The Downside of Being Wired


 

 

japan

 

 

HOW MUCH CELEBRITY GOSSIP DO I NEED?

 

Do I need to sign up for e-mail alerts so I can be notified the moment Lindsay Lohan goes back into rehab? What happens if a major Hollywood scandal breaks while I’m asleep? If I am to believe the Internet promotions I routinely receive, I might suffer the greatest humiliation of all, being outside the loop at exactly the time when everyone else in inside.

 

No, there’s simply too much at risk to let my need for celeb news flap in the winds of chance. If I’m going to be a fully-functioning member of society, I have to know what everyone’s talking about and be plugged in 24/7. Thank God for the many Internet “news” services.

 

The last guy who serviced my computer arranged for the MSN home page to pop up whenever I go online.  I haven’t figured out how to change that setting, so I always get my first dose of what doesn’t matter the moment I flip open my laptop.

 

The things we pay attention to matter, at least to us, in that they determine our growth.  We become good at whatever we practice. If I spend more time focused on the sex lives of younger, better looking people than me, my own sex life will suffer, not just in comparison, but in absolute terms.  Only so many of my brain cells can be pre-occupied with sex, and if they’re all given over to the hearsay happenings of people I don’t personally know, then my own sex life is going to be bleak indeed.

 

Entertainment News makes death seem like a aberrant event, and as an entertainment option it is worthy of note for at it’s hard to top death as a story element. So imagine the power of a celebrity death! Taken too young, at the height of his or her beauty! I just googled “celebrity death” and up popped autopsy photos of Heath Ledger and Whitney Houston. Fearing my psyche and sanity were in danger, I closed the page as soon as I realized what I was looking at.

 

I recently toured Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, and ran into a group of American tourists. When I asked them what they were looking for, they confessed they were only interested in finding Eva Peron’s grave. Hers was the only celebrity grave they knew about. Having been of the same mindset on my first visit, I remembered being surprised how relatively humble her crypt was, at least compared to some of her neighbors in the city of death, who were resting underneath a prodigious mountain of marble angels frozen in Victorian gestures of mourning.

 

So it takes the collaboration of historians to separate the merely rich from the famous. I mean, how many of the rich bankers buried there have had musicals written about them, much less a movie starring Madonna?

 

The whole idea behind celebrating only a few important personages has to do with cutting to the chase.  We simply don’t have enough time in any one day to investigate all the people we might encounter, so it’s easier to just keep tabs on a representative few. There, individuals can stand in for whole categories, and we can free ourselves to concentrate on…to notice….to focus on…what’s really important, which is…er, what was I saying?

 

The other great problem with celebrity watching involves the fact that it’s a form of voyeurism.  Watching others from a hidden or secret place is not only creepy, it’s exhausting because there are many more of them than there are you. How do you decide when you’ve spied enough?

 

The few times I’ve been in the presence of a real celebrity, I’ve noticed that they’re pretty much like the rest of us, and that there’s nothing besides the over-familiarity brought by too much photography to explain their specialness. That’s not to say that they’re not perfectly nice, hard-working people who take care of their families and try to do the best they can.

 

Whoever is making a profession of snapping sneaky morgue photos of newly dead celebrities must have moments when he wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders what he’s really accomplishing with the gift of life

 

Being mortal is just one aspect of having feet of clay, and it’s the clay feet that is probably the most important trait besides beauty and talent for someone to qualify for the role of Modern Celebrity.

 

 

Independence, Missouri or Yaguaron, Paraguay?


 

 

 

THE REAL MC COY

We were driving back to Encarnacion from Asuncion when the bus broke down.  There are few paved roads in Paraguay, but we happened to be stopped on one at a pretty-nice-for-these-parts restaurant when the driver informed us that a coolant hose had sprung a leak and we would have to wait for another bus to make the three-hour journey to pick us up.  We would arrive home six hours late. It had already been a long day with the temperature hovering around 100 degrees, and even now past midnight the night was correspondingly warm and muggy.

 

This happened in Yaguaron, a town the local Guarani Indigenous people believe is the Garden of Eden, the home of the original man and woman. As I dozed on a torturously uncomfortable bench, trying to ignore the giant trucks roaring by only a few yards away, I strained to imagine this as the first Paradise. It was impossible to imagine Adam and Eve running around naked here. In fact, I found it hard to imagine life existed here before air-conditioning.

 

But then I remembered when I was in Peru, we visited an island in Lake Titicaca, a giant body of clear, freezing water that stretches from Peru to Bolivia.  The indigenous people who live in the middle of it on the island of Taquile believe that their little island was the home to original man and woman, who sprang from behind two hills on the island, one called Mama hill and the other, Papa hill. Since the lake is at 12,000 feet and the hill rises another 1,000 I was gasping when I reached the top. I couldn’t see any signs of Adam and Eve, but since the setting sun was beaming directly into my eyes, and I was still mostly concerned about catching my breath, they might have been darting about, or hiding behind goats.

 

But why venture so far for our origins? Closer to home, near Independence, Missouri, seventy miles north of Kansas City to be exact, is a site the Mormons believe to be the Garden of Eden. Like Paraguay, Northern Missouri is soybean country, and it strains credulity to think that our first earthly paradise lost is now Roundup Ready. Here, in Jackson County, Missouri, proto-uber father Adam called all his sons together and gave them his blessing just before he died at the age of 930. All this was revealed to Mormon founder and Prophet Joseph Smith, who saw the scene in his mind’s eye before the arrival of the fast food restaurants and motels which now celebrate what the Mormons celebrate as the birthplace of mankind. 

 

Maybe somebody could organize a colloquium so the Guarani and Quechua speaking indigenous peoples of Paraguay and Peru, as well as Mormons of America could argue why their claim to the birthplace of all mankind should be honored and the others discounted. It seems only logical that there can be only one Garden of Eden, right?

 

We treat matters of religious belief as harmless individual preferences, the equivalent of preferring one brand of cola to another, but not a week goes by when I don’t read in the newspapers about someone dying from religion, usually a child in an exorcism gone wrong, or a sick person who won’t take the medicine that has been scientifically proven to be helpful because he already asked Santo Expedito for help, and to try to hedge his bet would be an insult to the patron saint of urgent causes. Religion can be deadly, no doubt about it.

 

Turns out that molecular biologists are now able to synthesize cloned life forms from their DNA.  You can send someone an email with the DNA code as an attachment, and using those instructions, create a clone at a distant location. And this is just the first step in what promises to be a real eye opener for anyone who cares about the difference between science and “Creation Science.” What took natural selection a billion years of hit or miss can now be done precisely and to order in a few days. 

 

So a Mars Rover could scoop up some dried Martian algae, analyze its genetic spectrum and then beam that information back to earth in less than five minutes. That same piece of algae could be recreated here on earth. 

 

I hope I’m alive when this sort of thing comes to pass. The Bible tells us that Adam lived to be 930, but if we can get cracking with stem cells and start replacing worn out body parts, who knows how long a non-smoking bicyclist and swimmer like me could last?

 

 

HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT WE KNOW AND DOES SCHOOLING HELP?


WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW?

 

Newton used a prism to discover that light is composed of colors, first noticing five familiar colors, then upon closer inspection, seven. He wanted there to be seven colors to correspond to the seven notes of a well-tempered musical scale. Like most scientists, he was pleased by elegant solutions and unified theories.

 

But there really is no strict declination of colors, for light is a gradient, a spectrum of frequencies. He just felt like naming seven. He could have decided sunlight is composed of three colors, or three thousand. We create categories to simplify our observations, and sometimes we forget that our simplifications are also reductions. We end up believing our own bullshit.

 

The distinctions we draw and the categories we create probably say more about us than they do about the outside world.

 

In Russian, there are two words for the color blue. Goluboy corresponds to what we call “light blue” and siniy describes “dark blue.” Why they have chosen to delineate the color blue in this way is anybody’s guess. When asked, Russians will often say that the color represented by the word “goluboy” is more closely related to what we call green than it is to the color represented by their word “siniy.” What are we to make of that?

 

Borges talked about a highly idiosyncratic Chinese text, The Celestial Encyclopdia of Beneficial Knowledge in which animals were grouped in the following manner : those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained, suckling pigs, mermaids, fabulous ones, stray dogs, those included in the present classification, those that tremble as if they were mad, innumerable ones, those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, others, those that have just broken a flower vase, those that from a long way off look like flies.

 

We are all familiar with the story about Eskimos having many different words to describe ice and snow, for frozen water forms the majority of their environment, but that doesn’t mean that Eskimos really think about or understand water any differently than the rest of us.

 

The act of writing, of putting thoughts on paper or the Internet, of public discourse and discussion is related to, but fundamentally different from, just thinking about stuff. Great writers tell us what we already know, but in the process they codify it succinctly, so it´s not just floating around all nebulous inside our heads.

 

The codification process often involves categorization, but making categories stands in the way of digging what Buddhists call the “suchness” of things, or what Thoreau called “the bloom of present moment.” The process of dissection kills the patient. 

 

There is an indigenous language in Patagonia that contains a word which describes the moment when two people who are attracted to each other don´t know what to do or say next. In effect, it describes the moment before the kiss. We only have a word for the kiss itself, but they’re just as interested in the build-up.

 

So how do we know what we know and how do we talk about it with others? If you’re psychic, you’ve come across the difficulty many times before. When someone asks you “how do you know that?” you pause and then reply “I just do, that’s all.”

 

In academia, precious new is revealed, but there are still people writing their dissertations on the writings of Shakespeare and Jane Austin. Academia fails to reward brash creativity as much as it honors windy discourse. There are precious few full-time academic positions in the Humanities, and the downfall of many a practicing creative writer has been to leap at the offer of one only to lose his or her soul in the process.

 

Originality is not held in the same regard in all parts of the world.  In Asia, being a cohesive member of society is valued more than being a daring rebel. Tribal people don’t think of themselves as individuals in the same way Americans do.  They probably have no word for “rugged individualism.” When Guatemalan indigenous writer Rigoberta Manchu won the Nobel Prize in literature for her memoir of the government massacres of her tribe, a Western academic later found that parts of narrative described events that had not actually happened to her, but rather to another member of her tribe.  She readily admitted the license she took, saying “In my people, we don’t make such distinctions.” For a while there was talk of withdrawing the prize, but then the sticklers decided to let it ride.

 

Writers actually make terrible writing teachers because if they knew exactly what they were doing when they were writing, the process of writing wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. This probably holds true for painters, dancers and composers, as well. There are a million ways to make enough money to survive, and most of them aren’t as lethal to inspiration as sitting in a little room with the title of “professor” written on the door, grading papers and unmasking plagiarism.

 

But getting back to the way we see and talk about the world…there’s much more out there than we give the world credit for. You can troll the Internet looking for the unusual and bizarre, or scan websites looking for celebrity news and scandals, but that process doesn’t lead to an appreciation of the complexity and majesty of human experience. In fact, it’s counterproductive to that cause. Surf the web too long and you begin to get a bad taste in your mouth. Chronic disappointment.

 

There are seven billion people on this planet, and each one of them shares the same hopes and fears. What a maze of possibilities! Add to that the absolute certainty that we’re all going to die and we haven’t the faintest idea when…what a crucible within which to meld the elements of Drama!

 

Habituation is the enemy of discovery, and a lot of the products or forums we have created to celebrate life have developed the strange ability to demean it while pretending to do just the opposite. Beware of institutions and the second-hand access to what is important and real that they peddle.  They have stolen your birthright and now want to peddle it back to you with their certifications and branding attached.

 

Most real learning occurs outside of an institutional setting.Image

Argentina, Paraguay, Thailand


Characteristics of the Inhabitants of Argentina, Paraguay and Thailand

In the United States, a fast food manager is a team leader, working faster and harder than the less experienced employees. The managers at Argentine McDonalds act like supervisors in the Argentine government. They assiduously avoid work, and instead gaze with dispassionate amusement at the long lines of clients waiting for service. Their attitude conveys “I have a job and you have a problem.”

If two managers meet, they make great displays of kissing each other and if it were still permitted, they would light each other’s cigarettes and sip little cups of espresso. They positively glow with satisfaction in groups of two, for then they can do even a better job of ignoring the customers.

Argentines worship dogs. An argentine without a dog is nobody at all, and he proudly walks the dog as if the dog were walking him. The sidewalks are littered with dog poop, but the citizenry feel this is a small price to pay for hosting such royal creatures.

In Thailand, there are hundreds of very dirty stray dogs, some of which are suffering from accidents with cars or fights with other dogs.  In Vietnam there are no dogs on the streets. They eat them.

In Paraguay, people are relatively soft spoken.  Argentines, on the other hand, often seem to be screaming so that someone far away or deaf can hear them. Sometimes you will hear someone down the block shouting and then when he walks past, you’ll see he’s merely talking into a cell phone.

Paraguayan men shake hands with any men they meet, even if the group is large. They also kiss all women on both cheeks.  In Argentina, people make a symbolic cheek peck upon being introduced. Compared to Paraguayans, Argentines all have loads of personality, and often seem to be auditioning for a role in a television commercial.

In Thailand, being soft-spoken is a sign of high rank. The most educated people almost whisper when speaking. You’ll almost never hear a horn honked even though the traffic is horrible, because to do so would indicate that you were not in control of your emotions, and hence low-class.

When Thais get drunk, they change completely, some becoming aggressive and mean.  The “land of smiles” act vanishes completely. I once had a drunk Thai policeman ask me to drink with him.  When I declined, he became furious and showed me his pistol, threatening to kill me.  I told him I was a Mormon and could not drink, and that satisfied him, for he had heard of the Mormons.

For some reason, no matter what country I’m in, local people ask me for directions.  Not a day goes by when I’m not stopped on the street two or three times and asked where something might be found. Since I am only ever half able to communicate, I point to myself and say  “tourist!”

When I was younger and used to travel in Mexico, rural people would assume I was a priest.  In cities, I’ve been mistaken for a psychiatrist. Now, I probably just look like a retired college professor.  At any rate, people still assume I have answers to their travel queries, even though I rarely understand the questions.Image

 

here is a link to the author reading this piece

Sanity as a Choice


ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE

 

A popular song with that lyric and title was written by Johnny Mercer, a troubled alcoholic who fortunately was buddies with Bing Crosby, the singer every song-writer wanted to pitch a song to. But he was right, happiness is a choice, and what you focus on will grow right in front of your eyes. If you find yourself staring in fascinated horror at something ugly, pretty soon the whole world will seem just as ugly.

 

If you are extremely jet-lagged, as I am at this moment, and you can’t sleep because the middle of the night is the middle of the afternoon where you just came from, you have a choice. You can toss and turn in bed, or get up and watch dawn brighten the skies and listen to the birds wake up. Every day offers a hundred chances to make similar decisions, and how you choose will determine your emotional reaction to that day. In fact, no matter what happens or doesn’t happen, just making a decision to accentuate the positive will make you feel happy.

I know this, but knowing it doesn’t help.  What about when I feel bored, or sad, or anxious?  Should I take action? If so, what?

 

There must be something that I can do to make my life more enjoyable and meaningful, but there are many things I can do nothing about, and I must merely accept as they are if I want to have a chance at peace of mind. Yes, Pakistan and India may be on the brink of nuclear war, yes boats loaded with unwelcome immigrants frequently sink, drowning all aboard. If you watch a lot of news broadcasts, it always seems like the world is in a terrible state, that turmoil is normal, and that peace of mind or satisfaction are only possible for the especially lucky or super-rich. This lie is quite seductive, and the persistence of its telling only amplifies its negative power.

 

There must be a way to find what is real, and thereby determine what is individually important. What do I really want to do? I can only answer that by first letting go of what I think somebody else thinks I should be doing.  Following somebody else’s guidance isn’t going to get me anywhere.  I won’t, however, be able to accurately guide myself if my thinking is clouded because I’ve been accentuating the negative and I feel like I’m marooned in a sea of problems.

 

Back when navigation was more difficult, people somehow managed to steer boats across vast distances and arrive at their intended locations. On a journey that took weeks, they did this by taking many measurements and making many small corrections.  It’s not fast, it’s not simple, but it works.  Today, GPS can tell you where you are within a margin of error of two centimeters, anywhere n the planet.  Still, there are many lost souls wandering the globe, waiting for something to happen that will give them a sense of destiny and a feeling of being at home.

 

                                                                       

I know, I’m one of them. But I don’t read maps so much as make decisions based on intuition. That valley over there looks interesting. Wonder what’s just beyond that next rise?

 

I find that maps are a tease.  They give you a false sense of security, of knowing a place when you don’t really know it at all.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a map and determined it will take me two hours to travel from one point to another, only to find it took twelve hours, because the road that seemed only inches long ended up as a twisting lane through spectacular scenery. Other times, I’ve endured the most uninspired landscapes merely because a map suggested it would be the best way to get where I was going.  No, I try not to pay any attention to maps, because map makers and I aren’t interested in the same things.

 

My traveling decisions are made on a gut level, bypassing my brain completely.  I’ve enjoyed some pretty dumpy places, and been bored silly in some pretty nice ones. I surely wouldn’t want to be in the business of recommending travel sites and accommodations to others, because I don’t think most people are delighted by the same things I am. That’s my beef with travel writing. It assumes a lot, and it pretends that recreational travel is more exotic and transformational than it can ever hope to be.  It’s promotional writing not just for the places it mentions, but for the whole concept of travel as a drug, a remedy for an empty life.