Category Archives: Ethics

You can take the boy out of the skepticism…

“What happens when a hesitant Buddhist of little faith and great doubt joins an eminent guru and a group of devotees on a pilgrimage to the holiest sites in Buddhism?”

DoubtStrip

Such was the first line of a pitch letter I wrote to an American Buddhist magazine about a month before leaving for India and Nepal. I got a cautiously encouraging reply – “Send it along,” an editor said, “but I should tell you that we don’t usually publish unsolicited personal accounts.”

That was two years ago. I never did send anything along, because I could never finish any of the now several versions that are scattered about my desk and hard drive in various stages of assembly and disrepair. There was no shortage of things to say about the pilgrimage, but I could never find a satisfying ending to any of the tracks I started down.

Reason being, I had no idea what happened over there in northern India. I still don’t.

In fact, I’m not sure anything happened at all.

Which I thought for a while could be a story in and of itself, though I didn’t know for whom. Probably not the magazine I’d originally queried, for while many of their stories describe staggering, radical shifts in perspective, they still want things to land back on a certain affirmation that “Buddhism” – an established lineage is best, but even some New Age/”spiritual” derivative thereof will work – is the ultimate destination of existential wanderings and crises of faith.

I didn’t spell it out in the original pitch letter (I knew better than to sound too earnest-gee-willikers), but it was just this kind of internal alignment that I was hoping for. Multiple moments of transcendence culminating in a fundamental shift in consciousness that answered my questions, resolved my doubts and banished my hesitancy.

I know, I know – expectations schmeckschmeckschmations. But I felt too green and too unsure to approach the pilgrimage as an “aimless” devotional exercise, as pure homage.

I went hoping to bolster my faith, and that didn’t happen.

Instead, it was simply a great trip. A fascinating trip. A beautiful, educational, laughter-filled trip.

The endless Gangetic Plain, with its patchwork of agriculture fields and hardwood forests and fruit trees, was as moving a sight as I saw. Houses built to Stone Age specs with a pit latrine out back, no running water and buffalo patties drying on their sides sported satellite dishes and wi-fi antennae. I watched funeral pyres consume corpse after corpse one night down the ghats in Varanasi, and then, five hours later, rowed past men going for their morning swim as I headed out to see the sunrise from the river. I rode along a precariously-cliffed and pencil-thin highway into the foothills of the world’s tallest mountains (in what was apparently a gravity-defying omnibus). I sat in caves where men have lived, been enlightened (and not), and died meditating for five millennia. I could fill a week’s worth of blog posts raving about the food I ate – the momos, the thukpa, the curries, the samosas, the fruit, the fruit, the fruit.

IndiaStrip

But as for the holy sites themselves, I was underwhelmed. And not just by the juxtaposition of the largest assemblage of the most pathetic, pitiful examples of malnutrition, poverty and sickness you have ever seen with silk-robed monks and camera-wielding tourists, myself included, seeking Serenity and Inner Peace at a cost that could radically transform the lives of a good portion of the former. (That, like the food, is another few posts altogether.) And I don’t mean the ordinariness of the ruins, either – I can find ghosts in a parking lot, and these sites, with their overgrown decay and exotic surroundings, are certainly conducive to summoning specters. Don’t get me wrong – it was nice enough to be in Deer Park where Siddhartha first “turned the wheel of  the Dharma,” to see a descendant of the Bodhi tree under which he realized all that Dharma, to take in the views from Vulture Peak where he talked about the emptiness of all that Dharma. But I did not feel anything approaching the kind of inspiration I was hoping for – and that some on our trip were quite obviously and vocally experiencing.

SiteStrip

Above all, it was my traveling companions that interested me the most. The Estonian developers who recalled Soviet food shortages and the long lines for bread, the Peruvian’s last ditch effort to find love before getting her to a nunnery, the surveilled Chinese who slipped his “documentarian” minders for a night on the town in Western gear (pearl snaps and cowboy boots, no shit), the Salinger-worthy German…triad?…family?, the Russian merchant marine, the Swedish ex-con. I was equally fascinated by the life stories of our Tibetan monk guides – the humble meditation master, the vainglorious steward, the reluctant tulku, the gregarious, obsequious, aloof, worldly, kind, naive, austere and elfin others. What brought them to Buddhism was interesting (what it did for them less so – and, surprisingly at first, we rarely talked about it), but more than anything I wanted to know about their lives, about their routines and their foibles and their loved ones and what they were reading and where they liked to go in the fall, on winter mornings, on the first day of spring.

This should have been a clue, right, that I’m still more interested in people than in imagined states of mind. But it didn’t sink in right away.

The thing is, I’m a Western, post-Christian secular humanist (that’s less a label than a string of adjectives), and while some of the time I want to give into the magical thinking that dominates our cultural ethos – because hey, who doesn’t love a good fairy tale, and it’s the easy way out of a lot of tricky situations – I’m consciously against the kind of fantasticality that has precipitated both the endless cycles of fad New Age spirituality and 2,000+ years of self-serving interpretations of our mythical Judeo-Christian-Muslim heritage.

And the problem is, Buddhism is built on the same thing. Exceedingly ritualistic Tibetan Buddhism especially, but every lineage to some extent relies on a dogmatic origin story replete with mystical and magical beings, goings-on, reincarnations and transmissions. (Don’t let’s get started on karma this week…)

When it’s first explained to you – really, until you go looking into it for yourself – it’s easy to believe the American dismissal that Buddhism is “more a philosophy than a religion.” I thought so for many years, and I thought it was a philosophy with benefits – the kind I was getting from/supporting with the metaphysics and pseudo-philosophy of Tim Leary and Terence McKenna.

That is, I was looking for a trip.

I was seeking out a mystical experience without, as a teenager, the perspective to know that a) it was along the same spectrum of what I found so objectionable in the J-C-M model, and b) mysticism is not an end in and of itself.

I chased that Truth-Through-Altered-States model for about a decade, until there was only alteration, and decidedly little insight. In the wake of all that, I’ve redoubled my commitment to a kind of applied humanism. Rediscovered it, would perhaps be a better way to say it, for it’s the one idea that makes sense to me, that, to borrow a phrase, arises spontaneously both during meditation and throughout the day.

My ability to relate to other people is the sole metric by which I measure the state of my soul.

It’s easy to get seduced by magical thinking, and it happens to me all the time. I mean, it spurred a trip halfway across the globe. I wouldn’t trade having taken that trip for any exotic luxurious tropical vacation in the world (though I might trade a second trip to northern India for any of those), but nonetheless, that’s a big spur. But when push comes to shove, I don’t have the stomach for it. No matter how I try, or what I try, when it comes to the ritual and the theogony and the cosmology of dogmatic Buddhist lineages, and the process of advancing along their (Middle, yes, but also strict and narrow) Path, I can never seem to shake the wariness, to suspend that last ounce of disbelief necessary to really believe in, say, the Pure Land. Some say I’m simply unwilling to give up my “intellectualism,” that my “skeptical pride” stands between me and truth/true freedom, that my refusal to accept magical interpretations of the universe is simply another regrettable, nefarious manifestation of ego.

Perhaps it is, I don’t know. And I never will – and “there,” as sayeth the Dane, “is the rub.”

However, I do know that I no longer believe in the intrinsic value of mystical experiences. I know people have them, and I think they can be useful, but they’re simply phenomena and it’s what we do in their wake that imbues them with meaning.

In the same way, I don’t eschew ritual, or even prayer. I think they’re important aspects of any discipline. I just have a different idea of how they function than the standard “religious” line. That I try to look at Buddhism – the practice of a set of meditative techniques and the application of a certain philosophy of life and mind described by a man called Siddhartha – through a distinctly humanistic lens strikes many people as an arrogant and convenient adaptation of something far wiser and greater than I, that really I have no business monkeying with. And hey, maybe – but that’s the privilege and prerogative of the convert, now isn’t it?

Pic:  Theoi Greek Mythologygreat site, btw

Pic: Theoi Greek Mythology
great site, btw

What I get out of meditating and lopping off the various Hydra heads of my ego is an increased ability to communicate, to interact, to participate in The Web of Life. That’s part of the reason I can’t go in for a seven-hour meditation session of tantric commingling with a wrathful yidam. I mean, if that’s important to you, go ahead. But what happens when I do it, is I disappear into myself. It’s wholly narcissistic. My teachers would say I’m doing it wrong, or more likely that I still have too much karmic baggage and am yet mired in too much confusion to engage in such involved practices. Whatever the explanation, I get wrapped up in how cool it is that I’m able to transport myself to some other mind-dimension, and I lose sight of the goal, the reason, the purpose of the practice.

Which is training this deluded mind and opening up this hard hard heart. Or UN-training the mind, if you believe that the essence of mind is pure and that it is the experiences we blindly carry out before living intentionally and in a state of awareness that do the initial, decades-long, lifelong training, which is in confusion.

And to do that, I need to make sorties into the enemy territory of my ego. Quick, precision strikes that get me back into the real world before my ego catches on to what I’m up to and sends in the quicksand. Twenty minutes a day on the cushion is just right these days – give me too much more than half an hour inside my own mind, and I’ll start redecorating the place. With DayGlo paint.

Amongst the living and the real, I can see whether or not what I’m doing has any effect on or in reality. Because ultimately, that’s my aim – to affect reality. To contribute positively to the lived experience of others. Some days – most days – that may mean not affecting things very much at all. Which laissez-faire-itude, if you’re an egomaniac like I am, can require serious amounts of self-control. The honing of which in turn demands a disciplined practice. Which brings us back to sitting. Purposefully. And living intentionally.

Neither of which necessitates magic.

A lot of the conviction that’s on display here comes, I wouldn’t say directly out of the pilgrimage I made two years ago, but certainly by way of it. Which is the ironic thing about it, right? I went to the holiest sites in the Buddhist religion under the assumption that doing so would strengthen my faith, deepen my appreciation for a certain ontology and clear away some of the obstacles I was facing to a better understanding of myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It turns out that’s exactly what happened, just not at all in the way I wanted or expected. Which goes to show that what I think I want, or what I want at a certain point, isn’t always what I need.

Which makes it sound like the answer to that question way back there at the top is a line from a Stones song.

Which I’m perfectly okay with. 

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In Defense of Hallucinating

hallucinate (v.)
c.1600, “deceive,” from Latin alucinatus, later hallucinatus, pp. of alucinari “wander (in the mind), dream; talk unreasonably, ramble in thought,” probably from Greek alyein, Attic halyein “be distraught,” probably related to alaomai “wander about” [Barnhart, Klein]. The Latin ending probably was influenced by vaticinari “to prophecy,” also “to rave.” Sense of “to have illusions” is from 1650s.

So the idea’s been around a while.

In common parlance, we take “hallucinating” to mean seeing/hearing/experiencing things that aren’t really there, usually as a result of ingesting a psychedelic drug. Or, in the parlance of my youth, “tripping balls.”

Well, there’s schizophrenia, too, of course, but I’m not about to tackle that in the same post as peyote…

There are lots of opinions about psychedelic drugs and the taking of them, the two ends of the opinion spectrum probably being those who think that it’s a ridiculous activity to engage in because they’re perfectly happy to have their feet firmly anchored in reality and have no need whatsoever to experience any “illusions,” thank you very much; and those who think it’s the be-all and the end-all and the key to unlock humanity’s mystical cooperative harmonic future.

A) Those of you who haven’t imbibed any psychotropic compounds and think you’re escaped the world of illusion – I mean, honestly? We’re still playing that what-you-see-is-what-you-have game? With all we know about reality and space and science and politics and secrets and cover-ups and religion and recession and rock’n’roll and just EVERYthing? There are SO many more pervasive and sinister hallucinatory palls that have fallen, at various points, over our lives and culture than any fleeting thing a few micrograms of LSD can produce on the smokescreen of your mind.

“Fleeting” leading us to:

B) The actual illusions of psychedelic experience aren’t real illusions, really. They’re metaphors or examples – gateways at best and nightmares at worst. Those feelings of interconnectedness and bliss? They’re just chemical euphoria. I’m with George Harrison, who said that ultimately, it’s a false insight that psychedelic drugs give you, just the tip of the iceberg, and with Alan Watts, who in explaining why he stopped partaking said,

“Once you get the message, you hang up the phone.”

The message, of course, being that the entire world we live in and what we call reality and the metrics by which we deem a life a “success” are by and large delusions.

This idea has been so widely disseminated over the last 60 years since people like Harrison and Watts, etcetera, popularized these old-old ideas that to repeat it is almost passé. As in, I know that the majority of you all are somewhere in between those two extremes and thinking, “Gee, thanks, Prichard, but I saw The Matrix. What are you getting at?”

What I’m getting at is the difference between knowing about something and knowing something from experience. Which, if you’ve read many of the two-dozen or so posts here At The Wellhead, you’ll know is a pretty big deal for me – and a much much much bigger deal than I used to think it was.

One of my favorite Notes On Existence is a well-used bit from Frank Zappa:

Remember, information is not knowledge;

knowledge is not wisdom;

wisdom is not truth;

truth is not beauty;

beauty is not love;

love is not music;

music is the best.

I absolutely used to think gathering information would make me wise, and once wise, I’d manifest beauty and truth and love and music wherever I went. This is a simplification, sure, but not a gross over- one.

Get it? Pic: Exiled Surfer

Ha! Found this at: Exiled Surfer

How I’ve changed from that to whatever I try to be now is a long story of baby steps and nearly imperceptible (or at least forgettable) shifts in perspective. It certainly wasn’t the direct result of psychedelic drug use – or any kind of single, white-light, burning-bush experience. I don’t go in for those, or really trust too much anyone who does.

I go in instead for the long, slow smolder, the repetitive, grinding plod. Which is another of the differences between taking drugs to have (and at the same time break through) illusions – or meditation-retreating or fasting or Primal screaming or TMing or Orthodox-mystic-trancing or Gestalting or whatever the mode of de(con)structing – and living on the other side of them.

Living on the other side is hard. At the very least, it takes effort and determination and perseverance.

Sliding back into illusion is easy. That’s why most everyone stays there.

The actual shattering of preconceptions – whether LSD-induced or otherwise – is simply information. It can feel like a whole lot more than that. It can feel like what you thought was the solid earth is really nothing more than shifting sands in a vacuum. And maybe it is(n’t). But even so, that’s still just information, and there’s a real problem in getting stuck in information and confusing a simple glimpse of a different way of thinking with an alternate but equally permanent reality. We all know people who get stuck in that in-between space – those very nice but vaguely superior and ultimately despondent burnouts who love to tell you what you’re doing wrong and what life should be about and how it should be lived but don’t do much more than swallow another pill to get back there for just a little while. It’s like commuting to Wonderland.

Knowledge, as opposed to information, is answering the attendant “So What?” to an insight, whether you saw it with a head full of acid or gleaned it during meditation or realized it as you turned a corner and saw a peach tree in bloom. What it means for you that the world is all shifting sands in a vacuum can only be answered via a process, by seeing what happens when you apply the implications of that shifting-sands understanding to your daily life and behavior and your interactions with other people.

Wisdom comes from living long stretches of time in that application. Or at least I assume it does, as it’s only been a little while that I’ve been trying to apply principles to my life. Well, ones of any redeeming value, at least.

But at least I’m no longer under the illusion that you can just know about things. That’s the problem with being arrogant and precocious and young, right? You think you know, and if there is anyone around to tell you you’re wrong, you can’t hear them. And if you’re lucky/spoiled rotten by life in general and there are no real consequences to your delusions, there’s really nothing to show you you’re wrong.

The advantage to living in such a house of cards, though, if there is one, is that it’s a massive and very fragile illusion, so when it does finally topple, you have no other option than to seriously readjust. It’s not like, “Huh, roads are really just strips of asphalt stuck onto the surface of the earth. Roads qua roads don’t have any inherent meaning at all! Crazy.”

It’s like every assumption you’ve ever made about who you are and how you function in the world is shown to be a fiction and a fantasy and a lie you’ve been telling yourself since the day you realized you could lie.

I’m not saying this wouldn’t have happened to me if I’d never ingested any psychotropic compounds. I know plenty of people who’ve had their minds blown and universes rearranged without such pharmacological aids. I also know people who’ve eaten enough psychedelics to shuttle a herd of buffalo to Alpha Centauri, yet are still as square and deluded and clueless as Paul Ryan loving Rage Against the Machine.

Besides, that little world of mine was hardly sustainable…

Yet – and here comes, finally, the whole “defense” part we started with – hallucinations are effective metaphors. And to declare, in case you missed the implications earlier: by “hallucinate,” I mean all those illusion-shattering techniques out there.

It’s those very fleeting illusions, paradoxically, that unsettle what we think of as solid ground.

Those glimpses – I don’t want to say of true reality, but maybe beyond what we think reality is or was – make it easier to remember that the structure of our daily lives is just an arbitrary, man-made structure. It makes the scaffolding easier to see. Because if you know, walking around every day, that the reality you’re experiencing is as flimsy as the sights and sounds and sensations brought on by a bite of San Pedro cactus (or a deep meditation or whatever), well, maybe you’re the tiniest bit less likely to get sucked into some nefarious greed-riddled illusory hellhole.

The point of remembering our proximity to illusion – our immersion in it, really – is not, as many people would first assume, a kind of nihilism. In fact, it should engender quite the opposite experience. Once you move beyond the smug teenage-angstyness of “seeing through everybody and everything,” being a child of illusion, as Trungpa would put it, is a way to pare away what doesn’t matter from what really does.

And what really matters?

Well, that’s for you to decide. And question and break through and redecide and requestion and rebreak through and…and…and…and eventually just float on.

I for one have no idea what “the real thing” is, whether there is one or whether it’s just layer after layer, illusion after illusion, turtles all the way down. That doesn’t matter so much. What does matter is the seeking to break through, the not abandoning doubt for the comforts of an easy faith, the continual testing and investigation of the things that aren’t working for you, and the perpetual appreciation for those that are.

This was the strangest of these cliché inspirimages I could find.

This was the strangest of these cliché inspirimages I could find. Pic: 99 Venus

It’s a way to keep your ego in check – because the ego’s all about illusion and delusion and telling you that what feels comfortable is better than what gives you the eerie uncanny existence shivers – and a way to keep that flywheel of gratitude spinning.

I realize this may border on a Keith Richardsian advocation of drug use,* but I don’t imagine too many of you are likely to run out and eat an eighth of mushrooms this afternoon after lunch instead of going back to work.

Though, now that I think about it, some of you maybe should.

You know who you are.

Wait – actually, no, you probably don’t.

Which is probably part of the problem.

Gah.

.

What have been some of your illusions over the years?

How’d you get through them or past them?

IF YOU’VE NEVER EXPERIENCED ANYTHING LIKE THIS AND HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, SEND ME AN EMAIL.

WE’LL CHAT.

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* I recently read Keif’s memoir, Life, in which he’s always saying stuff like, “Now kids, don’t try this at home, but heroin, if you use the best stuff, and use it with just the right amount of highest-quality Merck cocaine – that combination allows you to stay awake for about week at a time, which is basically the best thing you can ever do for yourself, creatively speaking.”

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Family of Origin

FamilyOfOrigin

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Odd phrase, that.

You only really hear disgruntled or dispossessed family members say it, about the people they came from biologically and at one point definitively left. It rings with a certain finality, a sense that after leaving their family of origin, people who say “family of origin” were Cain-like wanderers upon the face of the earth.

You don’t hear people saying, “Oh, I just love my family of origin.”

They usually pause right after origin to sneak in a silent clause. “My family of origin,,, was dysfunctional.” Which you get the feeling means something like, “My family of origin [may they rot in hell], was dysfunctional.” You usually don’t hear orphans use it – “My family of origin was killed in a car wreck.” When a tragedy’s involved, people stick with more familiar monikers – “My mom and dad and my sister Shirley.”

Norman-Rockwell-ThanksgivingMy dad has a family of origin. He’s never said those words and I doubt he ever would and he’s hardly a Cain-like-wanderer-upon-the-face-of-the-earth type of guy, but what family was left by the time he took off as a kid was not exactly the white-picket-fence nuclear-family post-war Norman Rockwell dream. I don’t know his family of origin at all, and have heard very little about it over the years.

When my mom came along, he adopted her family. And this is the good news about families of origin – you’re not stuck with them. There’s all kinds of families out there, and so many of them will take you in. And even if you have a good family, you can always use another good one. I feel lucky – people who believed in blessings would say I’m blessed – to have the number and quality of families I call my own. And this is what I was thinking about when I thought about writing this post.

I’ve seen this – we’ve all seen this – countless times, but it never fails to impress me as one of the great things about life and the human spirit. It’s one of the great tropes of storytelling for a reason – taking someone in, being taken in, providing for another, being cared for and supported by others are the things that remind us what matters in life.

So my dad adopted my mom’s family, and was convinced his kids would have something more than a family of origin, and we have. My family of origin is my family. Period. All our weirdness and dysfunction is preeettttty minimal in the grand scheme of things – we get along and talk and say “I love you” and mean it. They’re there for me in everything. (I didn’t always know this, but it was always true.)

WestinBoatShopGreatSouthBayChart

The Great South Bay. Home of the in-laws-to-be.

Come May, I’m marrying into another rock-solid family. I’ve lived with this family before, so they’re family already and it doesn’t seem like a huge deal that I’m officially becoming an in-law, but way back when, when I first started coming around, they took me in immediately, no questions asked. Well, I think maybe a few questions, but they were things like,”Wanna go for a boat ride?” and “Can you use a Sawzall?” After that, golden.

And best of all, of course, is the idea that Erin and I are making our own family, together, for some other little people to one day come from. (And never never never never never leave. Ever.)

DinoUVaSwimDive

Dino.
Paterfamilias of 35 families.

Anyone who’s been on a serious sports team knows what additional or surrogate families are all about. You do together the hardest things you’ve ever done and (unless you go into the military afterwards) probably the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. You spend an inordinate amount of time together, during most of which you’re exhausted and not at your best and in your sweats and eating. (Especially swimmers – always with the eating.) My UVa swimming family is a lot like a large extended regular family, because I didn’t always like everyone I swam with, but I loved them and would to this day do anything for them. One of my teammates, a guy I really love and respect a lot, told me about a year ago, after listening to me describe the novel I’m writing and my pilgrimage to India and my SoCal routine and a few other things that are just simply outside of his Virginian sports-watching lawyering lifestyle, “You know, Prichard, there’s no real reason we’re friends. If it was’t for swimming, we would never be friends. Never.” Kinda funny, the way he said it, but probably true.

JonesSliver

Jones with a decent turnout.

After college, I worked as a Jones Beach Lifeguard, and let me tell you, that is a crew. Teachers, firemen, artists, cab drivers, musicians, computer programmers, soldiers, businessmen, businesswomen, some cops – some robbers, too, probably – who spend their summers at the beach saving lives. And at Jones Beach, that’s no macho I-save-lives bs posturing. You’re running rescues constantly there. Constantly. People getting scared, getting swept out, getting saved, barely living – sometimes dying. Hundreds of thousands on the beach. (Seriously – there were 275,000 there July 4th, 2005.) Tourists, Long Islanders, Indians in saris, guys from the Bronx in Timberlands – in the ocean, in Tims – who’ve never seen the ocean before. And these lifeguards take care of all of them, and they depend on one another to help them keep the hordes safe. And they’re New Yorkers, so it’s a tough kinda love they share – and not one they frivolously give away. But those guys and gals let me into their world and their hearts and it was an experience and a group of people I’ll never forget.

I’d love to have a creative family, but writers are by and large not very familial people. Well, they might be on their own, but for the most part they’re not looking to hang out with other writers that much. It’s a more or less solitary pursuit, and except for children’s books and TV writing and the odd movie script, writing doesn’t really benefit from collaboration. It’s not like music, so much more than the sum of its parts. There’s so much doing-your-own-thing. What am I gonna do, sit five of us in a room and write a book? That’s why god created Williamsburg coffee houses. To be honest, I have no desire to sit around talking about what I’m working on for more than a couple minutes, tops. We try (especially us Millennials – we can’t even help ourselves) but even communities of writers are hard to come by, let alone families.

I have this other family, too, this strange assemblage of freaks and misfits and ne’er-do-wells  all trying to get our lives back on track and/or keep them there. I’ve met a few of my best friends in this group, and some of the strongest people I’ve ever known. They’re allies in a weird fight that a  lot of people out there don’t even know they’re fighting. In this group in particular there are a lot of people who come from nobody and nowhere. People who have families of origin – families they left or who left them. These people have discovered in this motley crew the family they never had. And that, man, is something to see.

Who’s your family?

What does “family” mean to you?

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Build, Baby, Build.

I love soccer.

I love playing it, I love watching it, I love reading about it.

(I’m horrrrrible, I rarely see games, and I do so very slowly to “practice” my equally horrible Spanish, respectively.)
photo from FIFA.com

FIFA.com

So I was thrilled that Jozy Altidore came through big against Honduras Tuesday night and got us/U.S. one step closer to a World Cup berth. (Chances are bad they’ll do it in one more game, but great they’ll do it in two.)

I’m also enthralled by all things Brazilian, so this World Cup is especially exciting for me. At one point some years ago, a bunch of us were planning to roam through Brazil together, see some early round games in the smaller cities, and try to just be in Rio or Sao Paulo for the finals.

But there are some serious protests going on in cities all over Brazil, and I gotta say, I kind of see where they’re coming from. Protests started over a 20-cent bus fare increase, and then BLEW UP after rather brutal reactions by various police forces (unlike Turkey, the media’s covering the heck outta Brasil’s protests).

Most apropos to this post’s lede, the demonstrations are also fueled by general indignation over the high costs – both financial and personal – of preparing for the very 2014 World Cup that I was planning (until life happened) to attend.

A Copa do Mundo next year, and the Summer Olympic Games two years after that. According to the WaPo, stadium and public transportation construction costs are estimated at $14.6 BILLION for EACH the World Cup and the 2016 Games. True, the construction projects will employ a lot of people – 3.6 million between the two projects – but they’re only temporary jobs. And there’s not really any space for these facilities, or at least for the ones that’ll be right in town, and the people that are being moved to make room for those new facilities are, as usual, the poor and powerless. And not just asked to leave for a bit before coming back after the Games – I’m talking entire favelas being ‘dozed to make room for new facilities.

In Rio.Image by Flickr user JorgeBRAZIL

In Rio.
Image by Flickr user JorgeBRAZIL

This is the case everywhere, right – whenever there’s a GIGANTOR sporting event, people get displaced. Even in Atlanta, where it seemed like there was still plenty of room, in the good ole rich-and-wealthy USA where everyone’s treated with the utmost respect and dignity, Olympic construction still wrecked major havoc on people’s lives. While not nearly as many people were displaced in Atlanta as in Seoul (725,000) or Beijing (as high as 1.5 million), those whose neighborhood was destroyed were still among the city’s poorest. Thousands and thousands of people living in public housing sandwiched between the Coca-Cola plant and Georgia Tech were packed on buses, given a one-way ticket out of town and wished the best of luck, in order to make room for the Olympic Village and the housing of 10,000 athletes. Only 7% of those people returned to their old neighborhoods and the rebuilt homes promised them by Team USA and Atlanta city planners. Basically, the Olympics gave the latter the opportunity they’d been waiting for to “wipe out blight” (read: relegate poor blacks to the sticks) and complete the gentrification of certain neighborhoods.

Even in London, where the 2012 Games were, most of the people displaced and/or affected by stadium construction and the influx of new residents and attention were from the other side of the (both proverbial and literal) tracks. Check out Zed Nelson’s great photos of London’s rough-edged Hackney to see what I mean.

But Brazilians aren’t taking this action lying down.

A 6/21 UK Guardian article goes into more detail.

vale-gray-olympics-23_525

Photo: Cintia Barenho from “The Displacement Decathalon” article at the Design Observer site.

If you want more info on this whole Olympic displacement stuff, Lawrence Vale & Annemarie Gray have written a thorough and detailed examination of what they’re calling “The Displacement Decathalon” over at Design Observer. (If you’re an equal housing opportunity type person, I highly recommend reading with a sturdy G&T and at least three stress balls close to hand.)

Much of this might not be news to you. What interests me is what people think of it.

AthensPool

This is the diving well built for the 2000 Athens Games. Nice, right?
Click for a NatGeo slideshow of others.

Economics aside, is it worth the hassle?

I know it’s ethically wrong (or at least terribly disagreeable) to displace entire communities to make way for a fancy gym that the world’s elite* will use for a few weeks. Especially when those facilities crumble into disrepair in a matter of years after the event has ended.

On the other hand,

I believe in sport and international competition.

I swam until age 22, and growing up – this was before more than one or two people could make a living swimming – the Olympic Games were THE ultimate goal for me and everyone I knew. For those I know who’ve gone to the Games, they’ve lived up to every promise, every hope, every dream. The brotherhood, the camaraderie, the very idea of the Olympics – and the World Cup, and any other international competition – are some of the most inspiring things I can think of. And let’s face it – the world likes being inspired on the scale of spectacle.

But is that inspirational spectacle ultimately idealistic, rosy-glassed and unrealistic? Are those heartwarming/-wrenching Bob Costas stories of tribulation and triumph that we all love so much really kind of just self-indulgent, if the very place where one triumph happens is also the site of another – and likely worse – tribulation? A tribulation planned for and arranged by plastic-smiling organizers pandering to TV markets and big-big wallets.

But what are the alternatives? Are there alternatives?

How much of a difference would it make if the Games were held in the same place every year?

To Olympians? To spectators?

By the time I was 13 and knew what a travel meet entailed, I didn’t care where a competition was. Fargo or Fort Lauderdale or Florianópolis, you’re really just shuttling between your room and the pool.

But if the spectacle disappears – and it’d at least diminish with a static venue – and the money disappears, would the Games and other international competitions disappear, too? That’s not a problem if you don’t think that sport does anything, but if you think like I do that sport has great potential to encourage civil rights, then the disappearance of international competitions is something to be quite concerned about indeed.

Better yet, let’s get the UAE to build some ridiculous portable underwater and/or floating facilities that could be moved every few years to just offshore of and/or into the airspace above a different country. I guarantee you, a hovering Olympic Village wouldn’t let down a single athlete. And plenty of people would tune in to see.

From FutureNerd. Click to go.

From FutureNerd. Click to go.

floating-city

From HomeDecorDream. Click to go.

What do you think?

Where’s the balance between spectacle and respect?

Do you care where various Games/Cups/games are?

*Almost all of them are athletically elite, and many are also “elite” in the way Americans use that word to mean “filthy rich.”

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Hatred, Bosnian Style

Having been out from under the beneficent yoke of academic tutelage for a little while, I’ve been left to my own devices to figure out what to read.

This has and has not been what you’d call a problem – not having multiple syllabi to guide me has hardly cut down on the number of books I buy, but it has more or less obliterated any semblance of An Approach to Literature.

At first I reveled in this, bouncing from Arlt to Zamyatin and everywhere in between.

AtoZ

But I realized after a time that as in life, so in reading lists – I needed to get some structure STAT or things were really gonna start unwinding. So I decided to focus my efforts, and after considering a few methodologies, I settled on a geographical approach.

First up is the Adriatic – the Western Balkans, plus some northern Italy, maybe an Austrian or two for good measure, since despite their distance from the actual sea, they did exert a bit influence at one time or another over the area. I’ll probably reach down into the Ionian for some contemporary Greeks and Sicilians, too, just to round things out.

Adriatic             photo_11110_landscape_large

So, if anyone has any Yugoslavian/Austrian/Greek author recommendations

(besides Aleksandar Hemon), I’m all ears.

Anyway, the Adriatic to start. Specifically Bosnia, because I’ve always found the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 (which arguably provided the catalyst for the First World War) to be one the most interesting points in European history. What I know of it boils down to a string of facts. But recently I’ve become more interested in the stories that surround or transcend the various groups of facts that I know, the implications of the facts for the people who have to deal with them or the life they created, the impact of those facts on people’s psyches and on culture in general. One of the places to turn for this is literature, which is one of the reasons I developed my reading lists geographically – in the hope that maybe I can get a general sense of what life or some various fractions thereof are like in these places that have, in the course of voracious-news-consumption-modern-life, become places on the map where “victims” and/or “threats” are reported on by CNN.

Gavrilo-Princip

Anyway, realizing that I have no real idea what life must have been like for Gavrilo Princip, the “Yugoslav nationalist” who shot Ferdinand and his wife, I started with a man of Princip’s place and age: Ivo Andrić, the Yugoslavian writer and winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ivo-Andrić-2

Ivo Andrić

Andrić was born in Travnik, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1892, about two years before and a hundred miles east of Princip. Back then, the whole area was “united” under the Ottoman Empire, though everyone – Bosnians, Serbs, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Crotas, Albanians, Macedonians, etcetera – knew who one another were and had been and would be again. Living side by side, often within the same “ethnicity,” were (are) Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews. For some people, religion meant more than origin or language – for others, political worldview trumped any kind of ethnicity. This is the same in many places, of course – those of us who celebrate difference (like the US [ostensibly] does) consider it a strength of a country or region. But the cheek-by-jowlness of the mix in Yugoslavia seems more interesting because of the volatility involved – the volatility, and what Andrić called “the hatred.”

TheDamnedYardIn his collection The Damned Yard and Other Stories, I hoped to get a feel for what early 20th century Bosnia must have been like. While there wasn’t that much insight into what might have compelled Princip, man, what a world Andrić paints. Myths and legends from the days of yore, rivalries and grudges centuries in the making, medieval rituals and modern thought carried out throughout the country, from tiny village to small town to big city. 

Underneath it all, though – and this is the beauty of literature, the very reason why I read it – are things I recognize about my own life, my own circumstances, and my own prejudices. In particular, the following excerpt from “A Letter from 1920.” Andrić was very specific about his settings, so the fact that this was from 1920, a year and change after WWI officially ended, when Bosnia was licking its wounds and half-optimistically-dreaming-about and half-mortally-fearing-for the future, is rather important. It’s narrated by a man who runs into a childhood friend in a train station in the middle of the night, and from whom he gets a letter several weeks later. The friend is an emigré, a European who grew up in Bosnia but fled for a doctor’s life in France after WWI – was in the middle of fleeing the night he and the narrator ran into one another. Their meeting was strained, and the letter he wrote after was an attempt to clear things up. What follows is part of that letter, the crux of his explanation of why he couldn’t stay in Bosnia, why he felt compelled to abandon his homeland:

TrainStation

“Yes, Bosnia is a country of hatred. That is Bosnia. And by a strange contrast…it can also be said that there are few countries with such firm belief and elevated strength of character, so much tenderness and loving passion, such depth of feeling, of loyalty and unshakable devotion, or with such a thirst for justice. But in secret depths underneath all this hide burning hatreds, entire hurricanes of tethered and compressed hatreds maturing and awaiting their hour. The relationship between your loves and your hatred is the same as between your high mountains and the invisible geological strata underlying them, a thousand times larger and heavier. And thus you are condemned to live on deep layers of explosive which are lit from time to time by the very sparks of your loves and your fiery and violent emotion. Perhaps your greatest misfortune is precisely that you do not suspect just how much hatred there is in your loves and passions, traditions and pieties. And just as under the influence of atmospheric moisture and warmth, the earth on which we live passes into our bodies and gives them color and form, determining the character and direction of our way of life and our actions – so does the strong, underground and invisible hatred on which Bosnian man lives imperceptibly and indirectly enter into all his actions, even the very best of them. Vice gives birth to hatred everywhere in the world, because it consumes and does not create, destroys, and does not build; but in countries like Bosnia, virtue itself often speaks and acts through hatred. With you, ascetics derive no love from their asceticism, but hatred for the voluptuary instead; abstainers hate those who drink, and drunkards feel a murderous hatred for the whole world. Those who do believe and love feel a mortal hatred for those who don’t, or those who believe and love differently. And, unhappily, the chief part of their belief and love is often consumed in this hatred. (The most evil and sinister-looking faces can be met in greatest numbers at places of worship – monasteries, and dervish tekkes.) Those who oppress and exploit the economically weaker do it with hatred into the bargain, which makes that exploitation a hundred times harder and uglier, while those who bear these injustices dream of justice and reprisal, but as some explosion of vengeance which, if it were realized according to their ideas, would perforce be so complete that it would blow to pieces the oppressed along with the hated oppressors. You Bosnians have, for the most part, got used to keeping all the strength of your hatred for that which is closest to you. Your holy of holies is, as a rule, three hundred rivers and mountains away, but the objects of your repulsion and hatred are right beside you in the same town, often on the other side of your courtyard wall. So your love remains inert, but your hatred is easily spurred into action. And you love your homeland, you passionately love it, but in three or four different ways which are mutually exclusive, then come to blows and hate each other to death.”

KostaHakman1 KostaHakmanSlikar HakmanMujerAcostada

Three by Kosta Hakman.

I don’t want to say too much about this (shocker, I know) and risk spoiling it, but I can’t help but emphasize again that first sentence I bolded – “virtue itself speaks and acts through hatred.” How much like jihad and Fundamental Christianity and anti-choiceism and uber-American-nationalism does it sound to make a mortal sin out of something you don’t agree with?  Andrić implies that there is another way to do things. I don’t know whether he thought people could change – he, or at least his letter-writer, certainly seems to think that Bosnia hatred is endemic – but for me, it’s enough to pause and wonder, how much of what I consider virtue is based on hatred or even dislike of that virtue’s opposite? I’d like to say none, but am I really as breezy as I like to think I am?

How much of what we consider good is rooted in opposition to what we consider bad?

How open to different opinions/lifestyles/worldviews are we really?  

Where do those judgements come from? Are they legitimate?

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PS – There are some who say, apparently, that Andrić’s work is being dusted off and employed for anti-Muslim purposes. This I find very unsettling. It seems to me that, as this passage indicates, the vitriol he felt for his native country wasn’t directed at any one group of believers, but at the whole lot of them. If anything – and being the good Communist he was, this isn’t a stretch – he disagreed with people of all faiths, and used the various faiths of his homeland as vehicles by which to examine or expose the ridiculousness, the futility, the inherent malevolence of blind allegiance to anything.

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The Perseverance of Memory

What do a sea snail and a scratch awl have in common?

Aplysia

Not much, you wouldn’t think. But, as Reb Arye-Leib would say, “You’ll find out if you listen.”

I wrote about Eric Kandel the other day in that post on spontaneity, and I’ve been thinking about him since. The thing that Kandel did to so capture my imagination was establish a neurobiological understanding of how the brain creates memory.

He did his primary research on Alypsia, that fancy-looking sea snail slug right up there. It has the simplest brain and the biggest neurons around, and he basically stuck electrodes into the neurons, poked the snail to make it ink, and recorded what happened. (I mean, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’ll leave the experimental details to him.)

InSearchOfMemoryBut the stuff about the snail isn’t (for me) the most interesting part of In Search of Memory. It was Kandel’s search for one of his own memories – his dedication to that search, and the weight that memory has – that was so compelling.

Little Eric Kandel grew up in Vienna in the 1930s. His dad owned a toy shop, and one day in late 1938, he brought nine-year-old Eric this little blue, mechanical car. Dr. Kandel remembers playing with it after dinner, zooming around under the dinner table on his knees. And it’s this – the blue car, the underside of the table – that was imprinted on his memory like a stamp. For while he was playing with that brand new car his father had brought him, there came first the sound of boots outside the door, and then of fists upon it. And then his dad was taken away.

Kristallnacht came a few days later, and a few days after that, Eric and his brother were on their long and winding way to Brooklyn.

The Kandels were spared the worst, and were all reunited in the US. But that instant with the car crystallized in Dr. Kandel’s mind, and became a locus of identity, a connection to other people, a symbol of his homeland and childhood and identity and history and the way the world works. It became something of a lens through which everything he did and experienced was filtered. He struggled to accommodate it and not hate it and not have it define him. He worried about everything that it meant — but he never had to worry about forgetting it, and its persistence became a puzzle. Not the why of it – that’s easy enough to figure out – but the how.

The how drove him through medical school and graduate school and years of research, all the way to the Nobel Prize in 2000. That image fueled his life’s work.

Which segues us into another casualty of that historical era who was interested in the persistence of memory: Bruno Schulz.

SchulzSelfie

The official Schulz web site.

I mean “casualty” literally: a Nazi officer shot him, in a tit-for-tat killing, in the back while he walked home from the baker’s with a loaf under his arm. Up until that murder, Schulz spent much of his artistic effort teasing out the metaphysical implications of certain childhood memories. Or not so much memories, per se, as images that, as he put it, he “acquired” in childhood: a horse-drawn carriage racing through the moonlit snow; his father’s enema tube looped on its hook in the bathroom; the baskets of fruits and vegetables his family’s maid, Adele, would carry on her arm as she returned home from the market. Throughout his teens and twenties and thirties and forties, before he was murdered at age 50, Schulz went over and over and over these images, in pencil drawings, in charcoal, in oils, and in fiction.

In a public letter to his friend S.I. Witkiewicz, Schulz wrote, “I don’t know how we manage to acquire certain images in childhood that carry decisive meanings for us. They function like those threads in the solution around which the significance of the world crystallizes for us.”

SchulzCarriage

This links to a great Schulz art site.

He went on to say, in one of the better descriptions I’ve seen of the motivation to write – or paint or sculpt or compose or whatever – that, “Such images amount to an agenda, establish an iron capital of the spirit, proffered to us very early in the form of forebodings and half-conscious experiences. It seems to me that all the rest of one’s life is spent interpreting these insights, breaking them down to the last fragment of meaning we can master…[Artists] do not discover anything new after that, they only learn how to understand better and better the secret entrusted to them at the outset; their creative effort goes into an unending exegesis.”

I love in particular the idea that the truth contained within certain memories is a “secret,” and that we’re entrusted these secrets in childhood. The whole thing gives this treasure-hunt mystery, this Pan’s Labyrinth feel to existence. And how nice is that? Why not cultivate a little bit of mystery? Especially those of us who weren’t raised in the church, or have grown tired of someone else’s centuries-old mysteries, or are overly logical and rational. Life’s complicated enough and impossible to figure out anyway, so why not think of it as a little bit magical, too?

InSearchOfLostTime

All six of these books are In Search of Lost Time.
All six.

The example par excellence, the author and work this post would be remiss not to mention, is Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time.

In case you hear Proust’s name and feel like maybe you should know what people are talking about but don’t, and don’t want to ask, but absolutely don’t want to read a book full of four-page sentences (seriously) to find out, here’s what you need to know about Proust’s book: when he was a kid, Proust – or his avatar – would visit his sick aunt, and she would share her madeleines, which she dipped in her tea, with him. It’s the memory of this as an adult, or more precisely the shock of the memory and the subsequent desire to tease out the ways in which his childhood prepared him for that memory and the ways in which that memory and innumerable others influenced the rest of his life, that impels the adult Proust/Proust-avatar to write his opus.

Here’s the famous passage:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

It goes on like that pretty much forever.

Now, to the scratch awl.

ScratchAwlOne thing any seven year old knows is that one thing these things are really good for is throwing into the dirt.

I don’t know if I did this regularly, or just did it once, but I remember holding that long slender pointed piece of steel in my hand and flinging it end over end to get it to stick straight up out of the grassy backyard ground. I don’t remember, however, putting it back after my final toss.

I don’t remember, because I didn’t.

Which is why I do remember the lecture I got from my dad the next day upon his discovery of the awl’s faded-blue-paint handle poking up out of the grass.

I also remember – very distinctly – the look on his face when I told him I hadn’t done it. That confused and questioning look. Not confused about who then could possibly be the culprit, but confused as to why I was lying, and questioning why in the face of such overwhelming evidence I would continue to lie.

“Anyway,” he finally said, just going past the ridiculousness of my insistence that it wasn’t me, “you can’t leave tools out like that.”

I don’t know that it was the first bald-faced lie I told, but I know it’s become something of a symbol to me, that action and the lie. I imagine my dad’s refusal to listen to anymore foolishness was supposed to be a lesson about the futility of such obvious lying. You would think that’d be enough, right? “You got caught,” I imagine myself saying in his shoes, “Don’t be an idiot.”

But I proved to be incorrigible. My proclivity to lie expressed itself in all sorts of ways – exaggeration, denial, pure invention. I once told a friend of mine in fourth grade that the girl he had a crush on lived behind me and that we’d meet under the shaggy avocado tree in between our two yards in secret and talk for hours upon hours, and sure, I’d be happy to put in a good word. She actually lived in a completely different subdivision.

I also told that same kid that I had videocassettes of Howdy Doody that my parents recorded as kids in my attic. Besides the anachronism of VCRs in the 1950s, I didn’t even have an attic.

I never felt bad about these lies – I just hated getting caught. Which to my weird little brain was motivation for one thing: becoming a better liar.

Eventually, as those who know me know, the lies kind of pretty much completely took over, and I wasn’t even aware of the extent that I was lying to myself and living in a world that was pure fantasy.

I didn’t mean for this to devolve into confession and self-analysis. Suffice it to say that one of the things I’ve had to do in recent years is learn how to restrict my fabrication-of-reality to the page, to channel that energy and creativity, that compulsion, that narcissistic, egomaniacal belief that I can bend reality and create worlds — and then to make something of what I remember, whether it happened or not.

Proust saw memory as inevitably partial. Schulz knew that memory was like beauty and was in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. Kandel was sure it could be mapped. They all proved in their various ways that the act of remembering  can be as influential on the shape one’s life takes as the memory itself.

What memories carry “decisive meaning” for you?

What is that meaning?

What do you do with the memories? With the meaning?

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“Learn to hurt, baby.”

I heard that from a friend the other day. He was talking about what this mentor of his used to tell him when he was first kind of coming out of his shell a few years ago.

scarfe-illustration-for-the-wall

This guy talks about how he was pretty shut down for a pretty long time. He had some hard knocks as a young kid and he set things up so that nothing was going to bother him ever again.

Except, everything did.

And the more things bothered him, the thicker and higher he had to make these walls he was building to keep out the hurt. After a while, looking around, he didn’t see anyone, couldn’t hear anything. Nothing was coming in, good or bad. Which is the problem with walls – they keep it all out.

This is perfectly obvious to everyone in abstract. We all know about walls – especially other people’s.

“He’s so closed off.”

“She should open up more, it’d be good for her.”

“He doesn’t let anyone in.”

Etcetera.

KitchenDemoBut when it comes to ourselves, well, things are a little different. Because knocking down a wall to redo your kitchen is fun, but tearing down emotional walls is not. It requires you to pass through various – often serious – amounts of pain.

You gotta go through the bad to get the good, otherwise it isn’t even good.

Which is one of those annoying paradoxes of life, right, that so often you have to do the opposite of what seems to make sense at the time.

It doesn’t always mean you have to learn to GET hurt, though. A lot of people do that already, and do it quite well. For some people, getting hurt is their first, immediate, only reaction to anything. They build their walls out of hurt – their walls, their makeups, their very identities – and they play the perpetual victim, use their hurt manipulate people or justify really awful behavior.

I know because for a few years, that was my M.O. I couldn’t catch a break, nothing was going my way, everything was everybody else’s fault, wah wah wah, and so I numbed it all out. And then I realized that I was rather UNcomfortably numb, because I could still remember the good, somewhere back there, and I knew things could be different. That they had to be.

And this is where the learning HOW to hurt comes in. To hurt in proportion to the injury. To realize it’s not the end of the world. To hurt and then move on.

To realize there might not even be an injury.

This is also where these two slightly-different kind of Wall People converge: proportion. One’s afraid that any hurt at all is going to be the end of the world so he goes to every single length possible to avoid any possibility of hurt, and the other is absolutely sure that every single hurt he gets really is the end of the world and you’d-act-this-way-too-if-the-end-of-the-world-was-happening-to-you.

Getting out of that requires you become vulnerable. Which is part of what my buddy’s mentor had in mind, I imagine, when he’d say, “Learn to hurt, baby.”Rolling Stones Let It Bleed

Learn to get hurt if you need to, or learn how to hurt if that’s your thing. Either way, it’s about being vulnerable.

Vulnerability in the former circumstance is easy to understand – just allow it to happen. In the latter, it means laying yourself open to what comes instead of the hurt, or after the hurt, when you realize it wasn’t that bad, when you have to take responsibility for it and for all the things you didn’t do before.

Vulnerability is a different kind of hurt than the soul-evisceration of self-victimization. It can sting still, but it can also reward. And more importantly, what pain it entails is tempered by the optimism inherent “putting yourself out there.” Because you wouldn’t risk it if you didn’t think on some level that it will or at least could work out.

Case in point: I’ve been writing stories for 15 years, but I never sent one anywhere (for fear of rejection, fear of exposure-as-a-charlatan, for all kinds of reasons) until last summer. So I never got a rejection letter.

(Though I still felt victimized by the American publishing industry for not having a book deal. Seriously. That’s how I felt. I wrote about it. Several times. Thank god no one published that drivel.)

Well, I’ve gotten plenty of rejection letters now. And they suck. Every time.

But every time I get one and turn around and send the story somewhere else, I say c’est la vie. Because that really is life – especially a writer’s life. But it’s representative of this whole shift in attitude that I can even say that and mean it and not feel like I should see how long it takes to hit the water from the roadway of the Golden Gate.

Marley-truth

Like Bob says right there – getting hurt is part of life.

And it’s being okay with that, allowing yourself to run the risk of that happening, that makes you a stronger person.

And we can always do better at that. Even if you’re not one of those Wall People, you can always find a way to loosen up, to open up, to lay yourself bare. I know, I know – “laying yourself bare” sounds awful. You’re doing fine just the way you are.  But there’s always that part of you, in close relationships, in intimate interactions, when you know it’d probably be better if you said X or did Y, let the person know how you really feel.

Those moments when, if you’re like me, you think, “Get me the fuck outta here.” After which you breathe a huge sigh of relief because you maintained the integrity of your shell. That you think about for hours days weeks months years after and wish you’d just said or did whatever that soft part of your heart knew was the right thing to say or do.

I’m going to leave you with another motivational-quote meme that the internet says is attributed to Bruce Lee:

BruceLeePrayDifficult

I’ve got a lot more to say on this. I was going to segue into a different vein that has to do with the Rolling Stones (hence the album cover up there), but I think maybe that’s its own thing. You’re probably happy to get outta here in closet to 1,000 words for once anyway.

Thanks for coming.

Now go forth and be strongly fragile.

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Hunger

This post is about hunger.

So, put down your chocolate éclair or whatever you’re eating on whatever break your taking to read this. (Thanks for doing that, by the way.) I don’t mean to guilt you out of it, that scrumptious snack, but you’re probably just not gonna feel much like eating it by the end.

An old friend of mine, Shekinah Pugh, is doing this World Food Program five-day challenge called Live Below the Line. You subsist on $1.50 a day, which is the US equivalent of the worldwide “extreme poverty line.” People sponsor you to stretch yourself thin to raise money for, as the Web site says, “some of the best U.S. charities that fight extreme poverty around the world.”

lbtlOne in four kids is stunted due to hunger. It’s the world’s largest solvable problem.

Shekinah’s eating a hardboiled egg for breakfast and some reheated frozen broccoli for lunch and some white rice for dinner. In addition to the paucity of food $1.50 gets you, Shekinah’s also realizing what poor quality food it gets you, too, because decent food costs a lot of money, which is one of the myriad reasons why poverty = poor health. She did her grocery shopping for the week at the 99-Cent Store, which as you can imagine a) a whole lot of people have to do, and b) means she doesn’t have the world’s freshest ingredients.

I know it’s totes #firstworldproblems to not be able to shop the organic kale section at Whole Foods for a week, but it highlights just one of the innumerably shitty things about living in poverty. Whether undernourished or obese – both of which go hand-in-glove with poverty – you’re low on energy, your brain ain’t workin so you get behind in school or fired from your job, you’re feeling horrible, depressed, even suicidal – your entire life can be ruined by malnutrition.

Says Shekinah, after only a few days on this little food: “Never before in my life have I felt the pains of hunger the way I experienced this evening. Never before have I been brought to tears as I felt my stomach cramp and turn inside out. My emotions have hit a wall today. I’ve been crabby, tired, sensitive, sad, angry…. A roller coaster. Irrational.”

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/Hunger_first_edition.jpgThose of you looking for a literary meditation on just how insane hunger can make you should check out Knut Hamsun‘s Hunger, a Dostoyevskian investigation of the lengths of self-denial and self-destruction to which a man’s pride will drive him. The protagonist is an unnamed wannabe author who’s roaming the streets of Kristiania hoping to be recognized for the genius writer he thinks he is, sure to strike it rich if an editor would just read the latest and best essay he’s figuring to prepare, just as soon as he can get a full stomach, or at least enough for his brain to work a little. His pride keeps him from begging and his delusions from stealing, and the narrative gets weirder and weirder as he descends further and further into starvation insanity:

I was fading helplessly away with open eyes, staring straight at the ceiling. Finally I stuck my forefinger in my mouth and took to sucking on it. Something began stirring in my brain, some thought in there scrabbling to get out, a stark-staring mad idea: What if I get a bite? And without a moment’s hesitation I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my teeth together.
I jumped up. I was finally awake. A little blood trickled from my finger, and I licked it off as it came. It didn’t hurt, the wound was nothing really, but I was at once brought back to my sense. I shook my head, went over to the window and found a rag for the wound. While I was fiddling with this, my eyes filled with water — I wept softly to myself. The skinny lacerated finger looked so sad. God in heaven, to what extremity I had come!

If you like heavy, if you like disturbing, if you like moving and incredibly good writing, you should pick it up. If you need a pedigree-type reason, Hamsun won the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature, and helped usher modernism into Norwegian literature. Paul Auster said about the book, “you can tell something new is happening here.” He’s kind of a big deal.

If your tastes run more towards the cinematic, there’s always Hunger the film, by Steve McQueen (the Brit, not the biker) with Michael Fassbender, based on the 1981 Irish prison hunger strike. Besides the mind-blowing twenty-minute dialogue (shot in one take!) between Fassbender, who plays strike leader Bobby Sands, and Liam Cunningham, who plays his priest, the film’s also impressive for its gritty display of what hunger does to people. Fassbender lost what looks like about 93% of his total body weight for the last-days portions of the film, and the makeup artists did an incredible job mocking up the sores and skin-cracks and other horrible things that happen to a body wasting away from lack of food. The political history stuff is interesting – it’s why I picked it up – but by the time Fassbender’s convinced you of the reasons he’s pursuing this hunger strike (it has as much to do with his personal grit than anything about The Troubles), politics takes a backseat, and you’re watching this man just shrivel up but you’re pulling for him in his revolting and pathetic attempt to maintain his dignity, despite the fact that it’s killing him. It shows better than anything I’ve seen or read a) just how horrid and unfeeling The Machine is and b) just how powerful the will of men can be.

It’s because of Hunger, but even more because of Hunger, probably, that I’ve had such a strong reaction to the hunger strikes going on at Guantánamo Bay. In case you don’t know, some of the 166 prisoners down in Cuba – about half of whom have been cleared for release yet continue to languish – have gone on hunger strike. The latest discussion – dealt with well in this NY Times article – is whether prisoners have the “right” to starve themselves to death in our prisons, or whether our military has the “right” (they call it “responsibility”) to keep them from starving. Doctor Jeremy Lazarus of the AMA says that, “Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions.”

That might be true for American ethicists, but Gitmo supervisors, I’m guessing, aren’t too concerned about the finer philosophical points the Tweed Coats are debating. They’re probably more worried it looks pretty. fucking. bad. when your prisoners start killing themselves to protest their imprisonment. NYT’s changed the article since Tuesday to include Obama’s assurance that “I don’t want these people to die,” and his belief that Gitmo is a “recruiting tool for extremists,” so I can’t get you the exact quotes by the Gitmo staff that I’d wanted to, but basically they were saying that they added more staff to help do this “enteral” feeding, and that as guards, it’s their duty to keep prisoners alive so that, ostensibly, they can go through the justice process.

Perhaps, as it may fall out, to be put to death.

What that means is that the US is trying to maintain a level of control over their prisoners’ lives to goes far deeper than what we normally think of when we think prison-as-controlled-environment.

“I do not want to kill myself,” one of the Gitmo detainees is quoted as saying. “My religion prohibits suicide. But I will not eat or drink until I die, if necessary, to protest the injustice of this place.”

Albert Camus wrote that suicide is the “one truly serious philosophical question.” Everything else outside of that is secondary. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus is referring mostly to the reactive, seemingly inexplicable act: “An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps.”

Death-by-hunger-strike is different in that it very much is a planned event. It takes place over a long period of time. Its practitioners are far from “ignorant of it.” But it very much gets to the core of Camus’s project in “Sisyphus” – the meaning of life. Camus argues that just because life is absurd does not mean the actions we take within it do not have meaning. In fact, life’s absurdity endows our every single action with meaning – that’s existentialism’s whole project.

And it’s this notion – of self-determination, of rights and responsibilities – that is at the core of this force-feeding debate at Guantánamo. These people have nothing – nothing – with which to assert their humanity except by starving themselves, by putting themselves through the most drawn-out, agonizing death imaginable.

Sieges on cities worked because starving people breaks their spirits. Warlords and mafias control entire areas by controlling food – some would say dictators control entire countries or populaces that way. World hunger is a solvable problem – that’s what Shekinah is raising awareness about and money for.

And we, the Superabundant, are controlling people’s continued existence by force-feeding them. Brutal fucking irony, that, no?

What do you think?

Are we robbing these people of their humanity?

Or am I missing something?

Should you be allowed to starve to death?

How different is that from euthanasia?

Is is the context that makes it different?

What is the context in which it’d be okay?

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To Be or Not To Be “Yourself”?

We all like sayings to live by, but sometimes

aphorisms are a pain in the ass.

needlepoint

They’re supposed to be laconic little piths of life-knowledge that you can digest and recall (and regurgitate) at a moment’s notice. The sayings Grandma needlepoints and frames and hangs above Granddad’s rocker – which homey image is how they’re supposed to make you feel. Complete. Earnest. Well-Intentioned. Striving To Be Whole.

Whole Already.

But they’re not so straightforward as they seem. At least, not to the extent those who repeat them endlessly and unprovoked would have you think, as if they’re the answer to every last one of life’s little (and even major) problems.

Most of the time, they pose more questions than they answer.

The origins of these sayings are often obscured or ignored or simply unknown. Such is also the case with their contexts, especially in the aphorism compendiums that litter the feet of Christmas trees and other present-loci the world over, such as The Viking Book of Aphorisms that Auden edited, or the Native American Wisdom Collections you find in the gift shops of the natural wonders of the American West, or Zen-Thought-A-Day, or The Approachable Vedas.

Or the many varieties of Shakespeare Quotations.

Thus the Bard’s “To Thine Own Self Be True,” which has been much on my mind of late.

It’s become a self-empowering phrase, one that rat racers use to maintain their identities against the onslaught of gray-flannel-suitism, that yogis use to justify the (often ridiculous) cost of yoga studio membership, that people in recovery from everything from cancer to Catholicism to divorce to drugs use to reinforce that you are important, that you matter, that you are beautiful. That you are more than the disease and/or more than a victim and/or more than whatever it is that ails you. That whatever other people think of you, or require of you, or want you to be means nothing compared to what’s inside you and what you know in your heart of hearts you are and should be doing.

Trungpa would say it means not letting other people lay their trips on you. (But then he’d laugh and say, “That’s assuming there’s a self to lay trips on, which of course there isn’t. There aren’t even such things as trips! It’s all an illusion haha!” So, maybe he’s not so much help in this one.)

Not that any of these interpretations are really bad, obviously. If they work for people, if they’re a help, then good.

But back to “To Thine Own Self Be True.” If it appeared on Jeopardy, a lot people would askanswer, “Who is Socrates [or Some Other Ancient Greek]?” because the phrase is often emblazoned above a Greekesque profile or some esoteric/occultish symbol, like a triangle or an eye or some sun rays or an ankh.

Those that do know it comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet often forget (or ignore or don’t know) its context:

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

What act it’s from (I.iii) is hardly important to most people. Neither is the fact that this is the last advice Polonius will give his son Laertes, who’s off on some business (ad)ventures and won’t return to Denmark before his windbag father gets himself killed for eavesdropping on a paranoid and borderline/depressive Hamlet.

Also not that important, when we’re talking about how the phrase functions in daily American life, is the rest of the bit. Old Polonius is basically saying that if you don’t lie to yourself, you’ll never have to lie to anyone else, and not only will you not have to, but you won’t even be capable of it.

Within this advice is the conceit that it’s better not to lie to people or take advantage of them, and that you or we or Laertes or at least Polonius is aiming for “better” or “right” behavior, just as Grandma’s needlepoints implore you to do. But all that pesky functioning-within-society bs is neatly done away with by the amputation of the aphorism’s surrounding lines, and we’re left with something intensely focused on — just as we’d have it since The Me Decade, when that culture of self-care I describe above really solidified — the self.

Trungpa and no-self Buddhism/Eastern-philosophy-in-general aside, the problem I’ve been having with this aphorism of late is: to which of mine myriad selves am I supposed to be being true? Especially considering what Thomas L. Masson, Life’s late-19thC literary editor and an ironic fan of aphorism himself, had to say about it:

“‘Be yourself’ is about the worst advice you can give some people.”

falling_downBecause I often find myself acting in a way I would not describe as imitation of the better angels of my nature. And not just acting that way, but enjoying it. Feeling as if I’m good at it, or would be, or once was and could be again. I live in a major metropolitan area, so traffic is a concern, and an instance of this, or provoker thereof. But I’m not just talking about violent fantasies (I mean, come on, we all know I hardly have the stones or the stomach for it) – I mean everything.

Procrastinator.

Liar.

Taker-of-the-easy-way.

Glutton.

I’m also – like most people – in some ways juggling several different identities, wearing several different hats.

My anti-social Jack London hat fits really well and I feel really good when I’m wearing it, but should I really drop out and go find a sea-bound frigate upon which to weather some storms and develop some character? The other selves that have recently made some really awesome and exciting life decisions and are gaining traction in some pretty exciting areas would probably have something to say against that.

On a more positive note, some days I feel like I’m pretty good at my 9-5, and could, if I really applied myself to it, make something of myself in that world, long-term-career-wise. But sometimes I want to go back to teaching, and feel like I’m better at that, or “made for” that. Other days, I just want to get a manual labor job so I can move during the day and think at night instead of coming home already brain-tired and carpal-tunnel-sore (violins!). Or become a National Park Ranger. Or build furniture.

How much of life, after a certain point, is picking a person to be and sticking to it and developing one’s “self” within the parameters of the person you’ve picked to stick to being?

Is that being/becoming an adult? Or is that selling out? Selling short? Or just one way to live?

How do you know when you’ve reached that point of choosing?

How do you know how much of one part of yourself (a pinch?) and how much of the others (a dash? a dab? a handful?) to tip into the mix?

How do you keep it in mind that life’s a process, a progression towards a decent recipe? And that everyone else is experimenting, too? That we’re all just a bunch of amateurs knocking about the great big test kitchen of life?

How do you pare away the false selves, the selves others have made for you, and know the right one(s) to be true to?

What does it mean to “be true”? At what cost – to yourself, to others?

See what I mean about posing questions?

Then again, aphorisms fall into the category of Folk Wisdom and Common Sense, which like religious instruction doesn’t reward (or stand up under) too much critical inquiry.

Meaning, shut up and just go with it.

Whatever it means to you at any given time, if it catches you in a moment of passion or despair and helps you maintain a measure of equanimity, then take it for the momentary respite it is and leave the worrying-it-to-death alone. I guess.

What sayings do you live by?

What sayings do you despise?

How do you keep them straight?

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Elephants! Elephants! Elephants!

If you like elephants, you’ll be happy to know that the Thai government has

officially pledged to end the ivory trade within its borders.

Manah, being coy outside Huay Pakoot

This is great news (provided this legislative process gets carried out and leads to effective laws), because Thailand has been for quite some time one of the largest world markets for ivory, including African ivory, for which, because their tusks are larger, many more African elephants are slaughtered (and their babies culled and sold) than Asian elephants. Under current laws, limited ivory trading is not illegal, but it is, at least in spirit, heavily regulated to small quantities at a time. There is no regulation, however, on the trade of ivory for religious or traditional purposes, meaning that in practice, you can ship however many tons of ivory you want so long as you slap a label on it that says, for instance, “For Monastery.” This is known as the “Thai Loophole,” and it aids and abets the poaching of elephants all over central and southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

But while this latest decree may be cause for cautious optimism, it hardly spells the end of the trials facing the world’s biggest pachyderm.

Elephants in Thailand are still tortured and sold on the open market every day.

And nowadays, it’s primarily done for the edification of Western tourists. Babies are brought in from Burma/Myanmar and other points north, and sold to private collectors and zoos all over the world, and to tourist camps all over Southeast Asia.

A brief history lesson.

“People,” or some approximation thereof, have been in the area of the world that is now called Thailand for roughly 40,000 years. When in course of hominid events homo sapiens first teamed up with the Elephantidae family (as opposed to strictly hunting them, as our various homo relatives did) is unknown, but guesses range from 10,000 to as far back as 30,000 years, i.e., ever since humans figured out how to develop tools (stone, back then) that would allow them to employ such massive animals for transportation, construction and agricultural uses.

See? Super mythical.

Which is what elephants were always used for, and have always been, to the present day. There’s a saying in Thai (or so I’m told, as I don’t speak it) that “Thailand was built on the back of the elephant,” and indeed Thai culture and the elephant seem inextricably linked. Thai in general are extremely proud of their history and they believe that the elephant was instrumental in creating and sustaining that history, and they pay the image of the elephant due homage in their historical and spiritual myths.

The actual elephant, however, has always just been treated like a big ole ox. 

In fact, under the law, they might as well be. They’re officially categorized as livestock, meaning the same regulations apply to them as to cattle and pigs and chickens. And oxen.

But they’re not run-of-the-mill livestock. They’re incredibly intelligent and emotionally advanced, and probably because of this, they suffer greatly the vagaries of captivity. Those are probably also the reasons people like them so much and feel, after even the briefest interaction with them, a close bond.

And what “captivity” entails these days can be misleading. 

By 1986, Asian elephants were on the IUCN’s red or “endangered” list, meaning 5% or less of their “original” population (since when people started counting them) is left. After the Thai logging industry was dissolved and outlawed in 1989, what was left of them – which still amounted to tens of thousands of elephants – were suddenly out of work. Over the previous century, their natural habitat had been destroyed by about 90%, so it wasn’t as if they could just be turned out to pasture. Many owners, unsure what to do with their elephants and unable to support their voracious appetites, either killed their elephants or let them become strays.

At the same time, Western tourism to Thailand was really starting to pick up (which was likely one of the reasons the country both felt pressure and could afford to “do the right thing” and outlaw logging). Thai elephant owners saw an opportunity to give Westerners that up-close-and-personal experience that so many of them were willing to pay quite handsomely for, so they built camps, taught their intelligent and quick-study elephants some tricks, and elephant tourism was born.

Nowadays, the vast majority of elephants in Thailand live and work in tourist camps all over the country, many of which, in response to market demands, have done away with their hoops of fire and soccer balls and claim to be “sanctuaries” or “eco-tourism” spots that offer “natural elephant experiences.” These places run the gamut from horrible-horrible conditions to pretty darn nice ones, and while they’re probably better off here than wandering the streets, the fundamental conditions that comprise their captivity are extraordinarily unnatural.

Elephants are nomadic and prefer to have hundreds of miles in which to roam around, and instead are kept in corrals and stalls and enclosures ranging from a few feet to a few acres. Elephants have complex nutritional needs and will eat and self-medicate from a variety of more than 100 different plants, whereas they usually get grain and, if they’re lucky, fruit in the camps.

Worst of all, though, they all go through what is known as phajaan, or “The Crush.”

The Crush is a process of breaking an elephant that goes back thousands of years. In short, a baby elephant is taken from its mother, crammed into a tight shoot that inhibits movement, and tortured until its spirit is completely broken.

And when I say “tortured,” I mean poked, prodded, cut, burned, beaten. I mean red-hot pokers inserted into the flesh, into the soles of the foot, into the ears and nostrils and mouth. I mean beating and starvation and dehydration that lasts for days on end, that takes a baby elephant to the brink of death.

I mean this:

Phajaan – The Crush – in all its glory.
(Not my pic)

And this:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/10/1016_021016_phajaan.html

Nat Geo video.
(Not my pic)

And this:

http://phajaan.webs.com/

phaajan.webs.com video and links to more.
(Not my pic)

It ain’t pretty, and every single elephant in captivity has gone through it. Even those at the lushest, nicest, most beautiful and clean and relaxing and pleasing-to-look-and-be-at elephant eco-sanctuaries.

It’s a practice that’s complicated by culture. It offends our (or at least my) sensitive modern Western sensibilities, but it’s considered a necessary and not by any means evil practice in Thailand that goes back probably to the very inception of our domestication of elephants – ten thousand plus years.  How else, the logic goes, are you going to get an animal that will grow to 5,000 pounds to respect you, unless you break it first?

The answer from animal behaviorists in the West is, “Simple! Positive reinforcement! We’ve been using it for years on animals as big as horses!” To which Thai mahouts – elephant handlers – shake their collective heads and go back to making sure their elephants don’t kill any tourists, using the only tools they know how to use:

This is a bullhook.
(Not mine.)

My girlfriend and I were such tourists just a couple months ago. We spent the week around New Years at the GVI (Global Vision International) Thailand Elephant project in Huay Pakoot, which is between four and ten hours (depending on Thai traffic and the reliability of your particular Thai vehicle) north of Chiang Mai. It was great, you should go, the people are wonderful, it’s gorgeous.

What makes GVI a little different than the vast majority of elephant tourism spots is that their mission is to get elephants out of tourist camps and back into a semi-natural life.

This might sound easy enough, but in practice it is hard to do.

Elephants in tourist camps make their owners money. Huay Pakoot, where we were put up by a family in their spare room, is comprised of about 80 families, mostly all of whom are members of the Karen tribe, one of the six Hill Tribe peoples flung out across northern Thailand and Burma/Myanmar. Between those 80 families, the villagers of Huay Pakoot own 60 elephants. Up until three years ago, when GVI started the program there, all of those elephants were working in tourist camps, making their owners pretty decent money – for some of them, that’s the only income they have, and all the income they really have the opportunity to make. The challenge facing GVI is to make it economically feasible for people to bring their elephants back and not lose much if any money. GVI does this by charging people for the pleasure of staying in the village and participating in the daily routine maintenance of the elephant rehabilitation program.

Huay Pakoot1

View from host family’s house — Erin saying hello — Public school

And what a pleasure it is. Really and truly.

That maintenance includes health checks and behavior observation. Basically, you hike out to wherever the elephants are, watch them for a couple hours and head back. Health checks are the only opportunity you get to get close to them – you check in their ears, look into their (big brown beautiful) eyes, look at their feet and toenails, poke at their poop (with a stick, mind) – and otherwise they’re just trying to live a relatively carefree life. They have several hundred acres to roam around in, and they have access to as many different kinds of forage food they need.

It’s an experiment in alternate, responsible elephant tourism, a totally different kind of sustainability. They’ve managed to bring five elephants back so far, and have started a community-run version/branch that has brought two others back, as well.

And it’s great. And I hope it catches on.

But according to the GVI staff members, there are only six – SIX! – places in all of Thailand that are doing this kind of responsible alternative elephant tourism.

And only one – ONE! – woman who is actually attempting to raise baby elephants from birth in semi-captivity using positive reinforcement. This woman, Sangduen Chailert, called Lek, is the only Thai voice speaking out above a whisper against phajaan and calling for a new paradigm in the treatment and training of elephants. As a woman in a male-dominated industry in a rather conservative culture, she faces a ton of criticism for calling into question a tradition that is centuries, perhaps millenia, old. The only reason this criticism isn’t sharper or more dangerous than it is is because a huge number of her would-be criticizers simply dismiss her – and the idea that these massive animals can be trusted is they’re not broken – out of hand.

Mario (the Italo-Thai baby) and his mom, slacking their thirst.

Elephants grow even slower than humans, their gestation is 22 months (!) and they don’t reach physical maturity until their early twenties. Everything is big about them, including their mood swings, and males especially can be extremely volatile in their periods of musth, even after having gone through phajaan. So the jury on how an elephant reacts to positive reinforcement training will be out for at least a couple decades, even on the small handful of elephants Lek is currently training that way, let alone on a large enough sample of elephants to convince old school, traditional mahouts that it’s an acceptable way to keep an elephant docile enough to interact with humans.

Of course, the obvious answer is inherent in that last sentence – keep humans and elephants separated. Maybe we’ve outgrown our partnership. Or at least the kind of hierarchical partnership we used to have.

But that’s not really realistic. People want their pics with elephants, and want to ride elephants, and want to bathe them and feed them and pet them. I get it.

And not everyone has the time to spend a week or two or four in some remote sanctuary, or the interest or the money to do so. I totally get that, too.

But if you’re thinking about going to Thailand, and thinking about seeing some elephants there, think about doing it in a responsible way. While it may be too late to save any of the elephants you’re likely to see from having gone through phajaan, every dollar or baht you spend at a tourist camp keeps that practice going in the future, and every dollar or baht you spend at a real, legitimate sanctuary helps move the industry – butterfly wingflap by butterfly wingflap – towards responsible sustainability.

Babies frolicking in the wild.
(They do that in Huay Pakoot thanks to GVI)

Plus, it helps spread the word. I had no idea this action went on until I started looking into last summer before we went to Thailand, and not a clue about its gnarly extent until we were there learning about all this action, passing tourist camps on the beach and then living amongst people who were trying to change things.

And you can get the word out even if you never go to Thailand. Read up and share what you learn.

If you have any questions or comments, write ’em down here or email me. 

(cuz he’s rad)