Monday, February 28, 2011

Sacred Cows

Sometimes a picture is worth four or five hundred words.

(Ben There has been really, really busy, but has not forgotten about his esteemed blog. The regular nonsensical gibberish insightful commentary will resume shortly.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

12 X 12: A Review

William Powers’ 12 X 12: A One Room Cabin Off The Grid & Beyond The American Dream is described as ‘a memoir of what can be gained by going without’. It is the author’s account of a season spent living in a twelve foot by twelve foot cabin with no running water or electricity in rural North Carolina. The 12 x 12 is owned (and normally occupied by) a successful American physician, Jackie Benton, who accepts an annual salary of only $11K to avoid paying war taxes, and chooses to live without modern comforts like electricity or indoor plumbing so as to “have the carbon footprint of a typical Bangladeshi”.

It was my intrigue with this Jackie character, not the author or even necessarily the book’s theme, that drew me to “12 X 12”. She is referred to as a Wisdomkeeper, a Native American term referring to elder women who inspire others to dig more deeply into life. And that she does. Anyone who can turn down a couple hundred thousand dollars a year and willingly live in conditions that most of us would describe as abject poverty has either gone stark-raving mad or achieved a level of self-mastery that borders on superhuman. Embodying one’s inner principles so fully and completely in their outer life is beyond rare. That she does this in a way that is conspicuously without fanfare or recognition makes it all the more special. (She only consented to the book on the condition that her real identity and location would be concealed.)

Jackie is against American imperialism, against our wars, against environmental destruction and the corporate dominance of society, and every aspect of her life reflects this. Her life may appear to be one of material poverty, but she is far from poor. At least outwardly, she embodies the realized, deliberate life - principle in action. And while I doubt my own capacity for this degree of radicalism, I admire such an exceptional being who can walk the walk so completely.

Sadly, Jackie is not the subject of the book, only a significant but peripheral character. That would be William Powers, an activist, conservation and foreign aid worker, and author. Powers takes up temporary residence for several months in the 12 X 12 and this book primarily deals with his various inner conflicts and emotional dialogue. Indeed, it felt like more of the book than not was devoted to a conversation he was having with himself revolving around various uninteresting details of what, admittedly, has probably been a relatively interesting life.

One gets the impression that, despite his efforts at sounding otherwise, the author is very pleased with himself. And he wants you to think very highly of him too. He’s spent a decade working on environment-sustaining projects around the world. He’s well travelled, well-read, well-educated, and has clearly done more personally to save the world than you or I – and he really really wants you to know about it!

The author’s pet cause is global warming, and hey, I get it. I’m with that 90%+ segment of the scientific community that recognizes man-made global warming is a real and growing threat. It needs to be addressed and action needs to be taken. But Powers beats the reader over the head on this. A third of the way into it I was feeling guilty for walking upright and having thumbs. In many ways the author is the kind of individual that gives us liberals a bad name. The self-righteous, preachy tone detracted from what this book could have been.

While I’m on the negative, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the gratuitous spiritual and literary name dropping that again, give the impression that the author is going out of his way to sound erudite. From Thich Naht Hahn, to Lao-Tzu, to some poet named Galway Kinnell, Powers seems intent on displaying his lexicon the way a peacock struts its feathers. I could have done without this grandstanding.

That said, I am sympathetic to the author’s perspective and appreciate the spirit of 12 x 12. For those who oppose American empire, are concerned about the environment, or have grown disillusioned with our culture of hyperconsumption and gross materialism, this book may well be worth a read. If nothing else, it gives us a glimpse of living at the other extreme.

There are tidbits of wisdom and worthwhile philosophy scattered throughout (largely thanks to various ‘thoughts of the day’ and other sentiments expressed by the cabin’s absentee owner, Jackie). An example of this is a line from Jackie about how a problem cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness at which it was created. Unless I’ve gone horribly wrong, there is usually some idea or nugget that stays with me from any book I take the time to read, and in 12 X 12, this would be the one. Probably not the first time I’ve heard it but the timing and manner in which it was expressed here made an impression on me. I remember pausing, putting the book down, and thinking: this is something I can apply to my own life. Often times we have to be exposed to an idea from several sources and angles before we really connect and it becomes a part of us.

Another takeaway for me was the concept of permaculture. Wikipedia defines permaculture as a land use and agricultural system “…based on ecological and biological principles, often using patterns that occur in nature to maximise effect and minimise work. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with its inhabitants.”
Surrounding the 12 X 12 cabin is Jackie’s three acre permaculture garden composed of dozens, if not hundreds of different vegetables, fruits, teas, flowers, and other plants. Walking out of the cabin at sunrise into this thriving and diverse landscape is likened to entering the Garden Of Eden. And I doubt that this is pure hyperbole. 12 X 12 was my first exposure to the concept of permaculture and it left me interested and intrigued; for me, one of the redeeming aspects of Powers’ work.

The author also introduces (I think) an original term, “The Idle Majority”, which refers to the large segment of the Earth’s population who has far less than most Americans in material terms but in many ways enjoy a much saner existence than us workaholic, consumption-obsessed westerners. While this group lives mostly at the subsistence level, basically having little more than the bare essentials necessary for survival, they enjoy an enviable amount of leisure time and a richer community and cultural experience. They derive their value from life from non-material sources which, I am convinced, offers some clues to our society that, while materially rich, suffers from unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and isolation; a condition that is often defined as spiritual poverty.

Also worth mentioning are the other inhabitants of the area immediately surrounding the 12 X 12 cabin; an entertaining mix of organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers, furniture crafters, artisans, and other off-the-gridders, all in some fashion rebelling against America’s out of control consumer culture. The interplay between these neighbors, and between them and the author, is one of the highlights of the book – touching at times and fairly heartbreaking at others.

All in all, this one’s a toss-up. For those who find themselves drawn to simplicity, and increasingly turned off by the technological, hyperconsuming rat-race, I think it has something to offer. If you remove (or abbreviate) the meandering details of the author’s own emotional/psychological narrative, this 250+ page volume can be condensed to around 100. To be fair, I realize some people will find that sort of thing more interesting than I did. It’s said (not in the book, thankfully) that what we criticize about others is also in ourselves, and perhaps it’s the recognition of some of my own narcissitic neurosis that explains my adverse reaction to Powers self-absorbed psycho-babble. Or, maybe it’s just that self-absorbed psychobabble is best kept to one’s self and not passed off as transcendental, save-the-world, heroism. I report, you decide!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dispassionate Action, Or Something

Damn. Only a few weeks into it and I’ve already broken my commitment to do this at least twice a week. It’s not a paid gig, but unpaid gigs are the best gigs. And commitments made to self are the most important commitments. That said, I’m going to break with western tradition here and not beat myself up over minor, inconsequential personal failures. I’ll save that for the monumental, irreversible f#@-ups.

In my defense, this last week has been an abnormally busy one. My routine was shot to hell. I spent three days doing actual physical labor: scrubbing, shoveling, hauling, taping, painting, and more. This may not sound like much, but to a body that’s accustomed to sitting at a desk forty hours a week, it’s something. I have the aches and pains to prove it.

The act of sitting down a couple nights a week and trying to write something is a discipline like any other. Discipline is a dirty word, which is understandable. It implies doing something other than that which is most comfortable. It gets a bad rap because initially it is imposed on us from outside authority: first from our parents, then our teachers, and so on. In this form it feels constricting and oppressive. In contrast, I would argue that discipline that originates from our own will - that is self-imposed – is freeing and expansive. It’s a step toward self-mastery. A person who is constantly at the mercy of their every impulsive whim and desire is not a free person.

Bear with me, reader, if I am sounding preachy. If anything, I’m preaching to myself. That’s one of the things I do here.

This concept of self-discipline, I would argue, is the single most important factor in the success or failure of accomplishing anything. What one deems worthy of accomplishing is their own to decide, but whatever that is, self-discipline and the harnessing of will power will be required.

This past week I missed my regularly scheduled appointment to sit down here and churn out a blog post or two. My excuse was time. But the truth is, when something is truly important, we make time. This is an activity that I generally enjoy but the minute I try to impose some structure and requirement to it, it becomes a problem. It starts to feel like a chore. This is something I’ve encountered with almost anything I’ve ever enjoyed or taken much of an interest in. Rarely is it ever good enough just to do something. No – you have to continually do it better. This urge for more and better, I wonder if it’s universal or if it’s peculiar to the American psyche. We do seem to emphasize winning and success like no other – save possibly the Chinese who clearly have a great deal to prove to the world, and themselves.

I’m off on a tangent…

My point - or what began to form in my mind as words started appearing on this page - is about the importance of habit. We can scrap the word discipline and just call it habit. Achieving any great thing begins with forming the right habits. This is obviously no great original insight on my part, just something I’ve experienced and can personally vouch for. My natural personality has always seemed to me to be quite undisciplined. Lazy even. But for those things I deemed important, once the inspiration fully crystallized, the will to overcome my inherent limitations appeared. That didn’t mean it was easy. But eventually, the right habits formed and the struggle subsided. They were (and are) small things, daily things.

And so it continues. I envision where I want to be, figure out the small steps and habits that can get me there, and move gradually in that direction. The difference now from ten years ago is that I understand the importance of enjoying the journey and am not so focused on the end result that the path leading there becomes a burden. Accomplishing something by brunt force and aggressiveness is fine in your late teens and twenties but feels like bad form in your thirties. At this stage getting from point A to point B seems like a process that should be undertaken with quality and grace. Resentfully forcing oneself to perform the mundane tasks necessary to achieve a longer term goal is a condition to be overcome.

There’s a balance between carefree spontaneity and conscious, purposeful action. Finding that balance is an important aspect of the Art Of Living.

Now, how I managed to arrive at these conclusions from the starting point of scolding myself about missing a couple of blog entries is tonight’s mystery.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Let Them Listen To Cake

A couple months ago I was in the car alone, early on a clear, cold Sunday morning. It was the third or fourth week of a strange new routine I’d adopted on the weekends. I got it in my head that every Saturday and Sunday I would fling myself out of bed uncharacteristically and (for me) unnaturally early, and proceed immediately to the gym where I’d engage in a grueling forty minute session on the Stair Mill. To fully appreciate this, understand that everything is a grueling act for me prior to 9:30 AM. An intense cardio regime at 7:00 or 7:30 is borderline masochism for those of us who are early-morning challenged.

It’s hard to say exactly what inspired this madness but it had something to do with the drab, dreary winter weather that makes me want to hibernate until spring. The onset of cooler temperatures is refreshing at first, but after about a month I just want to stay inside, eat, read, sleep – anything that keeps me where it’s warm and my pulse stays comfortably south of the aerobic zone. Possibly this is some primitive survival instinct to build and store body fat for the winter. Yeah. We’ll go with that.

I must have felt the need to rebel against this climate induced impulse towards sloth and torpor. And the weekend, up at the crack o' dawn, Stair Mill campaign was one of the ways this rebellion took shape. All in all it has been a rewarding undertaking. After the initial torturous shock wears off, it’s pleasantly invigorating.

This one particular Sunday morning was exceptionally bright and crisp, and my post-workout aura of well-being was intense. In that state my connection to material, day-to-day concerns tends to get a little flimsy and my thoughts drift to loftier ideals, a more elevated perspective. Endorphins are our friends.

The radio was cranked and my mind was on a familiar theme; something about the comedy and futility of our efforts, the transience and insubstantiality of the things we expend so much energy and endure so much stress to acquire, how acquiring them never really satisfies, how getting what you want only makes you want something else, the dog-chasing-its tail quality that so characterizes that which passes for normal, accepted, even encouraged behavior. I was thinking on these things, not exempting myself from this unflattering assessment, and this catchy tune comes on. My attention shifted to the music just in time to take in the following lyrics:

Every shiny toy
That at first brings you joy
Will always start to croy and annoy

Every camera every phone
All the music that you own
Won't change the fact you're all alone (All alone! )

Every piece of land
every city that you plan
will crumble into tiny grains of sand

Every thing you find that at first gives you shine
always turns into the same old crime (Same old crime! )

What timing! Imagine my surprise to hear this veritable Buddhist Sutra being channeled through a pop radio station.

Just a small but momentous event that, pure coincidence or not, had an air of Synchronicity, and turned a fine morning into an even better one. Oh, and the song wasn’t half bad either.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cake:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Signs And Wonders

This week Mother Nature has bestowed on us the rare favor of thwarting the normal, compulsory routine. Sadly, what started out as a pleasant inconvenience from my perspective has turned tragic and destructive for others. Such is often the case. If there’s going to be an event that disrupts the flow of business and interrupts our sense of control and order, it probably means that somewhere lives will be lost.

A massive winter storm rips through the United States, blanketing even parts of Texas with a respectable sheet of ice. In Australia, the worst cyclone in that country’s history comes right on the heels of record-breaking floods. (I’m American - what the hell is a cyclone?) Many of my countrymen - those of the Foxnewsy persuasion, if you get my drift – mockingly comment how all this must be caused by Global Warming. And funnily enough, actual scientists point out that some of it is indeed caused by climate change.

There is talk of Gaia being pissed. She’s had enough and an ass whipping of global magnitude is in order. One can make an argument for this. Ours has become an ungrateful, reckless species, perversely shortsighted with an impressive capacity for exploiting and poisoning the natural world. I realize that many of my Reality Challenged brethren have been convinced that humankind cannot possibly affect the planet they live on. But I’ve seen the brown smog that blankets the horizon and breathed the exhaust and foul air of industry. My own eyes and lungs can attest to man’s ability to negatively impact the environment. And aside from that, it defies credulity to believe that hundreds of trillions of extra tons of C02 have zero effect on the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, it is a damn fine time to not be president of an oppressed Arab country. If massive changes are indeed afoot on Planet Earth, this - I think - is the real story right now. The powerful force that has been unleashed across the Arab world is one to be reckoned with. It’s the human spirit and its impulse towards freedom, self-determination, and self-respect. Human beings can only be deprived of these things for so long. Who knows where this leads? One can only hope that this, most powerful of all energies, is channeled constructively. It is almost certain at this point that the effects will be far-reaching and dramatic, perhaps the kind that are only seen once in a generation.

There’s a message in these events that is hopefully making it into the consciousness of the elites in all parts of the world. And that is, if you deprive your fellow humans of their right to freedom of being, freedom of self-determination and expression, and the chance at a decent and happy life…there will eventually be consequences. If you insist on having everything at the cost of everyone else having nothing, beware. The human spirit can only be taunted for so long.