth and pissed upon its bones. Not because we are cruel by nature (though a case might be made for stupidity) but because the existence of consciousness necessarily implies each of us as its individual center, the individual point of all experience and thus all knowing. The accumulated personal and collective wounds fester and become fatal because there is no way to inform the world that we must surrender our assumptions, even if we wanted to. Which we do not because assumptions are the unseen cultural glue, the DNA of civilization. If we did so, the crash would be immediate.

So we postpone transformation through truth, and stick with what has always worked -- empire and consumption. And we twiddle our lives away thorough insignificant fretting about mortgages and health care and political parties and pretend the whole of American life is not a disconnect. Hell, all of Western culture has become a disconnect. Somebody needs to tell the Europeans too; progressive Americans give them entirely too much credit for the small positive variation in their cultures and ours. We both get away with it only so long as the oil and the entertainment last.

We allow ourselves to imagine the worst is somewhere in yet another future so we can continue without owning decision. Love of comfort being the death of courage, we continue the familiar commoditized life, the only one we have known. Is it not true that our entire understanding of courage as we know it is about braving some unknown? About making the socially unaccepted and dangerous choice? Stepping forward in the face of the wars and evil mechanics of our own particular time?

Empire and its inevitable permanent state of warfare flourishes not because evil men are at the helm, but because the men at the helm are even weaker and more in denial than we are. (Look at Dick Cheney. The guy is a nervous wreck wrapped in arrogance and denial.) And so their uninformed and crude confidence is assuring to both them and us. We elect the worst among ourselves in increasing avoidance of ourselves and they are validated by our endorsement. Evil men seeking empire did not make us or the world this way. We made their existence possible through our denial, love of ease and non accountability.

I thank the stars for younger men, writers such as Derrick Jensen and Charles Eisenstein. They say what we cannot yet say to ourselves and what the media will never say because media survives by the corporate numbers game. Consequently, the iron rules of being allowed to communicate with significant numbers of people within our empire tend to call for glibness, fake optimism, and the wide net of inclusion of even the silliest sorts of people. Fuck only knows I've participated in the sham over the years. But the truth is never politically or socially correct.

So here we are. You and me. Let us hang all our laundry out to dry in this tiny corner of cyberspace. I think it is entirely possible that we can be honest cybernetic bards in an unpromising age, possibly even noble amid the ruins.

(Email Joe Bageant at joebageant@joebageant.com)

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Three of Three Events (Endgame)

One of the things that will happen to you if you allow yourself to read straight through Derrick Jensen's book "Endgame: The Problem of Civilization," is that you'll have a lot of sand kicked in your face. You'll also feel that your own shelf-life may be about to expire. But rarely have I ever read anything that reaches such high levels of aliveness, absolute honesty, and refreshing courage. Jensen is a touchy writer of almost withering intensity, who believes that civilization has entered its endgame; its destructiveness is consuming the world--starving, imprisoning, and torturing it to death. When he writes about this, it is in a unique, peremptory, take-no-prisoners style.

"In the last 24 hours, over 200,00 acres of rainforest were destroyed. Thirteen million tons of toxic chemicals were released. Forty-five thousand people died of starvation, thirty-eight thousand of them children. More than one hundred plant or animal species went extinct because of civilized humans.
All of this in one day."

He's a firebrand, rhetorically bellicose, unafraid to offend. Which is what I most like about him. Here is a summary of some of his gut-wrenching observations and thoughts, put together loosely by me, in no particular order:

We all face choices. We can have ice caps and polar bears, or we can have automobiles. (Jensen claims that just manufacturing cars is even more polluting than driving them.) We can have dams or we can have salmon. We can have cardboard boxes or we can have forests.
From its opening to its end game, civilization has been nothing if not consistently narcissistic, domineering, and exploitative, with it's central supporting myth of the desirability of growth. What I'm proposing is that we look at our situation. And our situation is that we have overshot carrying capacity. The question becomes: what are we going to do about it?
No amount of comforts or elegancies are worth killing the planet and we have no right to do so. If only we weren't insane. If only there were even the slightest chance our culture would undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. It's an impossible fantasy. There's no accountability in this culture, I must be honest with you, even at the risk of offending or alienating you. Believing that we can convert ever larger numbers of living beings to dead objects, trees or mountains into two-by-fours and beer cans, and that this is the primary goal of life, and making ourselves the beneficiaries of all this insanity and injustice, is insane.
The past few weeks I've been in crisis. I'm scared. Scared to articulate what I know in my heart is necessary, and even more scared to help bring it about. I mean, we're talking about taking down civilization here (before it takes us down). I want to stop the destruction. I want to stop it now. I'm not satisfied to wait for civilization to exhaust its physical and metaphorical soil, then collapse. In the meantime it's killing too many humans, too many non-humans; it's making too much of a shambles of the world. The longer we wait for civilization to crash--or before we ourselves bring it down--the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and non-humans who live during it, and for those who come after.

Jensen can be funny. One of the things killing the world, he feels, is the Detroit Tigers--because people care more about Detroit Tigers than about real tigers. And he hates pious pacifists who shun any use of violence to halt the atrocities. I can't help thinking, as I read him, of those lines by Dylan Thomas: "Do not go softly into that dark night/Rage, rage, against the dying of the light." Reading him is tonic to our incapacity to really face our predicament. For most people, it's too difficult a truth to share: that we're really fucked. It comes off, jensen says, as hope-bashing. (More on that to come in a subsequent post.)

"Two days ago," he writes, "I was at a meeting of local grassroots environmentalists. One longtime activist approached me to say, 'I read your books, and even if your facts are true and your analysis is correct--and it really seems they are--I cannot allow myself to go there, because I would not survive in this system. I need denial, even if I know that's what it is, and I need to hope that the system will change on its own, even if I know it won't."

As for me, I find Jensen's book trenchant and refreshing, like ocean air. The synchronistic, associative events of the past few weeks have bombarded my psyche like a missile, knocking me sideways. Maybe it's just that I'm coming out of denial. At the very least, I find myself in an alligator wrestle with everything I think. Virgil is twinkling benignly nearby. By now, he's gotten used to my mega-effects and extravagant conceits. For the moment, he's just sticking his neck out, but not saying anything, and waiting calmly for my distorted nervous system to be restored to its normal functioning.