Friday, December 2, 2011

Meditation -- simple but deep

The Miracle of MindfulnessThe Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an almost indispensable guide toward establishing an understood meditation practice. Why, how and what: that is, why meditation, how to meditate, and what is meditation, actually. No nonsense, no hoo-ha, no mystification: this is a book my son uses In PRISON to help prisoners discover how they can avoid despair, rage, bitterness, and actually find compassion for themselves and others.

An affectionate title many of his students use to refer to Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced "thick not hawn") is "Thay," a Vietnamese term for teacher or respected teacher. Like calling someone "Maestro" or "Rabbi" or "Pastor."  Some people will say that "Thay" caters too much to Western middle-class desires for self-help and self-actualization and self-ish personal happiness, but I say, okay, start there if that's where people are. And not only the middle-class craves help and personal development. It's just that the middle class generally has the time and the means to articulate it for themselves and "buy in" to retreats and books and DVDs and CDs. But youth at risk and people on the edge need it just as much if not more.

Many of Thay's books are at least accessible and straightforward. I myself have taken transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings and have formally "Taken Refuge" in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
And I started with this, and with his book called simply Anger.  Almost nine years later and I continue to aspire to the path of Buddhism.  A great spiritual teacher, Bo Lozoff, wrote a touching book on practice called Deep and Simple, and in truth that is the spiritual path, just that deep and just that simple: stay aware and open your heart.  Breathe: you are alive.

This book is a great introduction and can pay off in almost instant if gradual changes.

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Nebraska and Transcanada's XL Pipeline Plans

A follow-up to my report of hearings before the Natural Resources Committee of the Nebraska legislature, with good news and bad news.

Good News!:
On November 7, the committee began hearings on several bills that would in the future regulate large pipelines.  Past efforts have been defeated and is it fair to say that Transcanada's serious lobbying and palsy-walsy glad-to-meetcha efforts might have been instrumental in that?  Perchance?  At any rate, the special session of the legislature had been called only days or weeks before--again, due to pressure but this pressure on the governor came from the people of Nebraska.   Go, Big Red!  Because the issue had been raised in the past, there were several bills ready to consider.  Senator Annette DuBas (pronounced  "doo-BOSS") submitted LB1, which had been carefully vetted for constitutional/legal issues, and stood a good chance of being effective, but a poor chance of getting out of committee, since five of the eight members are generally disinclined toward the long view, and usually vote for the quick bucks.  Natural Resources Committee, yes.  Another was ideal but had about a wiener dog's chance in an altercation with a dobermann.  (Senator Haar's bill, which deal with the whole issue forthrightly and truthfully and thoroughly.)  Another bill was a hastily written retaliation on the governor for having called the special session: it assigned the governor and a special panel to regulate pipelines in the future.  Giving the guv the old hotfoot,  it seems.

Despite everything, the committee agreed to pass LB1 on to the legislature for debate, four of the opposition gang agreeing and one (Senator Smith) just flat out refusing to go along with the idea.

Meanwhile, Obama announced his decision to send the federal permit application back for examination of conflict of interest.  His stance said he would make the final decision personally, and that Transcanada should "consider an alternate route."  The President acknowledged that he understood the concerns of Nebraskans when he said job creation should never be at the expense of the health and future of tomorrow's families.

So BOLD Nebraskans (our anti-pipeline loose alliance) took up the charge of appearing and lobbying for the legislative debate the following Monday, November 14.  Imagine everyone's surprise when the speaker of the house announced that he had made contact with Transcanada, and THEY AGREED TO REROUTE THE PIPELINE 'OUT OF' THE SANDHILLS!!    Elation and jubilation.  Whoops:  well, they "agreed" to move it from the Ogallala Formation in the sandhills which is the area in which the most danger would be posed to the High Plains Aquifer.  That's not quite "out of the sandhills."  AND Speaker Michael Flood announced that part of "the deal" would be an offer by Nebraska to pay TWO MILLION dollars of anticipated costs of a new Environmental Impact Statement. 

I personally would have voted against this deal were I a senator.  I think they were going to have to move it
anyway because of the feds (and here I assume they've looked at the GOP Candidate Sideshow and decided Obama does have a pretty good reelection chance), and they knew it.  What better move than to acquiesce and do the thing they had flat out refused to consider only a month or two earlier in meetings with key state senators!!

And, moreover, Senator Dubas's bill passed.  Amended and lashed, no doubt.  But the representative from my district, Sen Karpisek, had already expressed the sentiments of most of us--i.e., in favor of regulation. Transcanada is "exempt" from this bill, however.  Another little piece of candy for the corporates!

But good work:  the point-person for BOLD Nebraska is Jane Kleeb, and she has my total gratitude and admiration.  Especially now that I've seen the level of hatred, disrespect and contempt displayed publicly by at least one of the representatives to Nebraska's unique unicameral.  I'm thinking of moving to his district so I can campaign against him.

Nebraska and Transcanada Keystone XL Pipeline plans

November 9, 2011

Amazing what a little group of people can do.

Here in Nebraska we (and not some "special interests" environmental group, as the conservatives like to call us), we ordinary citizens have put up a valiant struggle to prevent Transcanada Corporation from ploughing right through our state without more than the resistance of a few extraordinarily heroic individual farmers and ranchers who have refused to be bullied into signing away easements with this dirty oil-carrying giant in the face of harassment and threats.

Put yourself in this position:  you are a rancher, for instance, and one day you get notice that Transcanada needs to come onto your ranch to survey for a pipeline that's "coming through."  You try to get more information; it's a maze.  You contact your state representative--what's going on?  Many of them don't answer.  There's no state permit, no official state regulations, no laws even about whether or not a foreign corporation has the right to force you to lie down and roll over.

So you tentatively say no.  And over the next 3 years you are continually phoned, contacted, mailed, by different "land agents" purporting to represent Transcanada.  Some of them say the pipeline has passed the only requirement--an Environmental Impact Statement!  You actually get a letter giving you 30 days to sign an easement agreement or they will begin Easement Condemnation processes against you.  Your legislator says, "See an attorney."  Attorneys cost money.  All this costs time and energy.  Ranching and farming in Nebraska is sometimes a time-draining and expensive proposition. 

Finally you find out where this "pipeline" is coming from, and see that a 36" diameter pipe is to come through 8 miles of your sandhills pastures, pastures of native prairie because that's what holds these sand-dune soils in place.  You picture what such construction will mean, and what it will do to even the roads with their own tentative purchase.  One rancher testified that the pipeline would mean taking 8 miles of pasture out of production--for maybe 20 years!!  Otherwise, cattle herds grazing on the disturbed soil would aggravate erosion, and the line was supposed to go on a NW-SE diagonal:  just what the prevailing winter winds do.
Bad plan.  But who's going to ask a mere rancher?  Who's going to listen?  Who's going to answer such a rancher?

I heard one rancher give this solid testimony on Monday, Nov. 7, at a hearing of Nebraska's Natural Resources Committee.  With four of the most sneering and hostile state legislators I can imagine in my wildests dreams presiding.

A State Senator Carlson afterwards dragged the rancher through a catechism of questions:  Are you an environmentalist?  Are you against fossil fuels?  Do you believe in Global Warming?  In other words, Sen. Carlson implied, the rancher was just pretending to worry about his ranch, his business, his relationship with a huge and hostile foreign company, and the soil and prairie:  he was probably masking his true sinister identity as a rabble-rousing special-interest damned Environmentalist. The attitude made it clear  that unless you answer all those questions right, you're not a patriot, damn you! 

I was shocked at this insolent treatment of a Nebraskan who had taken time off from his work, gone to the trouble and expense of coming for the whole day to Lincoln, had braved the bristling halls and offices of "important people" and dared to report his position, his analysis, his story.  I knew there were members of the committee that usually oppose anything like conservation and environmental concerns.  Now I think  I saw enough to convince me that for at least three of them "natural resources" means "things to be converted into cold cash for you and me and our friends," although I never thought I'd see such open contempt and disrespect in a public setting.

Leonard's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, by Stephen Jan Gould, a review.

Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural HistoryLeonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Stephen Jay Gould, eminent evolutionary scientist and prolific writer, died in May of 2002, some of his previous forecasts--about "the end" or "the penultimate reflections," or "before the millennium calls a halt"--seemed to be eerie foreshadowings of the virulent cancer which killed him. He had, however, long planned to end his columns for Natural History magazine, and the books that collected them, with the January 1 issue of 2001, the date he would celebrate as the first day of the new century. I think it rounded out to an even 300 successive issues for which he delivered, on time and on the dime, some very polished and often profound pieces of sophisticated science writing for the public.

In Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms(1998), Gould presents twenty-one essays which span his unique mix of interests in science, society, art and literature and history. Gould is first and foremost an evolutionary biologist and paleontologist, but he is also a science historian. The history of science, studied in its cultural contexts, is a sobering study of how much we are all—scientists included--shaped by mostly unconscious cultural expectations. We "think" that what we "think" is the result of "thought and observation," whereas the extent to which our beliefs are shaped by unthinking prejudices should humble us all.

I am reading all of Gould's books this year (or as long as it takes), having read fifteen thus far of some twenty-six, and I am reading them in roughly chronological order. One of the problems with such a diachronic, or longitudinal, study is not knowing the changes in context, in social politics, and philosophy, over the twenty-one years from 1977 to 1998. Nor do I know how much has changed since then, as I write now in late 2011. Moreover, I am not a scientist, only one of his interested general public. I may not fully grasp the innuendos of a given essay, what the topical debate was at the time he wrote it, if he changed his mind later, or how widely accepted his beliefs were or are. To claim to represent Gould's views on any subject, then, is rather like the common fallacy of claiming that Shakespeare believed, because he wrote it, that "there's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Because I do know Shakespeare, and the background and context, I know that, far from believing that, he saw it as a moral equivocation leading to human chaos. He gave those lines to someone he considered to have very wrong values: Iago, in Othello, to be precise Therefore, I think to be safe I'll just sketch a few of Gould's essays here, hoping to entice readers to pick up a few books by this deep, graceful, humorous and above all ethical philosopher of science.

One of the biographical sketches that caught my attention was a story of Leonardo DaVinci's notebooks on natural history. Yes, the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper, yes, his war machines, his irrigation ideas, but also his novel observations of such preconditions to establishment of contemporary geology as the temporal and historical nature of horizontal earth strata, the differentiation in size of riverine deposits from source to mouth, the presence of fossils and emphatic argument that they are remains of organisms, and their deposition at different times---and many more "first" analyses. Now look at the Mona Lisa again in its entirety and notice even her figure and hair as extended figuration of the processes of "living nature" in the background.

On the other hand, Gould argues, DaVinci is not the original "Yankee at Camelot," nor is he a Space Alien. His observations, in fact, reveal the timeliness of certain early debates. DaVinci died in 1519, a time of great interest and curiosity. The Renaissance did not subscribe to a "flat earth" mythology; that it did was first suggested in the 1800's, perhaps as a way to claim that modernity had advanced!

There are many curious and provocative gems in this book: The origin of Aquariums and how they changed the graphic representation of marine environments. The controversy over Linnaeus's terms and illustrations for the clam, which presented it as basically a living female genital (which seems to reveal deep mental disturbances in the consciousness of the all-male science fraternity in the "Enlightenment").

The theory of evolution proposed as one of "increasing cephalization"—i.e., having more and more "head-room" (by which theory a child is more evolved than an adult) and, most impressively, the gyrations the theorist went through to try to classify data so that it would seem to support the theory.

Then there is a fascinating Art History essay on paleolithic cave art and various theories about its chronology and function. French structuralist theory, as alluring as it once looked, makes what now seem artificial and baseless suggestions of "function and meaning" here. Structuralism looks for opposing values, and decides to make male-female the axis for differentiation, and then decides cow-like animals are female and horse-like animals are male. Am I too much the sarcastic feminist if I say, "Well, of course!"?

The more interesting aspect of the theories, however, relates to ideas about chronology. I am a scholar of art history as it pertains to performance and literary art, and I am well aware of the "Whiggish" and Positivist interpretation of all art history according to modernist superstitions about progress in civilizations. Such interpretations—i.e., that the later is better, or vice versa--underlie methods for estimating chronology by determining, on no particular concrete scale, what is "better." Whatever features the better art has are supposed superior, advanced, progressed, developed; i.e., later in time. (With the exception, of course, of periods of "decadence," which complicate the issue.) But would the new be better if you didn't already know it was new?

Gould cleverly traces this double-bind in dating cave art as theorists looked for "an internal criterion that could order this earliest art into a chronological sequence." They settled, predictably on "the venerable technique of art historians of later times—the analysis of styles." Gould argues that if we had only Michaelangelo's The Last Judgment and Picasso's Guernica, and did not already know that Picasso was several centuries later than Michaelangelo, and knew nothing of the rest of art history in Europe from the 1500s to the 1900s, the two pieces of art could not be ordered in time. The so-called "analysis of styles" would be reduced to mere statements of differences. Neither painting could objectively be called better or worse, earlier or later.

In 1986, cave-art theory summed up: "From the earliest images onward one has the impression of being in the presence of a system refined by time" representing "15,000 years of apprenticeship followed by 8,000 years of academicism"(Ruspoli). Gould raises his familiar complaint about social positivism, by reminding us that even Darwinian evolution "is not a theory of progress." In fact, any "progressivist paradigm for the history of art" is based on the fact that "it just 'feels right' to us that the very earliest art should be primitive. Older in time should mean more rudimentary in mental accomplishment." The corollary, of course, is that closer to our time, in fact in our time precisely, should mean more (one of the magic words) "advanced."

Imagine the chagrin when carbon-dating and other newer techniques of science were able to determine that, in fact, the paintings denoted "earlier" in this theory were no older, or newer, than others. Both "kinds" of paintings supposedly discerned by the art historians (remember, "apprenticeship" and then "academicism") were equally distributed throughout time. There was no such development or progress or progressive change.

We are in our times accustomed to see everything, it seems, change at near-light-speed rates. We live immersed in a bath of public relations (both blatant commercials and more subtle spin doctors for psychology, medicine, philosophy, health, etc.) which continuously chime, "The Newest! The Latest! The Best!" It is therefore deeply engrained in us that progress is inevitable and normal, and that we, each younger generation even, is better, is the "coming thing," is "the beginning of the new." Maybe we would be wiser to realize what Buddha observed 600 years before Common Era time: All is impermanent. Not necessarily better or worse; always changing. I'm sure there is an Old Testament prophet who says something similar. Maybe "there is nothing new under the sun."

At least we have the writings of Stephen Jay Gould who reminds us again and again that we are not the apex of creation, neither as a civilization nor as homo sapiens, and nudges us toward being content with the beauty of differentiation and diversity, always with vivid examples and always, or almost always, with patience and wit.

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Angle of ReposeAngle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A story that starts with a love between two intellectual young American women in the 1850s has me halfway won already. Susan and Augusts are artistic young women in the East and then Thomas comes along to make it an artistic and literary threesome until Thomas proposes to Augusta. Somewhat suddenly Susan resolves to marry Oliver Ward, someone she doesn't know very well, an engineer "in the west." How a genteel Quaker and professional illustrator (of Longfellow & other poets at first) adapts to the crudeness and heartache following her husband from mining sites in such frontier areas as Leadville (CO), Michoacan and Idaho to finally reach an "angle of repose" in Grass Valley (CA) for the last 50 years of her life is the question that is asked by her invalid grandson, who himself is forced into an angle—whether of repose or not is part of the question—an angle of reclined existence at least, strapped in a wheelchair because of a serious bone disease and fighting with his adult son to avoid being placed "in a home."

Stegner writes of the conquest of the west in all its brutality (except for the genocide of the native American nations), its protocapitalist exploitation of the land and the people alike. Susan's husband Oliver fails, or is fired for principle, or is pushed aside in place after place. Three children are born as they trek from place to place, and as her career grows through publication of stories from the west published in major magazines in the east. (She is based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote.)

The story is fragmented, fractured and refracted through various materials and from different perspectives as contemporary research finds letters, newspaper clippings and obituaries, reads her stories and studies drawings and portraits. It is said that Stegner first became successful as a novelist when he developed the device of telling a story about the American west through a contemporary man with his own eccentricities and personality. The narrator in this story, however, Lyman Ward, retired professor, serves that role, but I found him simply self-important and selfishly judgmental---my reaction representing perhaps a postmodern and feminist insight into the very fifties-like stand-in for the author, similar to the way the "narrators" of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and John Updike became to many women of the late twentieth-century included in what David Foster Wallace called the "Great Male Narcissists." A little overmuch of that flavor here.

Stegner is known as one of the greatest American writers about "the west," and was notably an environmentalist before that word came into vogue, and an expert biographer of John Wesley Powell, the first explorer and government scientist to begin agitation for the conservation of water in the west. Stegner wrote all of his books in a remarkable "personal literary partnership" with Mary Stuart Page, his wife of 59 years (per Arthur Schlesinger Jr. tribute). He worked on passage of the Wilderness Act, served on the board of the Sierra Club, and helped prevent dams at Dinosaur National Monument in CO. Angle of Repose was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Although I think it's merely pretty good as literature, as a window into the true story of "how the west was won," and an intellectual woman's struggle to find a place in that conquest, I recommend it. It's an easy read except for the personality of the narrator perhaps.

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