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Archive for May, 2010

With our baby Mathilda reaching the ripe old age of nine months next Tuesday, that means her lifespan has finally surpassed the duration of her gestation. That 39-week period of pregnancy now seems like ancient history, a brief but poignant window in the distant past of my own checkered life story. Before it grows any more distant, I’d like to take this opportunity to recount for posterity the story of Millie’s birth and my ascension to the stage of papa-hood.

It was a balmy Monday night at the tail end of August, and the clocks were striking full term. We retired for bed at around our usual hour, I with a Hans Fallada novel and the wifey with her arsenal of wedges and form-fitting pillows. Not many z’s later, in the small hours of the night, she hopped out of bed and made a jaunt to the toilet — a not so uncommon occurrence at this late stage in the game. She returned to bed with cryptic reports of heavy flow and speculations of broken water, after which we both fell quickly back to sleep.

In the morning we woke and made our best attempts to take stock of the situation. Mainly this consisted of Franzi sharing the uncertain details of her nocturnal emissions and describing her current physical condition. At that point the earth did not appear to be trembling under her feet, but major activity was beginning to look eminent.

We listened with special care to the Writer’s Almanac to see who famous had been born on this day. We were somewhat disappointed to hear Garrison Keilor recount Germany’s infamous invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. We decided to consult Wikipedia’s ‘this day in history’ column instead, and thought under the circumstances that we ought to look ahead to Sept. 2. We didn’t get that far, but we did read about the September 1, 1804 discovery by German astronomer Karl Ludwig Harding of a major asteroid, which he named Juno. Juno, like the Roman goddess of wifehood, had a nice ring to it.

At that point we decided I ought to go on off to work, but be alert for any sudden change of circumstances. So to work I went. Around lunch hour Franzi went to see her acupuncturist, and called me shortly after to report some unusually intense contractions. At that point, despite a brief spell of wooziness on the acupuncture table,  things still seemed well enough under control, but we agreed that I probably out to close shop a couple hours early and try to get back to the home front by 4:30 or so, to be on the safe side.

After some small delay at the shop, I didn’t manage to get out until around 4:30, at about which time I got another phone call, this one accompanied by a striking sense of urgency. Contractions of increasing depth and frequency were now being timed on the stop watch. Coming down Grand Ave towards the house I got one more call, now at the point of what we might call panic, and by now I was in the driveway.

Bolting through the front door, I found Franzi wandering, with pain and anxiety, somewhere between the shower and the toilet. Our midwife Edana and Meagan her assistant were already on their way. In the meantime, Franzi tossed her cookies and I think I convinced her to hang out in the shower for a bit.

Armed with my dad’s old-school track & field stopwatch, I then set out to time the contractions. The proved to be less straight-forward than I had expected. So we used a website set up specially for contraction timing, and that was slightly easier. At any rate, we were clearly looking at some pretty serious contractions within two to five minute of each other.

Within a few more minutes Meagan arrived, finding Franzi at the porcelain temple, and put the two of us at a certain sense of ease. Edana meanwhile was driving up and down Farrell St. trying to get to our house with the birthing tub she picked up in Cayucos. Not knowing exactly where she was or why, and verging on a bit disorientation myself, I did my best to give her clear directions. Somehow she managed to arrive within another couple minutes.

Into the house she came like she knew what she was doing. I did my best to avail them of towels and ice cubes and cotton balls and all the various things were we assigned to keep at the ready. As the setting sun glared into bedroom window, the room had become unbearably hot, and I spent some time going back and forth trying to get things comfortable for mother and midwives alike. Comfort, at this point, however, was something of an unobtainable ideal. So I set out to provide drinking a selection of refreshments: water, juice, energy drinks, and a straw.

By now it was probably close to 6 p.m. and all were eager for the midwife to examine the state of dilation. As the intensity of contractions had become virtually unbearable, Franzi was especially anxious to know where things stood. “If it’s just 2 or 3 cm., I’m outta here!” Sure enough, Edana detected about a 9 cm dilation. Seems like she’d arrived just in time. And not a moment too soon, because Franzi’s next question was whether to start pushing. “Whenever you’re ready,” was the cordial reply.

And ready she was, because not more than 20 minutes later, with mommy sprawled on hands and knees across our bed, our baby had begun crowning. And by 6:30 we had a fifth person in the room. Edana took it upon herself to clip the unusually short cord, while I looked over, dumbfounded, and uttered, “It’s, uh, a girl.”

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With deep gratitude to the investigative journalism of Michael Pollan and to the burgeoning intrusion of natural fiber alternatives into the fashion industry, the general public is growing increasingly aware of the need for a revival of sustainable agriculture. In a climate of concern and sometimes desperation, buzzwords like green, organic and sustainable may be cast into the breeze like so many granules of pollen, but they mean little without a proper context for understanding the roots of this thorny issue. Agronomy is not a subject to be mastered overnight, but one to be studied over the seasons of a lifetime. For now let’s consider the modern method of monocropping.

In the past 80 years or so, the art and science of agriculture has undergone an astonishing transformation in order to keep up with the hyperbolic rate of world population growth. The need to extract an ever-growing quantity of produce — whether for food, fuel or fiber — from a planet of limited resources has required a massive wave of innovation among an ever-shrinking number of increasingly specialized farmers. The capacity of these mega-farms to meet the demand of global consumption with sufficient supply and minimal prices represents a genuine triumph of modern civilization. But (you knew there’d be a but, right?), at what cost?

One of the key components of this hyper-efficient system of modern farming involves the technique of cultivation called monoculture, growing huge areas of a single crop, such as the millions of acres in and around Iowa farmed exclusively for corn. If you visit almost any major farm in the world, you will see this technique in practice, row after identical row of crop X, bred to perfect uniformity and invariable mediocrity. The tidy, geometric rows may bear a certain appeal to the post-industrial, minimalist sense of aesthetic, but the impact on both the farmland and the finished product can be detrimental.

In the old days of subsistence farming, a family would plant variegated rows of roots, tubers and vegetables to ensure themselves a diverse diet come harvest time. But because each crop has its own soil nutrient and water needs, not to mention pruning and harvesting methods, this method of “polyculture” is certainly not the most efficient for large scale production. On the other hand, it does tend to yield a more nutritious and full flavored product with minimal pest and disease issues.

These are the chief problems we can associate with monocropping. When thousand of acres of broccoli or cotton, for example, are cultivated en masse, they are guaranteed to deplete the soil of those specific nutrients that broccoli or cotton use most. Industrial agriculture addresses this issue with the heavy application of chemical fertilizers. Residue and run-off from these petrochemical fertilizers has been demonstrated  to be potentially harmful to both the habitat and the end consumer.

Secondly, monocropping results in the crop’s severe vulnerability to pests and diseases. An unnaturally high concentration of a given plant is sure to attract and support an unnaturally high number of whichever pests thrive on that plant, while their natural predators will remain absent or ineffective. Likewise, a plant-specific disease could spread like the plague across the exposed acreage of monoculture. Again, these man-made challenges are overcome with manmade solutions, i.e. the heavy application of pesticides and insecticides, with whose risks we are already familiar, those which chemical companies like Monsanto fervently deny.

How to draw the greatest efficiency out of a plant without chemically-intensive monocropping is a leading concern among organic farmers. Many have simply resorted to the use of more natural and organic fertilizers, animal-derived but industrially produced. But we might also look to nature for her solutions.

Unlike cotton and broccoli, there are a number of plants that actually thrive in monoculture conditions. Take the giant redwood, for example. They can stand alone, with reasonable success, in parks and gardens up and down the west coast, but only in vast swaths do they truly thrive. In their native habitat, these evergreen macro-organisms generate a climate of their own, attracting storm systems to satisfy their unquenchable thirst, while also sheltering one another from the high winds. As these old-growth forests shrink, the viability of individual trees is put at peril. That ecological sensitivity makes redwoods less than ideal as a crop for commercial cultivation, but under responsible forest management, other trees can be grown and harvested for lumber with a minimal environmental impact.

In addition to certain trees, many grasses also thrive in a monoculture. One of these grasses is bamboo. Not only does it renew itself with ease (similar to your front yard after it’s mown), and grow at record rates of several inches (even up to a couple feet) per day, but it also flourishes in the modern farmers’ ideal setting: the monoculture. Hence it can be cultivated on a commercial scale with minimal unnatural assistance. As a lumber alternative, its rate of renewability outpaces most trees by about 10 or 20 to one. As a fiber alternative, it leaves cotton in the dust; conventional cotton, after all, is subjected to more heavy chemical crop dusting than any other plant on the planet.

So if you’re concerned about sustainable agriculture, you need to be thinking about alternatives to unnatural monocropping. But if you’re interested in agricultural efficiency, you may find the large scale of monoculture all too enticing. While something of a botanical phenomenon, bamboo cannot and should not replace replace every other source of lumber and fiber on the planet, but it certainly cannot be ignored. It must play a major role in the global polyculture of the future, as we struggle to meet the needs of a shrinking planet, a mushrooming population, and an overburdened environment.

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Here at the church of post-modern neo-Jungian universal ecumenicism, our chief wellspring of holy scripture — apart from “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” and Campbell’s “Masks of God” tetralogy — rises from the fecund pages of Joyce’s “Ulysses”.  Of course, no holy text can provide anything but a poor substitute for genuine experience, but it never hurts to dip your cup into the wisdom of the ages.

In yesterday’s tract on the never-ending road to enlightenment and the inaccessibility of the divine, we arrived with some confidence at the conclusion that the path of righteousness has no conclusion, that the journey in fact is the destination. A cursory glance at the Bloomsday epic, however, and the contraindications nearly fall off the page, at a whopping thirty-two feet per second per second. It’s not that the Promised Land is unreachable, but that it can only be reached by surreptitious entry.

Stephen makes numerous comments to the effect that there can be no redemption without a transgression, that “there can be no reconciliation if there has not been a sundering.” Later Leopold likewise realizes while fondling in his pocket a rotten black potato, that “the remedy is found where you least expect it.” Or has elsewhere been said, the only way to know God is to deny him. Such Joycean anecdotes are enough to satisfy my spiritual inquiry, but the New Testament is not without its own supporting examples.

The Book of Luke offers a series of Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and most famously the Prodigal Son. Each story illustrates the idea that what is lost and then found is more precious that what was never lost at all. The Prodigal Son tell of a younger son who claims his inheritance early, before his father’s death, then runs off to “waste his substance with riotous living.” When the fortune is gone, he comes meekly home and throws himself at his father’s mercy, finding that his father’s love is now stronger than ever. Meanwhile, the older and unwavering brother, after seeing his sibling showered with affection after squandering his legacy on fine food and harlots, is more than a trifle peeved.

” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” (Luke 15:31-32)

To find one’s way in the truest sense then, one must first lose himself completely, or so this series of parables would suggest. The lost sheep and the lost coin are no different: first they seem to be lost for good, but once found are treated like favorites. The prodigal son leaves a deeper impression, however, because he doesn’t simply lose himself in the woods, but intentionally takes off with his father’s money and consciously lives a life of unrestrained sin and decadence.

While the path of piety only brings one to the brink of the Promised Land, to be seen in reflection or admired from afar, the road of perdition somehow leads around to the back door and with a sudden change of heart sends the gates swinging wide open. Hardly a positive message for guiding the children, but so it goes. The Book of Luke does not necessarily reflect the thoughts and opinions of this blog or its humble author.

But if for the time being we can leave the children to their own devices, perhaps we can find a kernel of truth buried somewhere deeper. There are those — and let’s assume the prodigal son’s older brother is one — who live a good and proper life only out of obedience, because they are following the laws and rules as told to them by their preachers, parents and law enforcement officers. Their goodness is not derived from a purity of heart, in such cases, but merely a willingness to obey.

The actions and misdeeds of the younger son will foster in him something that his older brother, as a habitual do-gooder, may never have fully developed: a conscience. The correlation between conscience and consciousness can’t possibly be overstated. The linguistic kinship of these two words is immediately evident; the French, in fact, have only a single word for these two concepts. The older brother who never strays off the path takes his instructions from without, but the brother who returns from afield must have found an authority within. And when the inner guide takes charge, one need no longer look elsewhere for the answers. He has arrived. By dint of this inner authority, the conscience, he has ascended to a higher level of consciousness, one step closer to the divine.

And so it goes on the fabled Dublin night crawl, rampant with infidelity, debauchery, and hopeless meandering. Till at last they recognize the error of their ways, or at least the limitations of the flesh. Stephen and Leopold then come together as spiritual father and son, atoned in mutual imperfection, at one with heaven and hell, at home by way of an unbroken kitchen window, and at ease under the earthy aegis of Penelope.

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In the late eighteenth century, few Europeans had as firm a grasp on metaphysics as the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and the firmness of his grasp was based largely on his admission that the Higher Spirit was not something that could be grasped with any certainty. Though some devotees still insist on the mantra “Seek and ye shall find,” mythologies of the world tend to echo the idea of the Supreme Being as ineffable, Enlightenment unattainable, and the true Tao untouchable.

A kaleidoscope of myths illustrates this paradox of the spiritual quest quite beautifully, but Kant’s air-tight reasoning and rock-solid logic also convey the point with a sublime, left-brained elegance. His equation from the “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” (1783) says it all: a:b = c:x. Not exactly the Diamond Sutra you say, but it does contain a few sparkling kernels of wisdom. Let’s have a look.

With this deceptively simple ratio, Kant takes “a” and “b” to represent a clock and a clockmaker, or a regiment and a commanding officer. Meanwhile, “c” is meant to stand for the physical universe and “x” the unknowable creator, or what Kant calls the Supreme Understanding. So x, or what you might call God, remains a mystery beyond our comprehension; but we can still understand the relationship, the proportion if you will, between the cosmos and Creator, just as we might understand the more familiar relationship between a novel and its author or a symphony and its composer.

“By means of such an analogy, I can obtain a notion of the relation of things that are absolutely known to me,” Kant explains. “For instance, as the promotion of the welfare of children (=a) is to the love of parents (=b), so the welfare of the human species (=c) is to that unknown character in God (=x), which we call love; not as if it had the least similarity to any human inclination, but because we can suppose its relation to the world to be similar to that which things of the world bear one another.”

Kant demonstrates then that our knowledge of “x” can only be derived indirectly. We cannot know x per se, but we can presume to know the universe’s relationship with x. In other words, we realize that we can never truly achieve Enlightenment, but we can do an adequate job of describing the path leading towards it. Just as the teachers have said for so many centuries, it is better to travel than to arrive.

Such wisdom is familiar from the East: “The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.” But the West is no stranger to this knowledge either, even in the early hours of the Old Testament, where Moses leads the epic Exodus towards the Promised Land. The path of righteousness was enough to delivery his people out of bondage, and it is over the course of their journey, even as they wander, that Moses receives the Commandments and the gift of manna from Yahweh.

But as they approach their destination in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses himself is denied entrance to the Promised Land. As with the greatest mysteries of life, God allows Moses to look upon the Promised Land from afar, but not to enter. Like Kant’s unknowable x, it can only be seen indirectly, as from a distant plateau.

“And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I swear unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.” (Deuteronomy 34:4)

We do not follow the Way that we may enter and collect a prize for ourselves, but that we may create a legacy of wisdom and compassion for the benefit of future generations. Neither can we attain eternal life, but we can live a fuller life when we immerse ourselves in the present journey rather than obsess over the ever-elusive destination.

When asked what enlightenment is like, D.T. Suzuki responded, “It’s just like normal life, except about two inches off the ground.” Zen masters are notorious for speaking in riddles, but at least they’re open about it. Two inches off the ground sound like a nice place to be, but it’s not a place you can stay. As with the Promised Land, we may, in our clearest moments, enjoy only an indirect or evanescent glimpse.

Enlightenment is not a resting place, but a perpetual daily practice. If we think we have arrived, then we know it is not the true destination. Or in the more mundane words of Gertrude Stein, “There isn’t there any more.”

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Following yesterday’s blog entry on Spiral Dynamics, Neil Armstrong today addressed a Senate hearing and spoke of the Obama space program with strong words of criticism that betray a disappointingly low level of consciousness for the first man to have stepped foot on the moon.

“If the leadership we have acquired is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered,” said the space legend. “I do not believe that this would be in our best interests.”

As mankind plunges into space, it should be more obvious than ever that the time for such ethnocentric jingoism has long passed. Reaching into the vast mysteries that lie beyond planet earth, the need to think and act as one organized species seems as clear as the starry sky. Yet these fabled astronauts and feeble politicians insist on dividing the planet into tribes and rival factions.

Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) only echoed Armstrong’s outdated ideology: “I do not look forward to explaining to my children why the Chinese are putting their flag on the moon over ours.”

Pragmatically speaking, we all know what a vital interest the moon flag serves for our country and for the advancement of humanity. That is to say, no purpose whatsoever, save that of beating the barbaric drum of national pride. That we can look to the moon, or rather to a photograph of the moon, and see the stars and stripes waving in the  atmosphere-free, vacuous breeze (held up by a wire, in fact) assures us that we belong to a nation capable of accomplishing the most incredible things, a nation superior to all others, a nation to whom every every nationality should bow with obsequious envy and supplication.

Abandoning the space race, as Obama appears to be doing, would indicate an abdication from this high and mighty position of intergalactic dominion. I can’t claim to be an expert on the administration’s space policy, and I’m not going to suggest that such a policy proves a higher level of consciousness for the president or any of his advisors. I only point out these critical comments for the bluntness of their obsolescence, the anachronism of their world view.

None of this means that Armstrong or LeMieux are necessarily bad people, or wicked or unintelligent. They simply continue to view the world through a lens of consciousness more fitting to the last century, if not earlier. Not to say that the world is ready at this time to abolish the concept of nation states, for they still serve a number of necessary functions. But to identify with the nation as an individual, to insist on some sort of superiority based on your association with a certain nationality, namely that nation within whose borders you were born, this is not a paradigm that offers anything in the way of personal growth or collective improvement. Thinking like this only reinforces the walls of separation and encourages competition of the unhealthiest form, not to mention bigotry and xenophobia.

If our species intends to continue its foray into the heavens, our leaders must first arrive at the understanding that we can accomplish far more by working together than by working at odds. Far too much territory remains to be explored and subdued within our own hearts and minds before we go casting our greed, our pride and our arrogance into the lily-white of the Milky Way.

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The Monistic view that we are all of one spirit and substance often gives rise to the misconception that we are all equal and the same. Recognizing the intrinsic interconnectedness in everything does help to dismantle the illusory wall of separation, and it can eliminate the need for feelings of desire and aversion toward those things we think of as ‘other’. And by realizing that we live and operate in concert with all things, we can identify sensations of greed, envy, vanity and contempt as self-defeating and render them obsolete, as absurd as a rivalry between your pancreas and spleen. But this should not be confused with the free anarchy of absolute equality.

Specialization among the cells and organs is as vital to the well-being of the organism as the differentiation among individuals is to the health of the Whole. The role performed by each unit remains equally indispensable, but certain organs will always perform higher functions than others. Brain cells, for example, may be more highly developed than skin cells, but that hardly makes us want to replace one with the other. A dolphin operates at a higher level than a jellyfish, yet both play a vital role in the oceanic drama.

In human terms, we can all agree that a university professor functions at a higher state than a two-year-old toddler. We might also make claims, though it’s difficult to say with certainty, that one is more valuable to society than the other. Compare the university scholar to the olympic athlete, and such value judgments become even more debatable. Compare yourself to an Australopithecine, and then to an angiosperm, and there’s no problem distinguishing between higher and lower levels of consciousness, without risk of treading into the realm of eugenics. Such distinctions also allow you to feel more compassion toward a chicken that you would for a beanstalk.

Cognitive scientists — including Clare Graves, Don Beck, Chris Cowan and Ken Wilber — have gone to great lengths to establish more or less rigid hierarchies that differentiate the various levels of human consciousness, generally corresponding with stages of historical and personal development. Most biologists agree, for example, that humans were evolved from reptiles and lower life forms, and that we still retain elements of that reptile brain in our deep instincts for basic survival and our fight-or-flight responses. Over hundreds of millions of years, more and more layers have piled on, so that the human mind looks something like an onion with our critical thinking and abstract communication skills at the outermost layer of an immensely complex organ that transcends history and continues to defy our understanding.

All this is roughly akin to the theory of Spiral Dynamics, in which Ken Wilber has identified various level of consciousness that can be associated with various modes of spirituality, each building upon one another. The earliest stage, or lowest tier, we can call ego-centric and can associate with early hunter-gatherer societies and magic religions (i.e. religions that make no distinction between the myth and the waking world), and young children who write letters to the North Pole in early December.

Next tier encompasses the ethnocentric consciousness, as seen in those religions whose followers deem themselves the Chosen ones, and in the ultra-patriotic ideologues who still send their children marching off to war. Like the onion brain, we all retain these early levels, and we all oscillate between levels, but there’s the idea that we tend mostly to think and act at one level, our center of gravity.

Today, many find their center of gravity at the tier of Reason. At this very rational level, people can be so determined to reject the spiritual mythos of the lower levels, that they fail to recognize the dogmatic intransigence of their own belief system. Nothing can shake the certitude of science and its capacity to explain away all the phenomena of the universe, or the faith that science can and will in time solve whatever minutiae of mystery remains.

The world-centric tier has been gaining steam in recent decades. At this level, individuals embrace multiculturalism and the Gaia based religions that honor the earth and all its biodiversity. Ironically, many at this level are so devoted to egalitarianism that they fail to recognize the difference in levels, the difference that this model of Spiral Dynamics is so determined to illustrate.

Two thousand years ago no one would ever have reached the scientific level of consciousness; today most of us get there in our middle teenage years. Meanwhile, hardly anyone in our lifetime will raise their center of gravity to the integral, being-centric stage of consciousness, but two thousand years from now, according to this model, most people will probably get there around adolescence, and advance to even higher tiers from there.

We can discuss those higher tiers later, the point for now is that we acknowledge this hierarchy of consciousness as another way of evaluating our spirituality. Last week I examined religious ideologies on the grounds of utility and pragmatic functionality, how they serve us and those around us, and how they act to improve our thoughts and actions. Now we have one more scale by which to gauge our level spiritual consciousness, one more set of criteria by which to adjust our sights for a new paradigm.

And when we look closer, it’s simple to see that all these competing religions themselves are merely tools, timeworn tools that can be handled in as many different ways as there are hands. Whosoever operates the tool is responsible for making it more or less useful, and for experiencing its mystique according to his own center of gravity. It is the onus of the individual to Let there be light and to bring the Law down from the mountain top.

“Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?” — John 10:34

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Aphorism #6

What we call Truths are but stones in a river. Stand firm with one and you will always be safe, you will never get wet, and you will never reach the other side.

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