Saturday, June 30, 2007

Natrona, PA.

Earlier this morning M. and I set off to another area community sale. This time we headed north up route 28, to the town of Natrona. Its access point is an exit called "Natrona Heights", which is a community on top of the ridge- basically your typical American exurb, with modest homes and a few strip malls. The Heights are like any other place, outside any other city in the United States. However that's not the case with Natrona itself. It lies along the banks of the Allegheny River, occupying the flatland at the eastern edge of Allegheny County. The town is next to another called Brackinridge, which lies alongside Tarentum. From what I saw of those other two communities, they are small and struggling. But Natrona stands out amidst these places as palpable evidence for the utter decline of the Rust Belt.

The town was named after the mineral "natron". For those of you who skipped a degree in geology, that substance is a naturally occurring mixture of baking soda and soda ash. Blended with oil, it was used to make soap, employed as mouthwash, and helped in cleansing teeth. It could also be used to preserve meat and fish, solder precious metals together, make the color "Egyptian blue" or cobalt glass, and serve as an antiseptic to treat wounds. Ancient people used it as an insecticide and for mummification. Perhaps the mineral's namesake could use the stuff to mothball itself for some distant time in the future- because while Natrona still awaits its final flat-line, its dying gasps are almost audible.

For years the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company (later Pennsalt/Pennwalt- the operation was started by Quakers in 1850) operated in adjoining Harrison Township. Salt mining was the bedrock of economic activity in the Allegheny Valley. In 1985, Pennsalt used a 62-acre near Natrona as a Lindane Dump, for waste disposal of mining tailings (cryolite) and bottom ash. These materials included DDT tracings and benzene, and inevitably contaminated groundwater supplies. The dump was designated as a federal EPA Superfund site in March of 1992.

Pollution of the area's water seems to be an ongoing tradition. Allegheny Ludlum (a steelmaking company) still operates industrial plants in the area. In 1995, the PA office of the EPA charged the company with dumping high levels of acid and metals into the Allegheny River. Although cleared of most of the 800 allegations in 1997, the company was found guilty of nine violations of its discharge permits at their Brackinridge Mill between 1993-1996.

Aside from the environmental problems created by the remaining local industrial activity (which after all provides meaningful jobs to the region), Natrona faces other serious challenges. Earlier this year it was barely spared a future of isolation when the Port Authority decided not to cut the only bus route connecting the town to the larger Allegheny region. But with the long term future of public transportation in the county still uncertain, this temporary stay may have only a minimal effect in stemming the tide of population migration from Natrona. We noticed a large number of derelict and abandoned properties along the streets at the center of town. There is a grassroots organization (provocatively) named "Natrona Comes Together", which is working to identify specific houses for demolition. County leaders would like to raze entire blocks of degraded housing, but that presents further problems for the residents interspersed throughout the blight, who are trying to hold on to the integrity of their neighborhood.

No doubt today's community-wide sale was organized to demonstrate the spirit of the people struggling to maintain what's left of their community. M. was visibly disturbed by the condition of Natrona. She commented that this was the first time she had attended a sale of this size without finding a single thing to take home with her. Her reaction to the town was unsurprising, considering that most Pittsburgh inhabitants never find a reason to venture into such depressed and largely-forgotten hamlets in the county. I had made a previous visit to Natrona a couple of years ago to see a local band called Chai Baba. The show had been at The Vault, which was a former bank- reclaimed and operating as a local theater and community center. Charmingly, the changing room for the bands was housed in the building's walk-in safe. The Vault's proprietors were well-intentioned, but had set themselves up against some formidable obstacles. I was sad to learn of its closing.

Across the street from the shuttered building, and down an alleyway, I entered the storage/working space of an artist just entering middle age. His efforts to bring a touch of art amidst the decay was touching. He bummed a cigarette from me, saying that he couldn't run out for another pack for himself. Despite the fact that there were only a handful of broke kids browsing through his shelf of used horror and UFO-themed videos- he wasn't going to close up shop. This reluctance to abandon his post was striking, and (I believe) indicative of the hardscrabble tenacity of the remaining townspeople. Considering Natrona's history, the term "salt-of-the-earth" comes to mind.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Summer Reading.

I don't know exactly why this should be, but I always do much less reading in the summer than in any other season. Perhaps I still have an element of that schoolboy restlessness that drives me to treat this time of the year as an opportunity to run around like a madman. I certainly have a lot more free time to pursue any interest that strikes me. When my schedule is full, and I have a set bedtime, I often give myself over to a bit of daydreaming whereby I imagine being able to stay up all night and read. But when that fantasy becomes reality, I tend to fritter away too many hours thinking about where I might go next.

A few weeks ago I started reading Ryu Murakami's Coin Locker Babies. That book's been on my wishlist for years, and when I saw it sitting on a shelf at a friend's house I was excited to borrow it. It's a strange cross-section of sci-fi and magical realism in the gritty demimonde of an imagined urbanized Asia. Under most circumstances I believe I would have breezed through this read in a matter of days. Yet I keep drawing it out- reading a few pages at a sitting before putting it down again. I usually stick to a personal hard-and-fast rule of only reading one book at a time. But in this case I've gotten sidetracked.

I picked up the Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors (2000) at a book sale at a branch of the Carnegie Library system. I actually passed it up during my first walk-through, and then reconsidered before I left. After all, it was only a buck. It was a bit outdated, but I figured I would glean some decent suggestions regarding authors I haven't yet read. The concept of the book is interesting in and of itself. There's an awful lot of subjectivity inherent to the process of selecting a canon of "important" modern-day authors. Any avid reader is going to have his/her favorites, a few of which are going to be invariably absent. The editor (Laura Miller) selected a group of critics that write literary commentary for the Salon website. Each person constructed their own list of authors they believed should be included, and then they defended their choices. A list of 500 was whittled down to fit the 400+ pages allotted for the Reader's Guide.

So far I've made my way through almost half of the book. It is organized alphabetically, but it has no table of contents- so there are a lot of surprises along the way. I've frequented enough bookstores to be familiar with a majority of the names. But I've often wondered what these writers were all about. Who are Louise Erdrich, Peter Carey, Robert Olen Butler, Louis Begley, etc.? This is a useful guide in that it includes several convenient features that allow the reader to employ it as a handy reference guide. There are bibliographies for each entry, and essential works are highlighted. The individual critics have even taken the liberty of suggesting a single book from each author for the reader to concentrate on if he/she is only ever going to read one. While this adds another (possibly dubious) element of subjectivity, I believe that I could trust the discretion of the majority of these critics. Additionally, following the description of each author's work is a section recommending other authors that might be enjoyed by readers who are already fans.

I've found the commentary on the individual authors enlightening. Not only do these critics describe the themes and tones of each body of work, but they offer quotations that illustrate the author's writing style. And they make an effort to fit each writer into the literary scene as a whole. The criticism is learned, but not expressed in overly stiff or academic terms. This guide was obviously written by a group of people who love reading as much as they love analyzing books.

While many of my favorite authors were left out, I'm not really bothered by their exemption. Certainly a few of them had not distinguished themselves by the year 2000 (Dan Chaon, Chris Offutt, George Saunders) . Others (Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago) are absent because they didn't meet the criteria of writing their books in the English language. Either way, it's not necessary for me to read criticism about them because I've already identified their works as worthwhile. But I've never thought to pick up a book by Louis de Bernieres, Samuel Delany, or Thomas Berger- and now there's a good chance I will. If my horizons are broadened at all, then this was a buck well spent.


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Maxo Vanka and St. Nicholas Church, Millvale, PA.

Earlier I wrote about a little-known local Pittsburgh gem called St. Anthony's. Certainly this collection of relics housed in the Troy Hill neighborhood is like no other in the world. But it's not the only unparalleled experience you can have at a church around these parts. In nearby Millvale sits another form of unimagined treasure. St. Nicholas Catholic Church ministers to the needs of a local community of refugees from war-torn Croatia and Bosnia-Herzogevina, as well as the historically entrenched populations from these countries that have lived in Pittsburgh for decades. There are actually two St. Nicholas locations within the parish- a situation that has been a source of confusion for many years. One of these physical structures is no longer in service, as it lies along a well-traveled corridor dominated by Route 28. Planned roadwork has sealed the fate of this church, and the building itself is most likely not long for this world.

Meanwhile the Millvale location of St. Nicholas is a regional (and perhaps international) treasure. The outward appearance and construction of this house of worship offer no clues to its exceptionality. Yet if you manage to gain entry inside, you will quickly become aware that nothing like it exists anywhere else. For on the inner walls of the church are painted striking murals, complete with social commentary and unique spiritual resonance. They were painted in the 1930's and 40's by Croatian artist Maxo Vanka. As the official church website points out-
"They represent the struggles of the Croatian people in the face of war and poverty in their homeland and as immigrants in post-industrial America." They are the artist's emotionally- drenched and troublesome gift to this nation's people. And they serve both as a reminder of the importance of faith, and as a warning of what humanity is capable of.

Vanka's personal belief in the futility of war and his sadness at seeing his homeland destroyed are made patently obvious through his work. After being commissioned by Father Albert Zagar to paint the murals in 1937, Vanka completed two cycles of paintings (20 altogether)- the first in an eight-week span that spring, and the second group in 1941. The latter works clearly demonstrate his anguish over the war in Europe. He set for himself grueling shifts of up to 16-18 hours a day, and sustained his energy with multiple doses of Coca-Cola. Zagar gave the internationally-renowned artist a freehand to depict whatever imagery he so chose. In doing so, Zagar empowered Vanka to create timeless works mixing secular and spiritual concerns in a manner wholly original.

The content of these murals is truly unforgettable. There are mournful peasants entreating God for support in their difficult struggles in the Croatian countryside. An angel in a gas mask looms over the congregation from high upon one wall. An anguished, crucified Christ separates two war-crazed soldiers. In a similar scene, the Virgin Mary desperately tries her hand at a peaceful resolution. On another wall an industrial robber baron sits at dinner and is served a cleansing course of fiery retribution by a skeletal hand. These are not the placid reassuring scenes of sanctification that a regular churchgoer becomes acclimated to. They challenge the viewer to seek the holy in the most trying of times.

Had these paintings been completed for a museum, they would inspire a constant stream of tourists from all over the world. As it is, they await the few who become aware of their existence through word-of-mouth. Since my initial exposure to them, I have tried periodically to see them again. But it's no use showing up on church property, hoping for the random chance. You must call ahead of time to see the murals. Fortunately the woman in charge of tours is accommodating, and will show you around for nothing but a freely-offered donation. If you happen to be in the Pittsburgh area, I am scheduling a group tour for this coming Monday at noon. Contact me (my e-mail is available through my profile) if you want to be included. The experience will leave an indelible mark upon you.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"Who Killed the Electric Car?" (2006?)

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you have surely noticed the amount of time I have given over to considering New Vrindaban and my visit there this past Monday. No doubt the extra amount of free time summer affords me has been a factor contributing to this mini-obsession. Sometimes I have to pull back and consider how alien this material is to almost everyone I know. I've given a lot of thought to what N.V. means, both as a center of spirituality and as a planned community. Perhaps in the near future I'll invest some time and build a structure to organize my ideas and personal responses, and write a post on those subjects. In the meantime, I keep going back to the conversations I had with Tapahpunja.

During the relatively short time we spent around the table talking, T. mentioned a number of obscure documentaries and books that he believes are worth investing time in tracking down. Of course each recommendation he made was followed by a spate of talk concerning the particular subject or theme of the work in question. The tangential nature of such a discussion meant that a lot that was said about specific items faded with the twists and turns of conversational flow. However the name and premise of one film lingered in my memory.

T. told us about an annual convention attended by the hundreds of public television stations across the nation. The purpose of this gathering is for representatives of these local affiliates to get a look at the shows available for purchase in the coming year. Apparently a documentary was screened recently that was entitled Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006). Apparently there were well over 100 public TV stations interested in airing this program. But when it later came time to receive the material, the stations were informed that the documentary wouldn't be made available. As T. explains the story, this was the decision of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. T. says that he was told that the reason the film was withdrawn from distribution was because the Chevron Company offered a million dollar donation to the CPB, with the implied understanding that the meddlesome documentary would not be shown on Public Television.

Who Killed the Electric Car? examined the development and subsequent marketing of General Motors' EV1- an electric car made available for lease in Southern California in 1990. Apparently a group of celebrities drove the car, and the film includes interviews and testimonial from people like Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks and Ed Begley, Jr., regarding their experiences with driving the EV1. Despite the overall satisfactory response of drivers, GM decided to recall the vehicles and subsequently destroy them. Citing inconveniences like its limited range (amount of miles the battery will supply before recharging), GM executives reasoned that there would be little commercial demand for the EV1. Apparently the filmmakers disagreed, and presented evidence of a coordinated and lasting campaign of suppression of electrical car technology resulting from pressure from auto manufacturers, the oil industry, and (since 2000) the Bush administration. They also included a reasoned criticism of the Bush-"sponsored" hydrogen fuel cell technology.

I have to emphasize that I have yet to see the film, and therefore can't offer a substantiated opinion of its veracity. I also can't confirm T.'s comments about the CPB's suppression of the film, or the business about Chevron's donation. But I can say that I've heard and read a lot of negative press about Kenneth Tomlinson, who Bush appointed as CPB chief. The man resigned from the post in November, 2005 when it became public knowledge that he was using his position (and Public Television) to advance a "conservative agenda". I don't know the timeline for the events T. relates, but I definitely wouldn't put it past the CPB (with or without Tomlinson) to take marching orders from the oil industry. I have learned that Bill Moyers featured a segment about Who Killed the Electric Car? on NOW shortly before he was forced out of Public Television by the conservative czars of the CPB- but who knows if these events were related?

It also seems a strange coincidence that Chevron owns (until 2014) the patent on the battery technology (NiMH battery pack) that could have been used to maximize the utility of the EV1.

Who Killed the Electric Car?
did indeed receive a limited theatrical release in 2006, and is now available on DVD. I guess this is one for the wishlist.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Great Scheme: Alcohol-based fuels, Ford, Rockefeller, and Prohibition.

One of the many bits of information I gleaned from my discussions with Tapahpunja yesterday has to do with the prohibition of alcohol. This is a multifaceted issue that concerns spirituality, social control, energy production, and US History. From the standpoint of a Hindu, alcohol consumption is forbidden. This makes sense in the context of social interaction. There is no debate that alcohol abuse contributes to many of our social problems today. Having had ample experience with alcoholics, I know firsthand what addiction can do to relationships. Many domestic incidents and other types of criminal activity involve the use of alcohol. Meanwhile, there is much evidence that alcohol negatively affects more organs of the human body than any other legal or illegal drug. Despite all these possible consequences, I have no plans to stop consuming alcohol. I believe there are some positive social effects that occur with its moderate use, and there is some scientific data that demonstrates that it can be consumed healthily.

But there is an entirely different dimension to alcohol that I wasn't even aware of. Alcohol may be an option in dealing with the impending energy and environmental crises of the Twenty-first Century. It is a little known fact that Brazil is the world leader in the production of bioalcohol fuel. Because of recent concerns of rising gasoline prices, President Bush visited Sao Paulo (on March 7, 2007) to sign agreements on importing alcohol fuel and its technology. Vehicles using this fuel were actually widespread in the late 1970's in Brazil, but gasoline reclaimed its market share in the 1980's. With anxieties about the world oil supply once again in the forefront of many minds, this option has become increasingly attractive.

The advantages of alcohol-based fuels are multi-faceted. They burn completely and efficiently and produce 100% less carbon monoxide emissions because the byproducts of their consumption include only carbon dioxide, water and heat. Interestingly, although alcohol-based fuel produces as much CO2 emission as gasoline, its effect is counterbalanced by the fact that CO2 is actually drawn from the environment in the process of its production. Therefore there is no modern net release. While much of the efforts concerning the manufacture of these types of fuel involve corn... there are much more efficient raw crop materials available. Sugar beets (for example) contain less cellulose, and their waste fibers raise the alcohol yield. So why do so many Americans sing the praises of corn-based biofuel? For that answer you have to research the political and economic ramifications of our corporate farming monoculture. That lies beyond the scope of this post.

But the most fascinating aspect of the connection between alcohol and fuel use concerns a little known (or discussed) aspect of American history. To understand this relationship, one must examine some contextual information of the early Twentieth Century. Most people are not aware that Henry Ford's Model T came in a variation that allowed the driver to switch the carburetor to run the engine on farm-made ethyl acohol. This allowed the operator to stop at local farms (equipped with stills) to refuel his/her car during long trips through the backcountry. After all- the gas station wasn't exactly as ubiquitous in those days, as it is now. The Standard Oil Company and its industrialist-founder John D. Rockefeller wasn't too happy with this arrangement. After all, Rockefeller's company had a virtual monoploly on gasoline at this time in our nation's development.

It should be evident to any serious student of history that John D. Rockefeller was no political progressive. His fights with muckraker Ida Tarbell are legendary. She was ultimately responsible for the dissolution of the Standard Oil Trust in 1911. Not that this actually hurt Rockefeller- his wealth actually increased after Standard Oil broke up. Rockefeller held significant interests in the resulting companies, which included the precursors of today's Seven Sisters oil companies. The break-up of Standard Oil actually made him the wealthiest man in the world, as the share values of most of these companies doubled. Yet Rockefeller would find benefit once again within the reform movement that he considered his enemy. Since the late 1800's there had been a growing Alcohol Temperance Movement developing among reformers. Rockefeller saw an opportunity in this. It is well-documented that local efforts to curb alcohol consumption were expanded to the national level when high-profile figures like Rockefeller joined in the anti-alcohol efforts. Was he so concerned with the social problems that abuse of alcohol was said to cause?

No... John D. Rockefeller was not concerned with family dynamics in the working classes. But he was influential in changing the goals of the movement from temperance to prohibition. As we know, his contribution to the outlawing of the production and sale of alcohol was successful. Of course, Rockefeller and the oil companies reaped tremendous profits as a result. Remember that the period covered by the 18th Amendment (1919-1933) coincided with the huge rise in the sale and operation of automobiles. America was on the move, and all of these cars were now operated solely on gasoline. By the time that the 21st Amendment was passed, ending the prohibition of alcohol, the standard was already set and worked completely in the favor of the Rockefeller family.

These events have had a tremendous development on the American economy, foreign policy direction, and the environment. In fact the consequences are worldwide. It is easy to lose sight of the big picture, and concentrate on the many subplots involving Detroit's supression of alternative fuel technologies. The chapters being written in today's tumultuous climate are indeed the continuation of a story started long ago. We venerate the capitalist captains of industry (like Rockefeller) without any examination of what they have cost the nation and the world. If we don't re-evaluate our contemporary thinking in light of the events of the past, we are headed for times in which alcohol may be our only escape from a harsh reality. Maybe we have been pouring it in the wrong place all along.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

My Return to New Vrindaban.

Watching Holy Cow Swami last week made me want to take another trip to New Vrindaban. I thought about a few people that might enjoy such a trip, and put out some invitations. M. definitely wanted to go (she had never been there), and my friend Mike desired a return visit. He had accompanied me during my visit of three years ago, when we met Tapahpunja Dasa - who gave us a very informative tour of the organic community garden. Our whole group was impressed by this elder devotee's knowledge base, commitment and worldview. When I saw the younger version of Tapahpunja interviewed by Jacob Young for the documentary, I felt inspired to return to see how things were going with the community. I showed Mike Holy Cow Swami, and we had a lot of quality conversation about the way events were portrayed and about faith and religion in general. We could have stayed up talking far into the night, but we wanted to have some energy for our day trip.

Our intention was to leave at 9AM, but Mike convinced me to let him check the oil in my car- which turned out to be a good thing since I desperately needed an oil change. This gave us the opportunity to stop at an Aspinwall coffeehouse and build up more anticipation with talk about what we were going to see. The 70-mile drive was as pleasant as I remembered. Although it was overcast on the way there, it was all sun-and-blue-skies by the time we got to Moundsville and grabbed lunch. We chose a little coffee shop with down-home cookin' (dare I say that I ate a Sloppy Joe?) and few vegetarian options for M. Then we were on our way through the wooded hills on winding back-roads, and the next thing we knew we were greeted with the bright sunlight reflected off of the top of the Palace of Gold.

M. wanted to take the tour, and I'm afraid I couldn't stop myself from badgering the guide with all kinds of questions about the state of the community, and about Prabhupada's life before coming to America. I think he was unsure about where I was coming from, and was a bit guarded about answering. Then again I would assume that tour guides are given a canned speech and encouraged to stick to it. They mostly want to keep it light and general, and include lots of little details about all the fine materials that were used during the original construction of the palace. This was all basic stuff that I had heard previously. I wanted more information. I tried to assure him that I meant well, and by the end I thought that he believed in my sincerity. He told me to take a copy of the Bhagavad Gita when he discovered that I didn't own a copy.

After that M. and I walked around the grounds. I spent some time taking photos with my new camera. It was getting very hot. I thought I'd take M. down to the "Temple of Understanding". To my dismay, it was dark and all the deities were covered. After being told that they would be unveiled in an hour or so, we decided to take a walk by the pond, aviary and guest cottages. For the first time, I noticed Hayagriva's (Howard Wheeler) monument. It is a boxlike container structure, and I wondered if his remains were inside. Mike and I decided to walk up a road between the cottages, and lo and behold we met up with Tapahpunja, who was making his way down from the farm in a car. I asked him if he would give us another tour of the gardens, and he was most agreeable. We all gathered under the pavilion.

I had meant to hear about some of the plants being grown there, but we got sidetracked quickly. I asked Tapahpunja if he had seen Jacob Young's film, but he replied that he hadn't. He did remember getting interviewed for it. I wanted to hear details about Prabhupada's life and the early years of New Vrindaban. I also wanted to know his thoughts on what it means to have a "spiritual master". As he had been a few years ago, Tapahpunja Dasa was gracious and forthcoming. He explained what it meant to be God-brothers with Kirtanananda Bhaktipada, and gave us an idea about what the man was like before the troubles of the 1980's. But he also pointed out that he had been initiated by Prabhupada, and considered him his spiritual master. After a bit our little party was thirsty, and T. sent me for some water and cups from a guest house. We realized what that meant since he had explained that the community was experiencing a shortage of water. We continued to talk, and then Tapahpunja invited us to have some dinner.

We gathered around the table for food and more great conversation. Tapahpunja has a wealth of wisdom about the nature of the food we eat, corporate monoculture, and farming. He is also politically savvy and has compelling recommendations of books and documentaries to enlighten those who choose to seek more knowledge. But what I am most impressed by is that Tapahpunja has an extraordinary facility for relating a practical lifestyle to his spiritual beliefs. It was easy to sit quietly and listen, but we also took our turns talking and asking more questions. I am always pleasantly taken aback by the generosity of Krishna and his followers. Annadanum is the practice of sharing food with others, and to many it is a sacred duty. But we felt privileged to receive pasta, salad and a tasty stew from Tapahpunja. We were equally blessed to be joined by his wife.

Inevitably the day grows long and it is time for us to leave New Vrindaban. As I expected we had plenty to think about on the drive home. One of the things that hit home with me was an impassioned claim that Tapapunjah made concerning the human condition. He said that the slaughter of human animals is effecting our karma as individuals, and collectively. The resulting baggage is the reason we are faced with pestilence, war, climate destruction and conflict. Although I'm not a Hindu, I feel that this belief deserves sufficient consideration. A meat-eater like me has to take that to heart. For both "god" and the Earth's sake, perhaps I can at least give up eating the meat of a cow?

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Why Are We Here?

Late last night I entered into a conversation that some would perceive as luxuriously self-indulgent, others would see as needlessly complex, and maybe a few would view as completely unnecessary. I don't remember the exact chain of expression that led to the question- but when I left to go home to sleep, I brought home with me what could be the ultimate existentialist query- "Why are we here?" Perhaps its very nature is one of folly. Obviously each individual carries with him/her a multitude of shifting answers to that question. One's response might be affected by an infinite number of transient variables. But in this particular discussion, my friend and I were searching for a "larger truth".

The mystery becomes somewhat less complex when we limit our consideration to ourselves. As Robert Anton Wilson would say, our perception is limited to our reality tunnel. Or maybe he would say that it at least appears to be so. It's only if we accept the existence of an external reality with any possibility of "objectivity" that a possible solution to this puzzle lies within our grasp. I'm not going to commit to an authoritative position on that issue. But for the purpose of identifying a direction for humanity, let us assume that a consensual reality is possible.

Our consideration necessitates a number of other assumptions as well. This is the tricky part, and involves a set of foundational beliefs on which there is clearly no social consensus. If you are a fundamentalist Christian you are going to have a very specific starting point. If we limit the discussion to premises consistent with the scientific tradition, then we begin from a wholly different place. Last night we confined the thread of our talk to the latter. Therefore we started with the theory of the "Big Bang" origination of the universe. Neither of us are trained in physics, and so we had to rely on a very rudimentary set of definitions. At some point in the past we agreed that there was dispersal of energy into the time and space of what we refer to as "the universe".

That energy eventually transformed into particles of matter, some of which we interact with on a daily basis here on Earth. We have also made a qualitative distinction in order to classify certain conglomerations or manifestations of this matter- certain examples we refer to as "organic", and others we call "inorganic". This may appear to be an entirely arbitrary classification through the perception of non-human entities, but for our purposes it will have to temporarily serve. Over the last several hundred years certain representatives of our "species" have developed a structured hierarchy, at the top of which (not surprisingly) humans reside. And we are rewarded this privileged position by dint of our "consciousness".

But this concept of "consciousness" is even more amorphous than all the other elements from which we've constructed our underlying premises. This is where we discover the most divergence of opinion and belief. This is the realm of "philosophers"- a group of people (traditionally white men) who have occupied a refined and received seat of learning... an entitlement only made possible by other groups of people laboring to provide the survival necessities of these lucky few. It has been the convention for "ordinary people" to defer to their convictions regarding the nature and meaning of "consciousness". Perhaps their very existence is enough to refute the countervailing forces of "determinism"- which would discount the whole concept of "consciousness" as a myth.

Regardless, the game we have now allowed ourselves to engage in (without proper education or training) is called "Why are we here?" My friend and I were apostates, rejecting the convention that dictates that we look to spiritual authorities or worldly leaders to determine this issue for us. Was it merely by coincidence that we had discovered ourselves trodding on this sacred ground? Maybe the solution to the mystery lies in the question itself. Could it be that the reason "We are here" is to search and explore in a quest to arrive at our own answers? It appears to be cyclical logic, doesn't it? That reminds me of a Zen koan, but I can't tell you about it here....

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Who is "The Problem"?

It seems everyone has someone in their life on to whom they can project their own difficulties and/or insecurities. Everyone has a tragic tale of a friend or relative that is consistently making bad decisions or exhibiting "bad" behavior. There's the uncle who can't stop drinking... the spouse with a lousy temper... the friend who falls in love with sociopaths... or the sibling who is always out of cash. Rarer perhaps is the individual that sees themselves as the source of someone else's problem. But of course that can't be the reality. Because in every difficult relationship there is both a long-suffering subject and an irresponsible object. Most likely you have occupied both positions throughout your life, often without even being aware of it.

Part of the reason this dynamic exists is perception. When does someone else become your "problem"? What is your role in assuming responsibility for any given situation? Ultimately we all have some manner of choice when it comes to the people we choose to spend our time with. The main exception to this rule is the child/parent relationship. Once you declare a dependent, you are obviously accountable to him/her. But otherwise, you pick those whom you allow into your life. I've heard arguments that other immediate family members are also beyond one's discretion. That's not a particularly convincing argument, as far as I'm concerned. I've known many incidences of siblings who have no contact with each other. I'm also aware of grown children who have cut off their relationship with one or both parents.

There's always a balance sheet when two people form a relationship. The accounting may be done consciously or subconsciously. For better or worse, there is always an assessment of utility between people. Some are givers by personality, and others are takers. I agree with the conventional wisdom that we always seek our match. Do the people you surround yourself with exhibit common traits of personality? There is probably a reason for that, and it likely resides in yourself. Are you prone to drawing broad generalizations about people? Perhaps these are the results of projections of parts of your own personality/philosophy. I've seen that this has often been the case with myself. I have found it useful to strive for awareness and insight regarding what I see in other people. Often I find my own reflection in my opinions of others.

We all have our own unique set of characteristics and beliefs about the world. When we find ourselves carrying the weight of "other people's problems", we owe it to ourselves to figure out why we are doing it. There are justifiable reasons for doing so. But if we develop relationships blindly, then we are merely acting out pre-programmed scripts that have to do more with our own selves than any reality about others. I've been accused of "thinking too much". People have assumed that I am cold, arrogant and/or depressed. Friends and family have occasionally formed and expressed all manner of assessments about me. Instead of becoming reactionary or defensive, I strive (often unsuccessfully) to understand what it is about the individual that makes him/her form whatever particular judgment is being directed toward me. Often these opinions are made up largely of projection, and can be used as tools for learning how to better interact with others. I believe that you can learn a lot about people by listening closely for cues that can help expose their emotional and analytical worldviews.

So much of these processes occur on the level of intuition. Human beings are social creatures, and have been evolving for tens of thousands of years. The ways we interact with others when we are not consciously forming these interactions are not random. They can be effected by memory, survival instincts, sensory input, or subconscious personal preferences. It's too convenient to let ourselves off the hook, and ignore our role in the shaping of both intense and casual relationships with other people. Ultimately we are responsible for the way we think and behave, and we are accountable for the consequences of the choices we make- even if we aren't paying close attention. It's tempting to attribute the blame elsewhere, but doing so is to commit a disservice to ourselves and others. We grow when we realize the quality of contributions we are making in any social situation.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Cars and Taxes.

I know that one of the the things I have gone on about on this blog is the relationship between Americans and their cars. I can't think of any other accessory that makes people act more selfish than the automobile. Let some slight and weak individual get behind the wheel, and soon he/she is acting like they are the"alpha male" of his/her tribe. Somehow the 1000 lbs+ of metal and plastic armor surrounding them makes folks pretty bold. Things they would never consider doing when approaching a stranger on a back alley night-time street become standard operating procedure. I know you've seen examples of what I'm talking about. Soccer moms flip you the bird. Little men in suits tail your bumper. Wizened elders act like they own the road. Pull up next to one of these drivers and try to confront them through their open window, and you get a sense of their perceived invulnerability. It's a lot of big, big talk.

Considering the way advertising portrays car ownership, I guess it's easy to understand why so many are afflicted with preposterous ideas. Cars are one of the most obvious conveyances of status in this society. Americans revel in their ability to purchase the biggest, most expensive automobiles- regardless of the effects their decisions have on the environment, politics, the economy, or their fellow human beings. People justify their consumer choice with platitudes of their own self-importance. They will point out that they have worked to realize their dream of owning a Hummer. They believe that others will admire them for owning a Lexus SUV. They are keeping up with the Joneses. Their convertible sports car will get them laid in their middle age. Their Porsches and BMWs will help them "close the deal". Or otherwise they are merely enjoying their God-given "freedoms".

Take a look at how self-satisfied and smug your fellow drivers are, as they chat on their cellphones and blindly cut you off in traffic. Or just bring up the topic in conversation. It seems that a lot of folks don't even need to be in their cars to think and act completely irrationally when it comes to their vehicular "rights". Americans lose all sense of logic and fairness when it comes to their automobiles. A recently proposed bill in the PA state legislature and the resulting "discussion" on AM talk radio clearly illustrate the perceptions of many of our fellow citizens. Under a GOP plan, tolls would be places on PA interstates 78, 79, 80, 81, and 95. The rationale behind this legislation is that it is needed for bridge and road repair. It's an alternative to leasing the PA turnpike or increasing the state fuel tax. The tolls would be administered by the Turnpike Commission.

What are the responses to these tolls? They are predictably almost universally negative. Put aside for a moment the irony of Republican party politicians advocating that drivers pay for the services they use, while they bitch about high taxes on gasoline out of the other side of their mouths. These are the exact same guys that would like to see the entire interstate system privatized- as if that would increase the accountability of the people that maintain the roads... as if making it a for-profit venture is going to reduce the ultimate costs for drivers. Most people simply don't want to pay for a road system out of their own pockets. If they pay at the pump- then the government is gouging them, and the oil companies can blame our leaders for the high prices. When you bring up the prospect of tolls, you hear a lot of crying about how the politicians are corrupt and inefficiently spending what tax monies they do collect. They say that PennDot shouldn't require anymore money whatsoever. No matter what the government does to remedy the condition of our roads, they will always be charged with corruption and waste.

Simultaneously, the same people that bitch about the flaws in the government's operation and maintenance of the interstates will whine whenever there is talk of an increase in the funding of public transportation. Why should suburbanites and exurbanites have to pay for city folk to get around? Never mind that the lives of those outside the cities are subsidized by federal and state tax dollars that urbanites pay out of their wages. The factors that have allowed people to escape and ignore the social problems in the city are cheap oil and the public subsidization of interstate roads. People bitch about the (actually very small) percentage of their tax dollars that is earmarked for social programs to help the lower classes. Yet no one ever talks about the fact that our federal government artificially depresses the price of gasoline in this country with an aggressive and costly foreign policy. It's a vicious cycle that keeps our economy wholly dependent on the rapidly failing oil paradigm.

Somehow this reality never gets talked about on AM radio, or among "free market" conservatives. And while cities can be transformed to meet the changing variables of time, suburban/exurban development and its accompanying "car-culture" are not only unsustainable- but also so artificial and wasteful that they can't ever be transformed into something useful. The strip malls and the sprawl model of development are only possible with the state and federal government subsidization. The only source of such funding is taxes. Period. Now shut up and pay.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer Solstice.

Summer "doldrums". The word itself specifically refers to near-equatorial waters, which are characterized by calms and light winds. Those are conditions much envied during the long, dark Northern winters. But somehow after days of lassitude, a strange lethargic boredom sets in. One of the things I've been doing too much of is sleeping. I even slumbered right through the the time I needed to get up and drive to my drawing session. This was especially depressing since I've been looking forward to it for a few days. With travel plans still in an incomplete stage of planning, there is not anything specific to anticipate. I've gorged myself on leisure, and I'm feeling quite unproductive.

But I've learned that this is a natural progression for me during my summer break. Around the time of the third week, I've sunk into a trough of mundanity and dissolution. That's why last year I scheduled beach trips for June. I skipped right past this phase a year ago. Now I'm forced to confront my relative inactivity head-on. The irony is that I have some major changes coming in my life during the next year. This might be the last time for awhile that I have the luxury to slip into nothingness. One would think that the fact would make me appreciate this state- but that's not the way the human heart works. We so often take for granted our blessings in life.

Today is the summer solstice. If nothing else, this day has the power to put my mindset into perspective. Astrologically speaking, it means that this is the point whereby the northern axis of the Earth tilts closest to the sun. Today we get the most sunlight of any part of the year. The sun appears directly over the Tropic of Cancer. The Catholic Church has chosen this time of year (June 23, 24) as the Feast of St. John the Baptist. This is an unusual observance for a Saint, since it marks John's birth, rather than his death (which is typical). In Ireland St. John'e Eve (the 23rd) is celebrated by the lighting of bonfires. The tradition finds its roots in ceremonies marking the worship of the Celtic Goddess Aine. Spain has also adopted the building of fires, but adds a dangerous spin- people actually jump over the raging fires to prove their courage and cleanse themselves of sin.

This time of year is also sacred among practitioners of Voodoo. St. John's Eve was commemorated with special rituals in that enigmatic religion. In truth, Midsummer's Eve festivals go back far into recorded history. June 24th was celebrated in ancient times as the summer solstice, and it wasn't until the times of Pope Gregory XIII that the longest day of the year fell on June 21st. Back in the pagan days, people believed that midsummer plants had special healing powers, and so they were picked on Midsummer's Eve. The superstitious also watched for meetings of witches and other "evil spirits". Wiccans celebrated June 24th (or therabouts) as Litha. After Midsummer, the sun would turn its back on the people and head progressively southwards, and so folks felt a need to find some way of protecting themselves.

Perhaps it is only natural for me to experience a certain restlessness at this time of the year.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Jacob Young, "Holy Cow Swami" (1996).

One of the pleasant surprises of Jacob Young's visit to Film Kitchen last week was the existence on DVD of several of his works that I had been wanting to see for a long time. A couple of years ago I had actually planned to drive down into West Virginia to buy several VHS tapes straight from the director himself. Probably the most intriguing film I had heard about was an almost 3-hour long documentary about Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada (a.k.a. Keith Ham), the founder and spiritual head of the Hare Krishna community at New Vrindaban, near Moundsville, WV.

As I wrote in a blog post last summer, I have visited New Vrindaban several times- both while Bhaktipada was going through the worst of his legal difficulties (around 1992), and during the past five years. During my initial visit I wasn't even aware of the problems the community was then facing. Later I heard stories of the Swami getting charged and imprisoned for multiple criminal acts. I never did get the full story though, and that is why I was so anxious to see Jacob Young's Holy Cow Swami. So a couple of days ago, my sparkling new copy arrived directly from Young's distributor, and I watched it earlier this evening.

The film starts with the introduction of ISKCON-founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who came to New York City as an Indian immigrant with $6 in his pocket. He set up a storefront mission on the Lower East Side and began sharing his faith and spiritual knowledge with all the young people then inhabiting that environment. It was at that time that Keith Ham approached Prabhupada, and became his first devotee. While his master traveled to California (and internationally) to spread his message, Ham and his lover Howard Wheeler set out to build a Krishna Community on a 100-acre farm in the wilderness of West Virginia.

As time passed, Prabhupada built temples all over the world. By the time of his death in 1977, New Vrindaban had grown to hundreds of acres, and had hundreds of devotees. Keith Ham had become Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada- the head of the community, and one of twelve internationally-recognized spiritual successors to Prabhupada. The mid-80's marked the peak of New Vrindaban's development, and almost 800 inhabitants had built up a thriving center of worship. Almost 500,000 tourists annually were making pilgrimages to the holy site. A grand "Palace of Gold" had been built to honor Prabhupada. Meanwhile the surrounding community in Marshall County looked on warily. Rumors began to spread that things weren't altogether above board at New Vrindaban.

Part of the controversy was the method that Krishnas were using to raise money. They would approach groups of people at sporting events, and issue "citations" for "having too much fun". This was their pitch to get people to contribute to the charities that the fundraisers said they represented- including Jerry's Kid's, Appalachian Orphanages, and (hilariously) NORML. But in point of fact, that money was landing directly in the pockets of Bhaktipada, to spend as he saw fit. At the same time other schemes involved the copyright infringement of professional sports team logos on pirated gear that Krishnas were selling.

But this wasn't the worst of it. When one disgruntled ex-devotee was gunned down in California, and another was executed at New Vrindaban itself, the authorities moved on the Swami. They charged him with conspiracy to murder, fraud, kidnapping and racketeering. Amidst all these charges ran a constant stream of allegations regarding child molestation that Bhaktipada was said to be personally involved in. For years the community rallied behind their beloved guru, even as he was convicted and put on house arrest pending appeal. But as more bodies began to surface on temple lands, a mass defection started. When Bhaktipada was released due to a successful appeal for a new trial, his return to New Vrindaban was celebrated by his remaining followers.

However, the celebration was short-lived. The last straw occurred when Bhaktivada's loyal disciples bought him a Winnebago to travel to a world religious conference. On the way, the Swami stopped to pick up a Malaysian youth from an airport. The Winnebago's driver witnessed Bhaktipada engaged in hanky-panky with the boy in the vehicle's on-board bed. Word soon passed between the adherents at New Vrindaban, and a group of elder devotees met with their guru and expelled him from the community for good. The permanently disgraced Keith Ham ultimately pled guilty and went to serve his time in prison.

Jacob Young justifiably considers Holy Cow Swami to be his magnum opus. The film runs almost three complete hours, and its production values are the best I've seen in any of Young's documentary works. Its length virtually prohibits any chance of widespread distribution. But Young has no intention of trimming it down. Indeed he says he can't imagine cutting any footage- material for which he risked his very life. The story itself is fascinating, with lovely photography and plenty of illuminating interviews with all of the major players- including lengthy segments with Bhaktipada. It's clear that Young presumed the innocence of the Swami throughout much of the film. For that reason, the viewer is often left undecided about the true nature of the events at New Vrindiban. That makes it extraordinarily compelling viewing.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bernard Coffindaffer

While driving on our nation's highways, have you ever noticed clusters of three crosses dotting the landscape? If you have ever driven through West Virgina, then you certainly have. I've been seeing them up on vistas above the road for years. Christian imagery is so pervasive in this society that I never really wondered about the origination of the clusters. I probably would have simply assumed that a large Christian denomination was erecting them. Until I saw a Jacob Young documentary (Point Man for God) about the phenomenon, I never would have imagined that all those crosses were the the result of a single man's inspiration.

Bernard Coffindaffer was born to German immigrants in Craigsville, WV in 1925*. He served a stint in the Marines in WWII, and saw action at Iwo Jima and the Okinawan Islands. He went to work in coal-washing and eventually built his own mill. He also profited greatly through the recycling of used motor oil. Coffindaffer worked hard, and he eventually became very wealthy. He also became sick from toiling too hard. He had heart surgery, and while he was in the hospital he had his sacred vision. God had given him a ministry to announce the Second Coming of Christ. This wasn't a "talking" ministry, but rather one of a wholly different sort. Coffindaffer saw three crosses- the center one was painted royal gold, and the flanking ones were powder blue. He founded "Cast Thy Bread, Inc." and began (in September of 1984) placing his clusters all over his home state. Somewhere along the line he also became a Methodist minister, and he consecrated every cluster with a ceremony. He was eventually responsible for the erection of over 1800 of these groupings over 29 states and the Phillippines. There were about 350 sets put up in West Virginia alone.

Each cluster of crosses cost Coffindaffer about $850. He spent between $2-3 million dollars on his ministry. At one point, he had seven two-man crews putting up crosses full-time. He was continually talking with owners of prospective sites, trying to persuade them to let him put his crosses up. Coffindaffer attained a sort of significant status among holly rollers in Appalachia. He hobnobbed with influential church leaders from a variety of Christian sects. But his activities did indeed meet with some resistance. One assistant city editor of the Charleston Gazette was particularly annoyed by the ubiquitous presence of the crosses. She claimed that they marred the pristine beauty of the landscape, and wondered if maybe there weren't a few others who were offended by the clusters. Apparently they were, as Coffindaffer was made irate by the destruction (by chainsaw) on some of his sacred sites. In Young's documentary, Coffindaffer can be seen blatantly threatening the lives of the perpetrators of these misdeeds. I could find no record of whether or not he ever followed through on those promises.

Bernard Coffindaffer died flat-broke in October of 1993. But evidence of his life exists all along our nation's highways. And successors have popped up to carry on Coffindaffer's mission. Sara Abraham of Vicksburg, TN, Sheldon Turrill of Mariettta, OH, and Robert Clark of Faith, NC have banded together to maintain existing clusters and to construct new ones under the name of Christian Crosses, Inc. All three partners claim to have received their marching orders directly from God. They have actually drafted letters to the owners of the properties upon which the crosses stand, asking them to maintain the clusters. The plan is eventually to place crosses every fifty miles along the nation's system of interstates. Although Coffindaffer's crosses were manufactured with wooden logs (of Douglas Fir trees) , new ones will be constructed of plastic for greater durability. God's word may be eternal, but evidently Coffindaffer's crosses were not.



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Monday, June 18, 2007

David Miller, "Sudden Fear" (1952)

Sometimes it seems like media companies make marketing decisions based merely upon whatever is trendy, regardless of the true quality or nature of the product. Often this results in a dissatisfied customer. Occasionally it can lead a consumer to a discovery of something that he/she would not have checked out otherwise. Sudden Fear is a case in point of the latter phenomenon. Released by the Kino DVD publishing outfit as part of their Film Noir - The Dark Side of Hollywood 5-disc set, the film stars screen legend Joan Crawford and Jack Palance in a story of deep betrayal. In my opinion, the movie is a bit misclassified as noir. That genre is a difficult one to pin down, and allows a wide range of films to exist together in a somewhat arbitrary grouping. But when it comes down to it, noir is something amorphous that you recognize the more experience you have with it.

Sudden Fear, in my opinion, is better described as a Hitchcockian thriller. It introduces Crawford as a successful playwright, going about her business in the casting of her latest production. She overrules her producers and partners decision regarding the choice of the lead male actor. The character played by Jack Palance just isn't, in Crawford's eyes, romantic enough. He's a hell of an actor, but doesn't have the attractive looks that Crawford believes necessary for the part. Because of her track record, everyone defers to her wishes and Palance is fired. Crawford takes the responsibility for the decision, and Palance is visibly angry with her as he storms off the rehearsal stage. Things go well with the production, and Crawford's decision is vindicated.

Of course the viewer expects Palance to pop up later. It's too clear that his confrontation with Crawford is central to the developing plot. The two meet once again several weeks later on a cross-country train ride. While Crawford clearly finds this coincidental meeting awkward and embarrassing, Palance seems gracious and is eager for there to be no bad feelings about the past. They spend a lot of time together during the ride, and a new friendship slowly evolves into a budding romance. It appears that Palance has finally convinced the playwright that he is indeed a Casanova.

Soon Crawford is introducing Palance to her well-to-do San Franciscan social set, and all seems well as they court and eventually marry. It's clear that Crawford is absolutely mad for Palance. She adores him beyond any other object. But given the title of the film, we know that the good times can't last the complete running time (I really feel that I'm not giving too much of the plot away here). What is going on soon becomes abundantly clear, but how it will all play out is a different matter. How will the principles react to the shifting dynamics in their relationships? Director David Miller has done his job- he's engaged the audience in a twisted tale, and has constructed a pace that keeps the viewer on the edge of his/her seat. While some of his devices are awfully predictable, the diversionary route the ending wends through is often fascinating. Whether or not the grand finale is ultimately satisfying is a bit beside the point. It's a very entertaining film nonetheless.

One thing does puzzle me though- and it has nothing to do with the intelligent script, evocative cinematography, nor the competent professionalism of the director. It has to do with the casting of Sudden Fear. Did the person in charge of filling these roles truly view Crawford as a captivatingly beautiful actress? Did viewers in the 1950's think Joan Crawford was an ideal romantic lead? Because I found her scary and harsh looking all the way through the film. The choice to put her in the main role is ironic given the story itself. It was uncomfortable for me to watch Palance and Crawford share a series of onscreen embraces. In fact I was nearly disgusted. Was I supposed to feel that way all along? Crawford is clearly an amazing melodramatic actress. I will definitely check out more of her work. But unless I find out that she aged poorly, I never want to watch her kiss anyone again.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Grapplling with new equipment.

I've finally given in and purchased a new camera. I put it off a long time, as if I were standing on a high dive and considering whether or not I really wanted to take the jump. I had the money for a decent consumer digital SLR, and I bought one. It's a Canon EOS Rebel XTi. When I walked into Ritz Camera I merely intended to buy a back-up lithium battery for my Canon G6. On an impulse I decided to make the upgrade. By the time I got out of the store I had spent more than twice what it cost for the body of the camera alone. The extended warranty was over $300 for three years. I bought a zoom lens, a backup battery, a tripod, a backpack, a micro lens set, and UV protector caps. I even splurged and bought a $20 "Magic Lantern" DVD for instructional purposes. By the time I decided to purchase that, I figured it was a minimal extra expense.

I should be excited with all this new gear. But the truth of the matter is that I find it a bit oppressive. All of that stuff is staring at me in the face like some kind of mute challenge. I really have no idea how to get the kind of results I want out of it. The G6 I've been shooting with for over three years is a kind of "bridge" digital camera. It's more complex than a point-and-shoot model that you stick in your pocket. It's got all kinds of manual settings that let you do more creative work. The sensors on the processing chip are smaller, and so even though it may produce images with a high amount of megapixels- the quality of those images will not be as pristine as a digital SLR with the same amount of (or even less) megapixels. You are also limited to a few lenses specifically made for the Powershot series. But unlike a digital SLR, you can use the LCD screen to shoot. I've gotten quite used to composing my shots with that tool.

For me it's all about process. I know that G6 so well that I barely have to think to get the shots I want. It's grown on me like another appendage. I've never had to worry about carrying around separate lenses. It's just grab-and-go. I'm worried that I will lose an element of spontaneity with this new equipment. It seems like such a production. I certainly don't want to go out and buy some special vest to carry around the covers and all the other crap that comes with it. I also know exactly what I can do with the G6 under just about any specific conditions. Now I have to stop and think again, just like a novice.

There's a good chance that having to undergo another phase of technical education will make me a better photographer. Once I begin to assimilate the capabilities of this new camera, I will probably have a hard time going back to the G6. And I know that it will be there if I need it. I'm not giving it away. The reality is that the Rebel XTi produces markedly better images. Now I have to build up my confidence with it. Using it has to become second nature. Only when I can intuitively perform with the camera in my hands will I be able to channel my creativity directly again. That's going to take some time, but it should be well worth the effort. Bring on the new era (I guess).

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Landmark Occasion: 365 Posts.

I started this blog on a lark. All I wanted to do initially was to leave a comment on a friend's blog, and I found myself signing up for an account with to do so. Assured by the online prompts that informed me that creating a blog was "Easy!", I went ahead and initiated Serendipity. In the beginning I thought I'd keep a photo blog, offering a daily image with accompanying commentary. What I didn't count on was the amount of time it actually took to upload a digital file with a dial-up internet connection. Instead I ended up making regular "text-only" updates daily.

Right off the bat I found it easy to find something to write about every day. Along with drawing and photography, writing is something that I enjoy. The regular routine of posting to the blog was easy to subsume into my lifestyle. The discipline required to do so added an extra element of order to my existence. The freedom I allowed myself in picking the topics for each post was invigorating. It's become my way of living in a more meaningful way. It's also provided an intentionality to the choices I make. Many of the decisions I've made over the last year were affected by this project.

After a month or so, I decided that I wanted to write a post every day for a year. This was a tangible goal, and kept me motivated to create entries even when I thought I'd have nothing to say worth reading. Perhaps that has been the case on many days. But the entirety of the experience has definitely been more than the sum of its parts. There were a few days last summer when I was traveling that I failed to find access to a computer. Those were the only days I missed. However I started Serendipity last June, and I've reached the magic number of 365 posts today.

It's difficult now to remember what rewards I expected from this project. I was pretty naive about how many people would be reading this blog. For long stretches I felt the visitor tallies were actually steadily decreasing, and that was a bit discouraging. But now I'm satisfied with the small readership I have been able to build. Anywhere from 40-60 unique computers access Serendipity daily. For a site that is as thematically scattered as this one is, I feel good about those totals. I use a very rudimentary tracking service to monitor traffic. One of its advantages is that I can tell what type of keywords (in the various search engines) lead people to my site. I've written a lot about obscure media and little-known characters... it feels good to know that seekers can find information about these oddities through Serendipity.

Overall the rewards I've experienced have been intangible. I haven't been "discovered" by any influential people. I've certainly not gotten any monetary compensation for my work. But I have put my thoughts in order, and communicated on a deeper level with a group of folks that I wouldn't likely have interacted with in any other case. Similarly, some of my friends and family now have a better idea about my day-to-day thoughts and beliefs. There's no way to put a concrete value on those consequences.

One of the things I have tried hard not to do is to allow this blog to become too self-referential. I wasn't interested in revealing much about my experience of keeping this blog going. It's for that reason that I won't drone on and on now that I've reached my goal. However, I did feel it was appropriate for me to note the achievement of a landmark that has sustained me in my efforts for several months now. It's satisfying to know that I have followed through.

As far as the future of Serendipity is concerned, I honestly don't have a clue. For the meantime, I think I'll probably continue posting at the same pace just out of a sense of simple inertia. I may not feel as guilty about the prospect of skipping a day. I don't know. But I'd like to thank each and every one of you that have read this site, even if you've never posted a comment. You have added to my own enjoyment of writing by providing an audience. It feels good to know that I haven't been screaming into a great void.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Three Rivers Arts Festival- 2007.

As an artist, I completely appreciate that efforts need to be made to expose a wider audience to the world of art. There should be opportunities for people to engage artwork that don't require an MFA to understand and enjoy. It's true that there is an insular quality to much of the stuff that gets exhibited at local galleries and even museums. But at the same time, the integrity of art and artists needs to be preserved. This is a timely topic for me as I have spent the last two days attending public spaces involved with the dissemination of art.

June has always been the time for the Three Rivers Arts Festival. For almost as long as I've been in Pittsburgh, I have made it a point to check out the event. I'm not sure whether it's my own evolving perspective, or if it is objective reality- but it sure seems like every year TRAF becomes less and less about the "art". Years ago they used to have a juried show outside, protected by mini-pavilions. It's true that there was always plenty of room to meander through those works. Even then it attracted mostly serious art fans. But it was my absolute favorite thing about the festival. Then they moved the juried show into the 937 Gallery, and space considerations limited the number of pieces they could include. This year they had their "Best of Pittsburgh" show in the PPG Wintergarden. I don't know how many people even realize it's there.

I enjoyed the "Best of..." exhibition, but it was the leanest offering I've seen yet. There were quite a few artists I know personally, and I did enjoy seeing what they submitted. Pieces by Adam Welch and Chris Lisowski were among the standouts. But there were only 48 total works, and they were labeled in the most confusing way possible. They had xerox copies of floor plans, completely unadorned with sufficient information to locate the individual pieces. The only way I could figure out that puzzle was by identifying the works of the artists I knew by sight, and working backwards from there. God help the visitor that isn't familiar with the Pittsburgh art scene.

And then I checked out the "Artist's Market", which is always held around Gateway Center. I think calling the vendors "artists" is generally a bit misleading. By and large the tents contain crafts and such. If you enjoy that sort of thing, more power to you. The people making those products are certainly artisans. There are many fine pieces of handcrafted jewelry, wind chimes, homemade wooden instruments and lots of stock photography. I know I risk sounding like an elitist snob.... but that's not representative of Pittsburgh "arts". Of course, there are always a handful of vendors selling paintings that you couldn't find at every other such event in the country.

I had a short conversation with Kentucky-born transplant and fine artist Mark Traughber. We were both puzzling over the lack of quality artists. Perhaps it has something to do with the jurying process- maybe the organizers don't want to include "challenging" artwork. Or maybe not many local artists take the market seriously enough to consider setting up downtown. I do know that Unicorn Mountain and some local galleries had booths this year, but they only set up for the first session and I missed out on them.

Anyway, it didn't help matters much that the TRAF this year was hampered by the construction going on down at the Point. Usually there is some interesting outdoor sculpture down by the performance stages. This year,the city has decided to fill in the trench that exposed the last surviving wall of Fort Pitt. That's right... on the eve of our 250th anniversary, our leaders are burying our history. Construction is underway, and so the stage and the food booths are jammed in tight with everything else going on. I'm sure there were a few people this year who wondered why they even bothered to fight the traffic. At least there will be more lawn for people to trample while watching the crappy Jimmy Buffet cover bands they always bring in for the Regatta.

Maybe I'm being a bit too harsh. On Saturday night they are having a Flux event (#15) in conjunction with TRAF, and it might redeem my opinion of the festival. There are a lot of good people involved with making that night a success, and I don't want to invalidate the energy they put into it. So show up on Saturday... see what there is to see of the "art" downtown... and then come to the tri-annual celebration of local artists at 610 Smithfield Street. There's free bike parking for the environmentally-conscious.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

St. Anthony's Chapel, Troy Hill, PA.

Every once in awhile it's refreshing to pretend to be a tourist in your hometown. Inevitably there are things going on in the city that rarely cross your mind. It's easy to tell yourself, whenever the attraction lasts several months to a year, that someday soon you'll make the time to pay a visit. But then things come and go, and you realize a week or a month after it's gone that you've simply missed out. When these destinations are "permanent" there is even more of a chance that you will neglect them.

For years I've been telling myself that I'm going to take a trip over to St. Anthony's Chapel in the Troy Hill section of Pittsburgh. A few years ago a group of my friends and I tried to stop by on Easter Sunday. But it was closed to the public that day. We laughed at the irony, and resolved to return again in a few weeks. We never did. Why did we want to see St. Anthony's, anyway? Well... it houses the largest collection of saint's relics in the United States. A man named Father Suitbert Mollinger began acquiring these holy objects in the 1800's, and built the chapel to house them between 1880 and 1883. As their brochure points out- "Over five thousand relics of the saints have reposed peacefully in the chapel for over a hundred years."

The most revered relic in the Chapel is from St. Anthony of Padua. Unfortunately, I don't know what it actually consists of. And since I didn't take the tour, there was no real way to figure it out. Is it a tooth, a femur, a gallstone, or what? There are literally hundreds of sacred containers labeled only in Latin. Where's the the "splinter of the True Cross" (yeah... that one)? Where is the thorn from the Crown of Thorns (uh-huh... you got it)? Where's that piece of stone from the Holy Sepulchre (and just what the heck is a "Sepulchre")? Indeed, other than the top of some unfortunate's skull- many of the actual relics are completely unidentifiable. Yet despite the overwhelming presentation, it's certainly an impressive assemblage.

But one might ask, "How is one to know whether all (or any) of these relics are authentic? Apparently there are documents of authenticity for every last one of them. They are "retained with security provisions by the parish" (so says our friendly brochure). The ambiguity of that assertion is puzzling. Imagine the hellfire and damnation that a theoretical burglar would face if attempting such a heist. Evidently the church caretakers are not confining their preventive measures to heavenly methods. I guess that keeping the artifacts and their accompanying papers in different locations is prudent. Because really... who is going to believe that inner cheek swab originally belonged to St. Francis of Assisi? How are you going to convince the aficionado that the wart scraping at the center of that gilded cross once grew on St. Bartholemew's thumb? It reminds me of the freaky girl in Linklater's Slacker- buzzing around and accosting strangers on the street in order to sell Madonna's pap smear. And shit... that Madonna is still alive.

After you've had a chance to check out the biggest church trophy case in this hemisphere, take a look at the large wooden sculptures representing the "Stations of the Cross". They were made by artists at the Royal Ecclesiastical Art Establishment of Mayer and Company in Munich. And there's plenty of stained glass to look at too. There's even a gift shop. We chose not to stop by, assuming that the good stuff was not for sale. I did notice an advertisement for a picture book of the "Stations" sculptures ($5). That sign was next to another one warning the pilgrim not to take any photographs in the chapel. Since getting some photos was my main reason for coming, I was pretty disappointed. Why are these religious groups so damned proprietary about their treasures? You'd think they'd want to spread the word in any way possible. But since they've cornered this particular market, I guess they can call the shots.

In any case, it is still worth stopping by (it's open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 1-4 PM) . It's an amazing place and a true 'Burgh diamond-in-the-rough. The one piece of advice I'd suggest to the curators- get a more appropriate container for the "Blessed Water". It's sitting there in an oversized plastic jug that makes me think that a rogue gang of monks is going to seize it and tip it over the head of the Holy Father, in celebration of some celestial victory. That's just not right.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

More on Jacob Young.

Just as I expected, the new Jacob Young film was both interesting and entertaining. Todd Walker (along with his "brothers" Davy and Dale) proved to be likable, amusing, and obsessive. The object that Walker suspected to be the biblical artifact of divination (the Urim and Thummin) was indeed wholly unidentifiable. As a focal point of meditation, it did have the requisite qualities to promote hallucinatory visions. Its surface (especially the interior) was both luminescent and oddly-shaped. Walker put the thing in the hands of many witnesses, and their testimony is (at least) indicative of the power of faith.

What passes for expert authority in the Appalachian communities of the film certainly made me chuckle. When Walker wants to find some especially convincing support, he turns to a two-time Jeopardy champion and the manager of the local Auto Zone. Only later does he drive to Vanderbilt University, where academics in religious studies, archeology and psychology demonstrate tremendous diplomacy and tact in meeting with him. Truth be told, it would have been quite easy for them to laugh at Walker from their "ivory towers". Perhaps Young's cameras restrain them. Nevertheless the scholars give generously of their feedback, while every established religious institution pushes Walker away. While Young claims the resistance from church leaders amazed him, I wasn't at all surprised by it. Walker's claims are a direct challenge to their perceived authority. If a bumpkin can receive a holy gift of true vision, then what does that say about the role God has bestowed upon HIS priests?

It was clear during the Q and A session that Young had great affection for his subjects. The director explained that the project was initiated because his producer and partner (Dub Cornet) had a phone number that Walker responded to numerologically. Cornet shot a bunch of video that Young was later tasked with making into a coherent film. Although Young never derived the same otherworldly experiences from the object that others had, he was sure to avoid passing judgment on the phenomena. He absolutely refused to discount Walkers' beliefs. Young pointed out that he needs to be on his subject's side if he is to make a quality documentary. And in order for his films to have any real depth, he has to convey the spirituality of the people in front of the camera. Any element of obvious skepticism would introduce a confrontation that would spoil his intentions. Young is, by his own words, inspired by people on a mission- and the more unlikely his subject is to succeed, the more interesting a subject he/she becomes.

Anyone who spends any substantial time with the works of Jacob Young will understand the purity of his intentions. But that wasn't the case with the network (CBS) executives who pulled the plug on his latest project- The
Real Beverly Hillbillies. Cornet and Young had decided to update the original concept for reality television. They identified an Appalachian family (the Griffeys) and planned to install them in a genuine multi-million dollar mansion in Hollywood. The idea encountered political resistance from people who believed that the show would prove to be patronizing and exploitative. But that was never the intention of the filmmakers. It was Young's contention that all the truly negative portrayals in the original Beverly Hillbillies centered on the city sophisticates. The country-folk were shown to be caring, authentic and morally sound. Young made it a point to select a family that would be an ideal representation of Appalachia. He claims that anyone that met them couldn't help but like them.

When the project was killed, Young and Cornet felt bad that the Griffeys had been promised so much that was later snatched away. They took the money they had left from preproduction and rented a motor home to take the family cross-country. The intention was to both give the Griffey's the grand tour of America and to film a defense of the original concept. The result was a documentary called
The True Adventures of the Real Beverly Hillbillies (2006). Although I haven't seen it, I expect it to be a perfect palliative to the corrosive belief that authentic regional phenomena ought to be sugar-coated or homogenized for public consumption.

In fact I'd say that what I most enjoy about Young's films is their honest depiction of a widely misunderstood region of the country. This is most evident in his Different Drummer collection. I was lucky enough to buy a rough copy of the DVD set from the man himself. I stayed up late last night watching all the episodes. Now you too can be so fortunate as to own this set. Visit the Dancing Outlaw website to purchase it and other fine products.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Not Everything People Do Is Rational.

There are some things in life that simply don't make sense. No matter how you piece the different elements together, they fail to deliver any real cohesive meaning.

For instance, my sister-in-law invited me over to her house, and led me into an unused room to show me a phenomena that had her absolutely baffled. Apparently she lived in the same place formerly occupied by Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparitis (who moved on to play with a club in another city). But what had her confused were the number of holes that were dug into the floor on one side of the room, against the wall. In each one of these, there rested the type of shoebox that clearly once held women's shoes (at least that was my impression).

My sister-in-law paused after she used her hands to dig out the dirt from the sides, freeing just one of the boxes. She looked at me wordlessly, and then removed the lid. She passed the open box to me to have a look. Inside were three chicken wings. More properly they were mini-drumsticks that had been eaten... eaten in the way that people commonly eat drumstick wings. They were taken down to the bone in the center, and the top and bottom of the wings still held the skin and cartilage, and other things not easily consumed. But the weird thing was that they appeared as if they had been hermetically sealed into the containers as recently as an hour ago. They were not discolored (as far as wings are concerned) and there was no mold clinging to the remains. As far as I remember, they had no real scent.

We continued to dig out box after box, with the exact same results. What was truly wierd in retrospect was that my sister-in-law seemed to know what to expect in each of them, as if she had dug those boxes up previously. I never questioned that in the moment, but the floor had seemed smooth and undisturbed. Maybe the whole scenario was just too surreal for me to think through things logically. After several repeats with the wing bones, my sister-in-law paused for dramatic effect with a new box. She looked at me knowingly, and took the lid off- only to expose a steaming hot dog in its bun, resting in and covered by a bath of thick meaty chili. I don't eat chili dogs regularly, because they tend to produce a lot of acid that tears into my stomach lining, making me very sick. But for some reason... this box of piping hot junk food made me hungry.

Some times it's best not to look into things too deeply. Why had Darius Kasparitis buried his mostly-eaten chicken wings into the floor? Why had he then continued to make chili dogs, only to bury them alongside the boxes with the wings? Why did my sister-in-law buy a house that had one bedroom with a dirt floor? There may be no adequate answers to any of these questions. Not everything people do is rational.

And so when I was sitting in the bar last night with a friend, it wasn't unusual for us to be puzzling over the beliefs and voting habits of many of our fellow Americans. Why is it that so many people ignore the impending signs of doom, and continue through their routines, blissfully unaware that humanity has caused possibly irreparable damage to the environment? Furthermore, why don't the people who have real power in our country act to remedy the situation? Perhaps those power brokers are truly too attached to the short-term profits they make from the current energy paradigm. But we might expect that people who have reached those positions in society were at one time particularly able to manage the formation of a long-term plan for success.

Even so, it should have been clear to the majority of ordinary voters that re-electing George W. Bush would not benefit them. One would assume that people would act according to the dictates of understanding of their own enlightened self-interest. Was the administration truly that effective in its manipulation of mass perception? Was the media complicit, and if so- why?

It doesn't make any sense to bury food (whether eaten or not) in the dirt of your bedroom floor. Similarly, very few people have benefited from the years Bush has been president. Sometimes people do irrational things, and we have to accept our own inability to fathom why they do them. Because otherwise we may go mad.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Jacob Young @ Film Kitchen on Tuesday, June 12th.

I know that, during the run of this blog, I've made only scant mention of West Virginian filmmaker Jacob Young. That's a bit of an egregious oversight. Young is one of the most compelling documentarians working in the United States. He's focused his efforts on presenting people and stories from his home state. Of course when you're born in the Mountaineer State (the most beautiful and enigmatic place in the Eastern United States), there is plenty of ground to cover.

Some of Young's early subjects have included Appalachian junkyard owners, the rich industrialist who plagues the land with those goddamned three crosses, the warden from the Moundsville Penitentiary, white supremacist author Dr. William Pierce (author of The Turner Diaries - a book found on Timothy McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombing), and the swami-turned-felon of the North American headquarters of the Hare Krishnas. Young has received some well-deserved praise for his West Virginia Public TV-produced Different Drummer series, which (of course) documented the antics of a string of eccentric WV characters. One episode is about a senior citizen hussy, who dolls herself up and sings show tunes in the dives of the hollers, performing as "Amazing Dolores".

But Young has received his greatest notoriety with The Dancing Outlaw. This was a documentary about the "Last Mountain Dancer", Jesse White. This Boone County native has appropriated at least two alter egos- Elvis (The King) and Satan himself (nicknamed "Jesco"). Young presented White, his family, and his girlfriend in all their backwoods splendor. Jesco assumes center stage as he relates stories about his lamentably departed father and siblings, and his own gas-huffing, thieving, and alcohol-sodden childhood. But when he's not raising hell White plies his trade in a mix of clog and tap dancing, accompanied by bluegrass music. This was his own father's stock-in-trade, and Jesse has aspired to keep the dying art alive.

Having received his fifteen minutes of fame, Jesco later resumed his place in the spotlight when Roseanne Barr became a fan of The Dancing Outlaw. He was actually invited to Hollywood to appear on her show, and Young was along for the ride to document his adventure. All did not go as expected. Barr had Jesco removed from the set when she noticed a tattoo of a swastika on his arm. White later had the offending symbol covered up when he realized its significance. He explains that it was merely a youthful indiscretion.

It would be a more just world if Jacob Young had received as much acclaim and name recognition as Jesco. But his misfortune pays off for us tomorrow. We can actually meet him in person at Pitsburgh Filmmakers in Oakland (Melwood Street). He'll be at Film Kitchen, presenting his newest documentary- Urim and Thummim*. It's about a man named Todd Walker who bought an object at a Nashville Goodwill for 69 cents. Apparently he was pleased to discover that the thing proved to be a visual gateway to both Heaven and Hell. But evidently others were skeptical about his claims. Young followed Walker on a "witness tour" aimed at convincing the locals that the relic was a genuine and miraculous holy object.

If you are so inclined, you can chat with Jacob Young at the reception (7PM) that precedes the screening. I've spoken with him on two previous occasions, and I've found him to be both accessible and generous with his thoughts. But if you are the shy sort, stick around for the Q & A session after the film. It's sure to be illuminating.

* - Find out more about this obscure-sounding title here.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Sunday Drive.

So I managed to escape my house and do something useful today. On Saturday, I had a nice night out seeing Slim Cessna play at Sonny's Tavern, and after getting home I fell into a deep, uninterrupted sleep that lasted until almost noon. M. made some nice breakfast burritos and we watched an episode of Oz. Stepping outside I knew right away that the stage was set for a nice aimless car ride in search of interesting imagery. The sky was deep blue, the light was extraordinarily crisp, and there was a nice breeze. These were exceptional weather conditions, and I was physically (spiritually?) compelled to venture forth. I've been slacking when it comes to photography, and I wanted to once again engage the camera. I decided to drive east, find a side road, and explore.

It's certainly hard to get lost after eighteen years in Western PA. The first few streets I tried led me to enclosed housing developments with only a single access road. Nothing to see there. But there were plenty of curious folks wondering what a stranger was doing in their neighborhood- especially a stranger driving a beat-up foreign car with a smashed fender held together with a Sponge Bob Squarepants band-aid. Obviously people are increasingly gravitating to these little suburban enclaves, where they can insulate themselves from the rest of the world. Maybe if they can't see poor people they can believe that all is well with the world. Anyway, I finally caught some roads on the outer ring of our fair "metropolis", and drove down the forest-lined back-roads that lead to where the very rich people live. The next thing I knew I was in Harmar.

Driving through West Deer, I spotted a sign for some soccer association bordering a senior citizen center, and surrounded by decaying service buildings. What really drew me in was the sight of a degraded basketball court with tall weeds busting through the many cracks in the asphalt, and rusty net-less hoops. It looked like the playground at the end of the world. The property wasn't posted with any "no tresspassing" signs, but I knew that I probably wasn't welcome. But I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to take a few shots. Across the road there was a man mowing his lawn, so I tried to be unobtrusive. Then I was tempted to drive back through the site, and I got out and poked around a bit. At one point a man in an SUV drove up, and I spied on him through a smashed window. At that point my adrenaline was kicking in. But whatever the man saw didn't interest him enough to leave the safety of his vehicle. Perhaps he caught a glance of my great woolly head. Once the guy pulled away, I got back in my car (which was parked behind one of the buildings) and beat a hasty retreat.

After talking to a friend, I had a destination in mind and planned to make a rendezvous. I made a visit to the Rainbow Castle for a pleasant afternoon in the sticks. As always, it's pleasant sitting on the crumbling dock overlooking the pond and talking with the good people. You don't need much more than that, but I picked up some lettuce anyway. I took some photos of the rippling pond, and the vegetation which floats on the surface, and watched as the quality of light transformed with the approaching evening. Afterwards there was still enough of the sun to take a walk through the woods, and I was liberal with the camera. I was maybe even a bit wasteful, as I found my lithium battery running quickly out of juice. I didn't anticipate that being much of a problem, as I believed I had my backup somewhere in the car. Alas I didn't, and so I couldn't even obsessively review my photos as I am wont to do.

With the photography over for the day, I relaxed on the porch and ate dinner with good company. Although I was mildly disappointed about the missing battery, I was able to enjoy the time without being distracted by technology.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Folly of Civilization.

My first week of summer break is almost completed. I had forgotten how easy it is to fall into complete dissolution. I was able to get a few chores accomplished, but by and large I have been way too self-indulgent. It's not that I'm going out every night, but rather that the things I am doing at home are mostly serving no evident purpose. As I approach the reprieve from work, I always have in mind all the great things I will be able to accomplish with free time. I intend to get art projects done and do some traveling. However this year is different in that I didn't identify anywhere specific that I wanted to visit. By this time I usually have done some research into potential destinations, but I was too involved with other things to do that this past spring. So I have nothing to aim for.

A lot of my time has been wasted in front of the computer. I've wasted hours surfing the net. But the most useless activity I've been occupying myself with has been playing a computer game called Civilization 3. If you're not familiar with it- it's a turn-based strategy game in which you are tasked with building a society from virtually nothing. You select a civilization from the past or present (Rome, Greece, Iroquois, Russia, the United States, etc) and you compete with others to eventually attain dominance of a fictional world-map. Your opponents are controlled by the artificial intelligence of the computer. They are after the same thing you are, so you have to outwit them to meet your objective. Once one civilization conquers the world, achieves diplomatic hegemony, occupies a certain proportion of the map, or launches a spaceship in search of new horizons... then the game is over. It takes hours and hours to win, and there are six skill levels (only half of which I have ever been able to beat).

This is not a first-person shoot-em-up like Grand Theft Auto or the myriads of other hyper-violent games available to numb your mind. In Civilzation 3, there are so many components to the challenge that playing it can be mentally exhausting. There is no "right" strategy- it all depends on the location from which you start and the resources available. With as many variables that are introduced, the game is never the same twice. The trick is in finding some kind of balance that allows you to stay one step ahead of everyone else. You decide whether to focus on hoarding wealth, direct resources toward scientific and technological advancements, build a military, concentrate on trade, or just make sure all your people are happy. To succeed, you have to so a bit of everything.

Civ 3 really is the mother af all strategy games. It does require complex analytical skills. If you have any understanding of logarithms, then you automatically have an advantage over an ordinary player. Yet one single game requires such an investment of time, that it's important to know when to cut your losses. You can easily spend a couple of hours setting up the basics of your civilization, only to find out that you have no hope of winning. Believe me- it is spirit-crushing when you realize, after several hours, that it was all in vain. In simple terms of scale and scope, it has the potential of being more frustrating than chess.

Even when I win, victory feels a bit hollow. I get so immersed in the experience that I fool myself into believing that I have actually accomplished something. I have built a complex and efficient model that has stood up to a series of grueling tests. Yet I can't see any clear connection between the skills it takes to master Civilization 3 and the requirements for success in real life. Perhaps I am making intellectual strides that I am not aware of. Maybe I am becoming an adept at resource management. But most likely, all I've managed to do is to turn myself into a big, fat NERD.

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