Saturday, May 30, 2009

Warding off Old Age

The stated purpose of Marsilio Ficino's "The Book of Life," which he finished writing in 1489 and dedicated to his patron, Lorenzo de' Medici, was to help people live long and in good health. Ficino's father, who was a famous doctor in Renaissance Florence, introduced his son to Cosimo de' Medici, hoping to win support for his son. Having decided that Ficino was more a "doctor of souls" than of bodies, Cosimo bought a set of Plato's manuscripts in Greek for Ficino to translate, and gave him a villa in the hills at Careggi. Ficino thus became the first translator of Plato's "Complete Works" into Latin, and the villa, which was modeled on Plato's Academy, became the central meeting place for Renaissance philosophers, artists, and statesmen of the Medici era.

When "The Book of Life" was published in 1489, it got a bad rap, especially from the Roman Catholic Church, whose clerics viewed it as a work of demonic magic and necromancy, in part because of Ficino's interest in astrology and in part because of its continuous referencing of Greek gods. I found myself unexpectedly reading this book as a synchronistic spin-off from a recent discovery that Tibetan dzi beads (see my previous two blogs), if worn as a protective amulet, can actually increase human longevity. It turns out that Marsilio Ficino"s "The Book of Life" is really a therapeutic treatise, dating from the Renaissance, aimed not just at curing the black bile of melancholy, but also a kind of manual of practices for enlivening the body in order to maintain a long and happy life.

Book Two of "The Book of Life" is entitled "How to Prolong Your Life," so I launched into it with some zest, being in the appropriate age zone for caring about such things. I confess I found many of its pronouncements outlandish, ranging from the intriguing to the grotesque. Some of the occult herbal concoctions, poultices, and cordials for warding off old age were pretty off-the-wall, often demanding ingredients I've never seen in any health food store, like ground-up gold.

My favorite poultice of all times requires using the inside of a fresh warm bread, mixed with mallow wine and mint powder, and applied to the stomach. Generally highly recommended by Ficino for eating are fresh cheeses, figs, dates, eggs, capers, sweet apples, jujubes, hyssop, coral, and betony (whatever that is}. However nothing surpasses pistachios for nourishment--and pine nuts, the latter supposedly even more nutritious if kept in warm water for about twelve hours before eating. (I'll probably continue to go for the less nutritious version, myself.)

To a modern, Western sensibility, there is something frankly decadent about perishing bodies fallen into a state of besiegement drinking blood in order to become rejuvenated. However, Ficino enthusiastically recommends it. Drinking fresh blood, he maintains, is good for the health, especially when it is young blood drunk by an old person. Listen up here, because the formula involves finding a willing and happy adolescent with good blood. An old person who has no other hope should then suck an ounce or two from a vein barely opened on the adolescent's left arm, in the manner that leeches do.

"Afterwards," explains Ficino, "they should take an equal amount of sugar and wine, and they should do the sucking, while hungry and thirsty, and with the moon rising." Wow! Has Anne Rice heard about this, or the "Twilight" movie folks?

For those in ordinary or medium physical condition, an alternative to sucking blood is to suck wine; Ficino recommends not taking white wine but red, making sure it is styptic and bitterish, and tempering it with iron-water or mastic-gum. It is really necessary, he says, to accept Bacchus's gift twice a day. Not only should you let your mouth frequently suck in its odor to refresh your spirit, but he also advises washing your hands with a little sweet-smelling wine to which you have added some cooked camomile, myrrh, and roses. It is also good to put some in your nostrils and on your temples. I can't help wondering what modern medics might make of such sequinned hygiene for warding off the swine flu?

"Zero tolerance," my alligator muse and sidekick Virgil pipes up, to immediately settle the matter. "You human beings may be far more complex than asparagus, because you live a large part of your lives in the realm of the symbolic sublime. Even so, I can almost hear those docs saying, using the immortal words of Groucho Marx: 'Go, and never darken our towels again.' "

Virgil's probably right. Off he goes again, this time hoping to get squiffy at the Villa Gallici, his favorite four-star hotel in Aix-en-Provence, where a maid spritzes the flagstones and rugs in the lobby with essence of lavender each morning to insure the appropriate ambience. I think maybe he's hoping to have a secret encounter with the ghost of Marsilio Ficino. Now that would be truly synchronistic, don't you think?

The man peering over his shoulder in the painting above is Ficino. The painting, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, is called "Zacharia in the Temple," a fresco found in Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

Monday, May 25, 2009

More Dramaturgy of Dzi

This weekend my friends from Boone, Hank & John, came for an overnight. On Saturday we went out with four more friends to a restaurant situated on the river in Radford, one where none of us had ever been before--a big, cedar-beamed building with a vaulted, cathedral ceiling, but no river view from inside. It's called River Company Restaurant and Brewery, and going there was a treat, with excellent food and margueritas!

Earlier in the afternoon we'd cruised around and ran into a vintage car show on the main street of Christiansburg, visited TJ Max and a couple of plant nurseries, and stopped for frozen mochas. All the peonies in the garden are out--it is their shining moment of the year. The rest of yesterday was about changing sheets and heat-pump filters, spraying weeds, eating watermelon, and watching Colin Powell on Face the Nation. I also read Time magazine's cover story about Michelle Obama. (I haven't got round to remembering the fallen soldiers yet.) But I did especially enjoy hearing Michelle talk about the family's dinnertime ritual of playing "roses and thorns." You go around the dinner table and everyone recounts in turn one wonderful and one awful thing that happened during their day.

Then I got this email from my friend Gilah Yelin Hirsch, an artist who lives in Venice Beach, CA. She was responding to my last blog, the one about me buying a sofa and our Tibetan friend Tsampa finding a precious dzi bead in Roanoke:

"I happen to know a good deal about dzi beads AND happen to have been on a life-quest from the first time I beheld and held a "9-eye" dzi bead in BodhGaya in 1986. The Tibetan that I was led to regarding the bead wore his under his arm. All Dzi beads are passed down from generation to generation and are very great treasures indeed. Just holding it was quite an experience. I subsequently bought a piece of a 3 eyed bead in Leh, Ledakh, and during my search became quite an authority on real vs all sorts of knock-offs. Yes, the tooth banging is very much part of the ritual. My last big Dzi bead event occurred in Katmandu (2006), when my flight out was cancelled and I had an extra two hours to roam. I happened in to a Chinese antique shop in a very old part of Kadu. The shop was stuffed more densely than a Dickensian novel, but there, behind the "counter", in a tiny cabinet loaded with treasures, almost invisible as it was mostly hidden by all sorts of stuff, I spied a necklace of dzi beads and other valuable stones. I tried not to seem excited and asked to see it. The vendor was astonished because unless you know what it is, it doesn't look like much. I asked what he wanted for it - 22 beads, each a unique and amazing piece. $100, 000, he said, non-plussed.

"By this time I had less than an hour to get back to the airport. In record time I bargained down to $800 ( I have never spent anything more than $100 on anything, ever!) but didn't have the cash, only credit cards. No one on that "street" had ever seen or heard of credit cards. Word of a huge sale was spreading rapidly in the hood, and someone at the tailor shop down the lane sent a kid to find his cousin who had a motorcycle who could bring the credit card to the bank and me to the airport. And so it went. The amazing necklace hangs on my wall - too heavy and way too juicy to wear. (Normally, those Tibetans who have ONE dzi bead wear it on a leather lace as a collar around the neck and never remove it.) I recently showed the necklace to Kuno (who has been headquartered here since April and will be until October), who also bit each bead. Although I think he sees it with prejudice as I bought it from a Chinese person - he is definitely impressed.

"I am still after a 9-eye. "Simiku", of my own. I have a 3-eye dzi, several 1-eyes, as well as a "sheep's eye" and a few with rigorous geometric designs, not quite eyes; also a couple of other patterned dzis. Everyone is a gem."

So, if I had my very own dzi bead at this point, I'd lie on the bed and play with it and think more about this warding off of old age, a topic whose geodesic forces are obviously of some historic interest to me. Since I don't have a dzi, however, I will play around instead with synchronicity--always my favorite way of moving full tilt ahead without really knowing where I'm going. I'm on the prowl for any hidden nestling of significances in my new puzzle box of dzis. Without even blinking, the universe leads me straight to another unread book on my bookshelf. It's called "The Book of Life," written by Marsilio Ficino, a Florentine doctor and philosopher who was born in 1433 near Florence. At a quick glance, it seems to be a kind of encyclopedic compendium of herbal concotions, healing poultices, and charms intended to help people steeped in the occult tradition of Renaissance Florence have long and healthy lives.

So stay tuned, and I will regale you with some of the more fantastical suggestions it offers for warding off old age in my next blog.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

All in An Afternoon's Shopping

Last week, while ex-VP and known-to-shoot Dick Cheney was out and about spreading the word and making the case that "torture saves lives," I was busy jumping over pieces of cardboard and buying a sofa. All my life I've wanted, but never managed to own, a really gorgeous, comfy sofa, stacked with buttery soft cushions. Now I have one, and it all came about because of the "butterfly effect," including the unlikely help of a Tibetan Buddhist healer, Tsampa Ngawang, who was born in 1948 in Chonkhor village near Muktinath, and comes from a long line of lamas and amchis (traditional Tibetan doctors) stretching back to the 7th century.

The butterfly first began flapping its wings when I was visiting my friend Kathy Pinkerton, whose house is filled with unusually comfortable furniture. I had casually mentioned my ongoing lust for a sofa, and she suggested we start by reorganizing all the furniture in my living room. EEK! I thought, frozen by the sheer ambition of it. No way, we can't do that! (I definitely suffer from the limitations imposed by realism.) My living room, as I saw it, was already full-up with stuff, and even though there was one chair I was dying to get rid of, its removal would hardly clear enough space for a bonafide sofa--one that would be perky, soft, and, as I said, replete with buttery cushions. Disclosure: I do already own a sofa of sorts, but it's pretty hard-nosed--a Mennonite day-bed from Mexico that is painted ochre. The distressed look. Beautiful, yes. Comfortable, no.

Hiding my panic, I tentatively asked Kathy what she would change if she could, figuring to put her on the spot. Without missing a beat, she proposed moving the life-sized statue of my Burmese bodhisatva (a young, "seed" buddha-in-training, also painted in ochre) that stands between two windows along the back wall, and suggested putting it instead on the brick platform that extends out from the brick fireplace. That way, by also removing the recliner chair I hate, and shifting the other chair I like to a different spot, a large area would open up for, just possibly, a second sofa.

A few days later my friend Jane Vance arrived at my house with her longtime mentor and friend from Nepal, amchi Tsampa Ngawang, whom we were going to take on a jaunt to Roanoke while he was visiting Blacksburg. Tsampa had brought me a gift from Nepal of seven copper offering bowls, and a copper vase, decorated with dragon arms and bright green stones. I'd put crepe paper flowers in the copper vase--a small bouquet of cobalt violet roses, bought in a gas station convenience store for five dollars, that luckily I thought, at the time, were irresistible when I saw them. I had also placed seven rose-shaped candles in the offering bowls, that exactly matched the cobalt violet of the flowers. It was all drop-dead beautiful, I thought, violet being a perfect foil for the aspiring buddha's flowing, jewel-encrusted, ochre robe. Tsampa and Jane enthusiastically agreed.

When I told them about Kathy's idea to move the sculpture to the fireplace ledge, Tsampa immediately said, "Buddha better up high, look up at him. More like shrine." "Let's do it," said Jane. The two of them lifted the statue from its longtime resting place of eighteen years, and after a few moments of admiring the new position, we left for Roanoke.

After lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant, of sauteed greens and beer, we wandered into Reid's, an upscale furniture store around the corner. At first look, there wasn't a single sofa there I liked, until the sales lady suggested we take a stroll to the warehouse next door. There, like a star somehow fallen out of the solar system, the perfect sofa sat waiting, hushed and still, in the center of the room. It was a glowing thing of beauty, covered in velvet, with a pattern of aubergine and ochre vine leavest set on a background of sage green. As it turned out, the sofa was able, despite much anxiety-in-waiting, to make it through my double front doors.

But I wasn't the only one who found a treasure that day. We took Tsampa to my favorite antique store with its own printing press, right next to the new Taubman Museum. (We had also planned on going to the museum, but it was Monday, and so it was closed.) Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tsampa at one point fingering a necklace made by a local craft artist. It had one large, sausage-shaped, ruddy bead, framed by a beaten-copper, hand-made, spiral curlicue. The bead was on a leather thong. Tsampa kept running his fingers over the bead, and once he even banged it against his tooth. I imagined he was thinking about buying it as a gift for his wife, who was back in Nepal. The price was not cheap. Tsampa bargained, got twenty dollars knocked off the price, and bought the necklace.

Afterwards we went to a Mexican restaurant and over lime-green margueritas and quesadillas, I learned that Tsampa had bought the necklace for himself. He believed the bead was an authentic dzi bead, which, he explained, in his country, was "worth maybe one thousand dollar." It could significantly lower blood pressure and provide longevity to the wearer. Tsampa looked like the cat that had swallowed the canary as he played with and studied his new necklace--clearly every bit as excited by the dzi bead as I was by my sofa. Later Jane, who seemed to know all about dzi beads, explained that in Tibet's mystery medicine books, dzi beads are described as healing illnesses, particularly blood-related diseases and protecting a person from ill-willed enemies and from their evil curses. Dzi beads have been around for 2000 to 2500 years. The ancient and pure dzi beads of Tibet are extremely precious and rare. Tsampa told us that if he confirmed, once back in Nepal, that the bead was indeed genuine, he would wear it for the rest of his life.

To learn more about the intriguing artistic collaboration between Tsampa and his friend Jane, please check out her website at The photo of Tsampa above is by Sherrie Austin.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Collapse Soup

Anyone following my blog on a regular basis will know that I am a relentless dabbler in the literature of civilizational collapse. I seem drawn to reading this stuff as a moth to flame, ricocheting back and forth like a billiard ball between the recondite pronouncements of Timothy Geithner (that we'll get through this and that none of the biggest banks are at risk for insolvency) and my own fitful but persistent inner panic that says no, dear, we won't.

This pessimistic side is reinforced every time I read another doom-writer like Derrick Jensen or James Howard Kunstler, and, more recently, Dimitry Orlov, whose book "Reinventing Collapse" I have just finished. The problem is, I tend to believe both sides, knowing of course that they can't both be right, since they avow diametrically opposite things. The Obama-Geithner axis projects a slow but inevitable recovery; by contrast, here is some quintessential Orlov:

"Let us not even try to imagine that this will all just blow over. Make no mistake about it: this soup will be served, and it will not be tasty."

The soup in question is "collapse soup," whose ingredients must be present for a modern, military-industrial superpower to collapse. The required ingredients are: a severe and worsening trade deficit; a runaway military budget; and ballooning foreign debt. Apply heat to this mix, which can be supplied by a humiliating military defeat or a looming catastrophe that generates huge amounts of fear (provided in the instance of Russia by the war in Afghanistan, and by the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl). Stir the pot, and you will get a tasty order, not of Chinese wonton, but of Dimitry Orlov's collapse soup.

Orlov, who was born and grew up in Leningrad, has lived in the U.S. ever since the mid-1970s, but he returned to Russia during the late 1980s for several extended visits, in order to study various stages of the Soviet collapse. As an experienced observer of the phenomenon of collapse, he was hoping to understand what happens when a modern economy crashes, and the complex society it supports disintegrates. The collapse of the U.S., he claims, may seem as unlikely now (his book, published last year, was written before the extreme downturn in the economy) as the demise of the Soviet Union appeared to be in l988, but the warning signs read loud and clear.

In the end, Russia was able to bounce back because of its rich reserves of oil and natural gas, which is not true of the U.S. The Soviet Union did not need to import energy, whereas oil production in the U.S. peaked in 1970 and has been declining ever since. Its economy was never based on runaway consumerism, nor on huge credit debt, as is ours. American car-based culture, which has to import three-quarters of its oil, is destined to find itself without enough energy to keep its economy functioning. In truth, as the world's largest debtor nation, the U.S. is already technically bankrupt. I read this, I cringe, and know that it is true.

Listening to Geithner and Obama, however, you get a rather different impression. They assure us that by saving the banks and greening the economy, disaster can be averted. The goddess of technology will provide clean energy to galvanize another century of economic recovery. Orlov, however, mocks the prospect of biofuels as a lethal exercise in futility; it amounts to burning one's food to feed the car addiction and destroying what is left of topsoil in order to continue driving. "Welcome to the sideshow at the end of the universe," he writes. These kinds of solutions are nothing less than boondoggles--they result in more severe problems than those they attempt to solve. I must say I felt the full impact of this comment when I caught the final minutes of a documentary on PBS the other week, about the prospect of mining lithium on the high steppes of Bolivia--lithium being the crucial component for battery-driven electric cars. This single area in Bolivia seems to contain the world's supply of lithium, and corporations are already in a bidding war for mining rights. Once we've destroyed another remote region of the earth with our tragic ambitions, and the lithium disappears, then what?

Orlov suggests that a better alternative would be to reduce energy consumption by progressively shutting down all non-vital parts of the economy, and redistributing our limited resources to uniformly provide for the welfare of the entire population. But he isn't holding his breath waiting for this to happen. "Since such a revolution is not politically possible, the only remaining alternative is economic and political collapse."

God knows these are not good days to be in the auto business. The entire industry seems to be folding its tent and vanishing in front of our very eyes. So it was synchronicity at work again when somebody alerted me this week to the work of a design student at the University of Central Lancashire in England named Sara Watson. Watson was given a Skoda Fabia car by a local recycling firm; she then spray painted its surface so the car blends in with the building and parking lot of her studio (as in the photo above). Viewed from exactly the right angle, the entire car magically disappears. The procedure took the artist about three weeks to accomplish, and the art work is being used as advertising for the local recycling firm that donated it.

I'm always happy when art has the last word. But this time, the last word has to go to Orlov, who on page 82 of "Reinventing Collapse" has this to say about my hapless subject for the past month: plastic debris: "The last act in the American consumerist tragedy will end with the now naked consumer standing on top of a giant mound of plastic trash. At the end of an economy where everything is disposable stands the disposable consumer. But once the consumer is disposed of, who will be left to take him out with the trash?" (Orlov's blog can be found at