Archive for July, 2011

Everyone has an opinion or at least something to say about art. While some art has been blamed for inducing drowsiness, the slightest possibility of performing a tirade against velvet paintings has been known to bring back the dead. (Shouldn’t something that stirs such rich emotion be considered art? Surely a good idea expressed on any surface is more captivating than yet more rusty stuff celebrated on canvas.) Art is, of course, anything we want it to be; baseball, eating, painting (walls, canvases, velvet undies), even Hollywood movies.

One way or another art is part of everything from fart to cream cheese so conversationally it is completely unavoidable. The resulting exchanges have probably contributed more to gurning contests than the English, more to publishing than reason and more to social discernment than Gucci. Serious discussions about art are to people what sniffing is to dogs; it establishes rank and order (I confirmed this with my dog) so it is incredibly important to know what to like and dislike based on the group in which membership is crucial. Expressing a poorly researched opinion is to be beastly in proper circles.

I admit to having difficulty with the bureaucracy of art; it should be inclusive, not exclusive. Pianists, painters, pitchers, etcetera calling themselves artists should strive for a second opinion, if for no other reason than appearances. It’s like referring to yourself as a great lover, even if true it sounds better coming from someone else. Art is a shared experience akin to using a phone; for it to be really good there must be someone else involved. (If an artist paints a canvas in the woods and no one else sees it…you get the picture.) Expression, whether by writing, singing or sketching on the other hand can most often best be enjoyed alone. This, I suppose, is analogous to talking to yourself or talking to yourself on the phone.

Art in the western world defines us more than anything else. It starts with a thought usually, progresses to a desire to have that thought understood by others, builds to a concept the poet, plate spinner or whomever envisions as appropriate for the perfect statement describing the new but equally timeless insight and then the thoughtful person executes it. From there it goes to phase two, the presentation stage where the intentionally subjective interpretation is met with objective opinions (if objective opinion is not an oxymoron it should be) based on learned biases of well-healed professionals…and potentially a second execution. If it survives trial by pomp it becomes a full-blown, valuable (or in cases of extreme success invaluable) commodity. When a gallery owner says “words can’t capture it” he’s telling you more money than you have can.

Art (the proper stuff), like tax dollars and wine is controlled by bureaucrats; people we have come to trust because they tell us to. Interesting art, the bits that still speak to life about life in a way only unrepentant and beguiling innocence can, is created everyday. It is dependably condemned by those who have found themselves and their friends utterly fascinating since passing puberty in high school.

Don’t let the immodest charades and tiresome soliloquies of purchased opinion ruin your pleasure; it is hollowness that makes them resonate. Choose what you like, enjoy it with a nice glass of homemade beer. Take a walk on the wild side, express yourself with all the strings, brass, brushes, pens and emotion you can muster; chances are no one will ever find out.

Throughout the world death is determined in different ways; some places it’s a stopped heart, others loss of brain activity, for many a prolonged lack of movement will suffice. In the world of art you’re dead when you can no longer mount impassioned spittle-flying attacks on unqualified offerings. Harsh criticism it seems is imperative to the bitter end for claiming one’s rightful place in the critical mass.

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Everyday we are angered to find ourselves in slow moving traffic in our high speed horseless carriages sitting next to drivers we wouldn’t trust to operate a vacuum cleaner in a large room with a small fireplace. Why? Would we rather be driven completely mad than suffer the stigma of using high-speed public transportation? Have we already been driven completely mad?

We pay out hard-earned dollars, find our way to airports to be shuffled about like ornery meat, then stuffed into very small spaces on airplanes just to start a vacation filed away with thousands of others on a cruise ship. We do all this without a concern in the world about the debilitating crowding…but travel on a more spacious commuter train…no,no,no, too crowded.

We buy vegetables from half way around the world, cars from other continents, meat from other hemispheres, fish caught off our shores and flown back to us in packaging we used to make without a worry in the world about any of it making sense to our future.

Petroleum-fired automobiles are anachronistic, plane travel has become diabolical and shipping everything from everywhere else serves only multinationals at great cost to the employed as well as creating much of the unemployment and urban decay. Economic collapse isn’t being done to us, we vote for it with every penny pinching purchase. We need to sober up, the party is over. It’s obvious, oil is irresponsibly cheap due in large part to being subsidized by our tax dollars. It is enabling captains of industry to ship our jobs to other continents and hemispheres while bringing finished goods back to us; catering to their addiction to greed in the process. Cheap oil is good for the economy but it is hell on wheels for people. If fuel prices were increased exponentially we would go back to buying from our neighbors and them from us. There would definitely be a difficult adjustment but considering the options would that really be so bad? We could no longer afford to save a couple of bucks made possible through the use of poorly-treated, over-worked children on distant shores, the shipping would make it too expensive. (We are so tolerant of such despicable treatment of children we actually reward it! Who have we become? How would we feel if our children were treated like that? Keep going and they soon will be.)

Buying locally allows for personal consideration. If you wanted a special bread made with flour from the local mill or a variation on the regular Nicaraguan fair trade coffee roast you could just ask at the local shop. That would be nice wouldn’t it? We could get seafood from the Gulf again as oil production would be reduced, eventually allowing life to return.

Low oil prices are being used to benefit global corporations by taking advantage of appalling conditions and dreadful wages for millions of people spread over the entire planet – and all of this while costing us our jobs. We are not only enslaving others, we are nickel and diming our children into the same inescapable situation. Refugees aren’t trying to come here to be us they are trying to escape abhorrent conditions. If we could help farmers and labourers escape exceedingly difficult conditions in their homeland they could have homes and communities there that would be as attractive to them as ours were to us. We can do it by paying them directly and fairly for things we cannot produce. We just have to treat people as we would have them treat us when they have all the wealth and we have all the hardship. It’s hardly a new idea and yet if we don’t act, its time will come.

Our society…our children are going to pay a large and long term ethical and financial premium for us getting cheap prices. And yet we don’t even seem to care.

Just when did we go off the rails?

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Life Support

It is not very often everyone is given an opportunity to agree on something but fair trade gives us just that. It’s free enterprise, co-operative, environmentally responsible, fair and a model to be emulated everywhere; who could question the value of such an incentive?

A few years ago my income was all but eliminated. My return to the community meant it was time for an expenditure review. After considering our monthly payments to various non-profit organizations we decided although we no longer had money, I had an abundance of time and could certainly dedicate some of it to worthy causes. We were surprised to discover not one of the charities we supported actually needed our help in any capacity but we were repeatedly assured they were in serious need of our money. I, of course, had time to investigate this seeming enigma. It quickly became obvious the charities we were supporting had far less need of money than we did. They had sweet digs in neighborhoods where we could no longer afford coffee and their financial statements described organizations deeply dedicated to issues other than we expected. We had been mistaken all those years.

We still wanted to do our part so we turned to fair trade and redoubled our efforts to buy locally; no more excuses. We switched completely and now our diet is better, our involvement in food preparation is a source of pleasure and our cooking hobby has simply disappeared into our daily routine. Work has increased in reward and quantity but financial cost has been substantially reduced (by measurement). More satisfying is that we support workers and their communities directly. No more depriving farmers, fishers and others of proper reward for their labour by supporting industrial food giants. No more appeasing our guilt by having a little of what we contribute trickle through the non-profit industry. As we buy responsibly produced food (organic for the most part) there is reduced chemical risk to producers, their neighbors, the environment, wildlife and a potential for reduced demand on healthcare systems (due to decreased use of carcinogens) where applicable.  That means we contribute directly and more completely to the same causes we thought we were supporting in the first place. Communities tend to be better stewards of their land and future while corporate accountants are better at protecting the bottom line. People thrive directly and more equitably from their own contribution; they are more readily able to remain on their land to build their country from within and that seems like a recipe for happiness. Who knows, sustaining genuine happiness may just be the best healthcare plan in the world.

So thanks to a felicitous jolt by way of lost income quite some time ago we lead more fulfilled lives by simply avoiding big business when possible – no well-marketed but worthless products, no non-profit feel-good contributions. We continue to support local charities where volunteers get nothing more than smiles and nothing less than the comfort of knowing they are making a positive difference.

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Humour Me

As fast food was replacing real food for lunch (dinner in extreme cases) comedy was replacing humour. Sitcoms gained popularity at the expense of conversation. Stand-up comedians delivering carefully crafted works of entertainment research became an outlet for our pent-up indifference. As we adjusted favorably to food, intentionally and repetitiously prepared to be void of any individuality we reacted with mocking indignation to canned laughter and quietly succumbed to canned scripts. The industry even had the temerity to use the term ‘comedy routines’ borrowed I presume from the more common term ‘accounting routines’. Comedy was packaged, branded and sold as any other commodity. We knew what was funny, it had been funny for decades. Relentless marketing helped us pick our favourite brands. We moved without a whimper from social humour to the serious business of comedy. Upgrading characters in the routines gave them freshness like steam to a stale roll but we knew when to laugh even before the track brought us the commercial recording of merriment. We had seen it all before, whether sitcoms or stand-ups we knew what to expect. If it wasn’t formula, it wasn’t funny. If we had a moment of enthusiasm couched in our silence we tried to remember the first time we heard the bit.

Sadly, not much has changed in the visor-capped world of formula living – not the writing or the food – with the exception of delivery and territory of influence. Fast food is faster and we can now watch sitcoms on demand in HD through our computers. Everything from home cooking to plays, fiction to paintings now has its amateur but dedicated cavalry of the creative identifying outliers for their misguided and innocent efforts. For those who like to put it out there, there are social sites where anyone can present their virtual self to a virtual audience; the ‘to and fro’ of socializing is reduced to a more manageable ‘to’ in the world of electronic make-believe. (The outcome is often uncomfortable photographs and banter emulating celebrity photographs and banter.) Intercourse is restricted to animated conversations controlled and contrived through the magic of electronics. Spontaneity is suppressed and, as always, there are those relentless ads. Relationships are made and broken instantly with the click of a mouse. Such instant bonds make it so easy to change ‘friends’ all thoughts of questioning oneself are vanquished with a click.

There is nothing in the electronic domain that can replace conversation for speed, humour and irrepressible honesty. Live-in-the-flesh conversation is dynamic, immediate, unmanageable, unpredictable and makes it damned difficult for a fifty-five year old credit card cowboy to present himself as a thirty-two year old svelte philanthropist. It is the honesty and unpredictability that makes good humour happen; there is no recording to guard against and no place to hide. Everyone is socially naked and has a gentle sense of the danger and excitement that creates. Little windows of smiling faces staring back at their own little windows of smiling faces just doesn’t generate the real, natural, organic relationships happening everyday around the more lucid world of locally owned and operated pubs.

Everyone owes it to themselves to be completely themselves at least once a week by simply engaging in a conversation in a public place. Who knows, it may lead to expanded horizons; meeting people who are really enjoyable not for being you but for being them. On occasion one may even glimpse original humour and feel the weight of being alone lifted; if only momentarily.

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Think about it.

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My Cousin Rover

It’s an awful thought. Every grain of the physical me has been, at various times, through the entire life cycle; the whole palaver. That, I hasten to say, was before it came together under my management. I still regularly add new building material and discharge old bits but I am very selective, at least for the most part. Not a fussy eater you understand, just aware. My entire body, a pussycat by times, a pack of mad dogs at others has previously been working parts of a wild creature or two, ergo wild creature dung.

During my tenure I am to direct a proportionately allocated and ever changing segment of biomass in a coherent and hopefully constructive manner. That seems easy enough until realizing, in an effort to avoid being carried off or pissed off, I have probably slapped or otherwise transformed more biomass from bug to biological who-knows-what than I was granted dominion over in my gravity-hugging form. It appears my obligation may be more complicated than ensuring all my bits are in the right place and not off irritating the neighbors. It seems I can’t manage my charge adequately without reaching out to those around me.

We aren’t just in touch with others, we are part of the same continuum as others. We are inextricably part of the sea of life; intermingling with mosquitoes, snakes, larvae and yes, Rover. Biologically we are like a slow moving river – an Everglades of life-sustaining molecules. What was chicken yesterday is today me. What was black fly last week became chicken before moving on to me. Life simply won’t behave according to our definitions of us and them. Everything is so intertwined enemies and allies are of the same wetware. Eradicating what we deem to be bad inevitably comes with a cost to the good.

So what’s new?

Nothing, that’s the point. Life, at least physically, isn’t so much a process of creating as re-arranging. It’s cyclical, not linear. Everything is constantly under new management – fish today, bear tomorrow. Try as we might we can’t scrub life off without making a complete botch of things. Nature is an extraordinarily beautiful balance of an inconceivable number of imperceptible connections. Our immune system is tuned to that balance. Eat properly, exercise responsibly, treat your body with respect and it will usually respond positively. Any effort to jump the queue, getting one up on nature as it were, is met with fierce opposition resulting in a return to balance (viruses have become super-viruses).

Our triumphs, for the most part, are expressions of desire. When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1605, man’s life was calculated out at “threescore and ten”; about the same as today. That at a time when England in its entirety would have been condemned by the most negligent of today’s health departments. With our history of emigration and war and the lack of hyperactive record-keeping common today, there is no way we could have dependable records of births, deaths and general goings-on until at least the computer age. (In the face of data we tend to gloss over reality.) No one, with the possible exception of the folks at the Old Bailey and the occasional over-zealous priest, cared about common man before advertising made him a celebrity, the unknown buyer.

Nothing is perfect but working with nature has a long and productive history while working against it is becoming increasingly suspect. Antibiotics are failing against new strains of viruses and life expectancy may be falling. If hell has fury, it is nature spurned.

Meanwhile, down on the organic farm ladybugs and diversification are used by astute farmers saving money on pesticides. It also reduces the risk of one of the causes of the Irish famine, monoculture.

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“We have met the enemy and he is us.” – Pogo (Walt Kelly)

If you are happy giving your resources and the benefits or your labor to oil companies, banks, big business and big government you are very fortunate – indifference, complacency and an ability to believe in fairy tales are all working for you. At least for the moment.

If you have stopped at an ATM to get money or used a credit card to buy gas or an airline ticket to get to an important meeting of socially responsible environmentalists without noticing the dichotomy, you have broken through the irrational borders of rampant reality. You too are in a position to enjoy your heartfelt responsibilities without a care in the real world.

If you think oil companies, banks and the rest of the oppressively powerful enlist our desires against us your prognosis is not so good. Your enemy is enormous. They use the sides of buses, pets, computer screens, televisions…everything… children’s clothing to recruit our inherent weaknesses. The message blares out of radios, malls, even passing private vehicles – make your wealth our wealth, make our priorities your priorities. Give us your minds and we will fulfill your every need and desire! We listen up and line up.

Every time we use their currency we support banks and layers of government. When we use their legal tender to buy bread from the local bakery, governments and banks take a piece of the action. That would not be so bad if they returned the favour. They don’t. When we drive endless hours through delirious intercity traffic we are exercising our freedom not to enjoy a good read, drink or snooze on a train before arriving smack at our destination in jig time. Before a flight departs we are presumed guilty or legally inhuman, by the time we’re released from the airport to continue our trip it is an exercise in self-control not to be both. At least we have the comfort of doing what we’re told.

 The point is how are we making our decisions. Are we making decisions at all? What about barter? Why not start a group for bartering? If there isn’t software to manage local transactions there will be as soon as there is a demand. Make a deal with your local programmer to rustle something up.  How much of the value of your hard work goes back to governments and banks from bartering? None. Not a cent. That is not good for banks, it reduces their power and influence and that in turn is…good for you. As an added benefit for being proactive you have taken back a tiny bit of your forefather’s dignity from the banks. When we use high-speed transportation we protect everyone from Gulf fishermen to asthmatics. (Can we honestly believe a society stuck in a haze of traffic fumes is suffering from second-hand smoke from the one remaining smoker on the block?)

 When we buy goods from all over the world it involves oodles of oil (subsidized by our diminishing tax dollars), banks and many governments to have them delivered to us. It transfers more of our wealth – power – to the same culprits, costs jobs for our families and neighbors and is detrimental to our health. The small promised savings, if realized, could not possibly match the loss of community values and infrastructure that goes along with it. (Buying fair trade and local products has reduced our costs while cooking has increased the pleasure and nutrition of our food.) A quick peek at immigrants and how they succeed so quickly, rebuilding failing communities in the process, shows they support their community with the result everyone wins. That seems like an excellent example.

If all else fails, reflect on the wise words of Pogo.

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Artificial intelligence is unlike artificial insemination, not much new ever comes of it. It’s more like portrait paintings or mirrors, it’s representative. It’s the image of a process more than a process. The Picture of Dorian Gray and Snow White allowed visual images to have living attributes and even perform magic without batteries but did anyone actually take seriously the possibility of reflections being beings or were they just entertaining dalliances? No one called them artificial beings, at least not publicly.

So why do we now take ourselves so seriously?

Have we created such overwhelming self-images we think life would be lost without us? Have we imagined ourselves so completely removed from the natural flow our lives seem to be more that one of life’s infinite and interesting variations? Life has shown great resilience and might even go on without any one of us or all of us for that matter. So where’s the problem? When we divorced ourselves from nature did we start seeing more of that little vixen, vanity?

One of my favorite concerns regarding global warming is whether it’s natural or the result of man’s behavior. If we are not natural what are we? Have the humourless immortal gods been replaced by a couple of million humourless mortal ones (just those who have ascended to the noösphere thank you)? That’s no fun, it lacks imagination. Little gods wearing glasses hunched over laptops looking like under-developed versions of The Thinker in jeans is just not God enough for our image-weary children. We owe them something more…like a behemoth of a man, lightning rods in hand with a voice Pavarotti would have envied. Besides if God doesn’t exist why would anyone want to be Him.

Has a stable climate and a gift for organizing raw material into tools for bashing more raw materials into more tools allowed our hubris to become our only inspiration? For the most part people in attention-grabbing imminent danger do not spend much time polishing their vanity. It takes a challenging amount of leisure time to come to the conclusion one is a member of a  select group comprising the most intelligent beings in the universe. That leisure time is usually the result of hard work by others than the beneficiaries.

We spend so much time trying to figure out what makes us so smart we don’t notice the irony. Maybe we are born intelligent and every time we choose to believe something of questionable value – like I am brilliant or I am stupid – we filter out more of the light natural to intelligence. My personal favorite is God loves us best and wants us to run His world. The equivalent of that in programming would be an endless loop, a repetitive condition with no potential to change.

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The scientific method is the most powerful tool for the advancement of human understanding of the physical world.

On the other hand using ‘science’ as a proper noun to describe an omnipotent power is the secular equivalent of old time religion. “I believe in science because science will guide and save us” and other such nonsense is about the same as putting your faith in a hammer. Science is a tool. It can be used well or poorly, it can be used by friend and foe alike, it can be used to advance or deter us from advancement, it is the cornerstone of information age marketing. ‘Studies indicate’ or more forcefully ‘scientific studies have proven’ are regularly followed by snake oil information used to convince us to buy into something, send money to someone or get certified somehow. Carefully controlled studies are being used effectively as transient substitutes for chapter and verse to ensure people know their place and how to appoint it.

Let’s face it we are information obese. We have too much undigested gibberish clogging up our thinking and much of it has been foisted on us using terms of proof and science. Phrasing things in the context of science has the same disarming effect on us today as the use of God has had on select populations for a few thousand years. Ignorance need no longer be the result of not being informed, it can result from being endlessly informed of disparate ‘facts’ from the mills of the information industry – snack facts. Most of us choose our facts carefully to align with our desires and beliefs. Facts have become a freely traded commodity so we have no trouble finding just the right ones for every occasion. Searching for truth by gorging on the endless manufactured information about diet or abortion alone would be enough to discourage the most determined of critical thinkers. We are living in such a dense sea of information we would feel bereft if beached by a bad battery. Independent thinking could go the way of whale’s legs if we don’t stay carefully tuned to ourselves. A healthy mind needs a proper balance of nourishment, exercise and contemplative silence to start the journey to mindful independence.

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If we must have celebrity we should at least know a little about those in the limelight. Such matters seem trite but celebrity is codependent with media on a large, faithful following. That following should probably know the intentions and direction of those they choose to follow. We trust people media present to us implicitly and yet we don’t trust media at all. (Would we trust Madoff to recommend a good investment manager?) Those heroes of the cause not only identify our enemies, they place a spotlight on the undeserving wretches and focus our attention on them. And focus we do.

What else is happening while we watch the celebrity in our corner taunt the known ne’er-do-well in the other corner. What if some of our favorite celebrities are using the oldest trick in the book, keeping our attention glued to the insignificant while their cohorts commit the significant unencumbered? Every pickpocket knows the more entertaining the distraction, the easier the job.

Every worthy cause can improve with a little prodding from detractors, but not many can withstand duplicity within. Our environment, community, infrastructure and economy are all in states of shocking disrepair and yet we have never been more focused on designated culprits. It might be time to re-evaluate our favorite members of the media just to be certain they are worthy of guiding our thoughts and decisions through rough water.

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