One City

So before I get to the topic at hand, here are a couple of links. First, I got to speak to The American Prospect Magazine. The interview was with Courtney E. Martin, a very cool lady who I hope will possibly get more involved in the ID Project, maybe even blogging right here. Second, below is a video interview that Mark Molaro did last week with Naomi Klein (author of No Logo and Shock Doctrine). I had the honor of sitting in the same seat as Naomi a few hours later and being interviewed by Mark (no I didn’t get to meet her!). That interview should be up soon. Mark has interviewed a bunch of great thinkers. You can youtube him if you want to see more.
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So here’s my question today: Why are human beings so thoroughly and consistently obsessed with the apocalypse?
The question was crystallized for me a few months ago up in Boston, chilling with my friend Lodro Rinzler. We went to the Boston Museum of Fine Art which has a surprisingly large collection of Buddhist art. We came across recovered tablets of the Lotus Sutra from 12th century Japan. Turns out that the sutras were buried then because monks were convinced that a dark apocalypse was coming and they wanted to preserve the wisdom for a future age. So they had an apocalypse complex in 12th century Japan!
The notion of a dark age, or Kali Yuga, is a theme that runs like the Mississippi River through Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. But why?My friend Peter is an expert/enthusiast on the whole Peak Oil situation. When he approached our Buddhist teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, to ask his opinion of peak oil, Rinpoche supposedly chuckled and said something like: “Human beings have thought the world was ending since the beginning of time.”
Recently I read The Eden Express by Kurt Vonnegut’s son Mark. It’s a memoir of him leaving Swarthmore and starting a commune in British Columbia with friends in 1970 (he soon went crazy). But they also thought America and civilization were seriously doomed. Seems like every generation has its own version of thinking the end is here.
My own Kali Yuga Complex (KYC for those diagnosing at home) started sometime in 2000. I made it through the Y2K scare the year before unfazed. Maybe in the fall of 2000 I had a dark foreboding about a Dubya presidency (remember Nader saying there was no difference between a Bush and Gore victory? Is there a right speech way to call him an asshole? hope so…), and a dark foreboding about the momentum of our society in general. Or maybe it was a more personal neurosis projected onto an apocalyptic storyline. Maybe I was just a recent college grad who knew I wanted to meditate and write, but beyond that had very little clarity on how to apply jumper cables to the untested apparatus known as my adult life. The Kali Yuga Complex gave my nerves something to hold onto. Not something comfortable, but something important at the very least. The end was near, and I was therefore REAL!
And now the new narrative for our KYC is the 2012 Mayan mythology about the end of the calendar and a global transformation of consciousness, most interestingly articulated by Daniel Pinchbeck in his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. Not that I don’t think the world is slowly but momentously going downhill (an entirely reversible trend, by the way). But do I think I’m important enough to be there at the spiritual climax? Seems like a new ego-tic. At least that’s how it feels in my mind. Maybe the Book of Revelations was just the fever-dream of a neurotic who wanted to be important enough to have a story to tell. What do you think?
While we are on the subject of apocalypse, I wanted to share a few of my favorite apocalyptic works.
Best Apocalyptic Movie: Children of Men (in my opinion the best movie of 2006 that didn’t quite get the attention it deserved. *Note that Bladerunner doesn’t count because it’s dystopian without a clear apocalypse looming).
Best Apocalyptic Song: tie between Prince’s (now-obsolete) “1999” and Bishop Allen’s “Eve of Destruction.”
Best Apocalyptic Novel: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (a bit overwrought but a beautiful novel nonetheless – thank you Oprah’s Book Club!)
Most Hopeful Post-Apocalyptic Narrative: “Star Trek” (A lot of people don’t know this but the basic premise of all things Star Trek is that humanity is devastated by WWIII in the mid 21st Century and afterwards rises like a Phoenix to create enlightened society on Earth, at which point they become compassionate explorers of the galaxy).

Saturday night I did what I do most of my Saturday nights: went to hear some music. Tonight was also the fifth of the those eight crazy nights of Hanukkah, and I wound up at a Matisyahu show, w/my husband and some friends, at Warsaw, aka the Polish National Home, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Matisyahu is a young guy from White Plains, who formerly followed Phish around the country. Now he’s an observant Jew, a Hasid, and a successful musician who mixes rap with reggae and a bit of Hebrew. He lives in Brooklyn, right in the middle of the Hasidic community, which is right next to one of the largest West Indian communities in the country, in this particular One City.
Matisyahu at Warsaw, Polish National Home, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
What a glorious culture mashup it was. The energy was great; the crowd was wild. Matisyahu came out in full Orthodox garb, with white shirt, black suit, tzitzit (fringes), hat and even a cane (had he injured himself w/his exuberant onstage antics?), but half an hour into the near two-hour show, the jacket was gone, the shirt was loose, and the drummer and percussionist were going crazy, as Matisyahu rapped, paused for some searing guitar solos that would not have been out of place at a Bon Jovi show. Trevor Hall (above) joined him for an introspective Jack Johnson-esque piece; two young male “backup dancers” came out in suits and hats and tore up the place with some mighty rave-y moves.
Yet more than a few people wonder about the “legitimacy” of this suburban Jewish kid playing reggae and wearing Hasidic garb. Is it just schtick? Inappropriate cultural appropriation? Who appropriated what first, and is “appropriation” even a helpful word?
I sure don’t have the answers, or the sociological chops to argue one way or the other. But a look at some of the influences that created the night is quite a foray into the interdependence of global cultural production.
There’s that weird Jewish-reggae thing. The Star of David, the Lion of Judah, references to Exodus — such totally Jewish symbols abound in Rastafarianism and reggae. That common vocabulary is what makes it perfectly normal that my brother-in-law plays Bob Marley’s Exodus every Passover. But why, exactly, is this so?
Interdependence again. Last year I saw an excellent documentary called Awake, Zion! which revealed that others have wondered as well. Others who were in film school, who dedicated years of their life to finding out — i.e., the moviemaker. She traces a fascinating journey from Jamaica, to Ethiopia, and around the world; finally locating the connection in an ancient legend about the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, and the ancestry of Haile Selassie. So that’s where Rastas got the Star of David and the Lion of Judah. Ahh.
Rastafarians draw on an Old Testament heritage. A young Hasid draws on reggae. Jamaican musicians drew on American R&B beats and added their own rhymes to best each other in soundsystem battles. Jamaican DJs brought the soundsystem style to the Bronx in the 1970s and turned “toasting” lyrics over beats into rap and hip-hop.
And Saturday night at the Polish National Home, rap, reggae, and the Old Testament all came together in a sweaty joyful celebration, as behatted and suited dancers rocked out next to tank-top-wearing mosh dudes, jumping ecstatically to umistakable reggae riddims and everything bounced back and forth: the influences and crowd’s collective booty both.
Appropriation aschmopriation. It’s not just shopping in the cultural supermarket, trying on what fits. Connections resonate on deeper levels. A friend of mine runs a rather wild call-in radio show — — and one recent topic was titled “GLOW-BALL: International Youth Culture.” He examined political rap from its start in the U.S.A. back in the day to today’s Africa, where a young Somali makes hip-hop hits telling warlords to stop running guns and young Senegalese have made rap their own, using their power as a musical presence to affect elections and call out the vote in ways unheard of in the United States. Some tunes mix modern African rhythms with Fela Kuti-style horns, which drew from 1970s James Brown, the sounds bouncing back and forth across decades of trans-Atlantic influence. Nobody seems to worry much who borrowed what.
And in the bar off to the side, Polish ladies sold pierogies and blintzes to the danced-dazed descendants of Eastern European Jews who had fled Poland’s pogroms generations before. It’s my husband’s heritage; he considers pierogies Jewish soul food, just as much as the Poles consider it a national dish. And the irony of all this Hanukkah happening in a spot called Warsaw was not lost on him.
In the microcosm of the Polish National Home was reflected the interdependence that lights up One City. As the chandelier in the hall spun like a disco ball, it looked pretty clear that the music was a mirror glow-ball reflecting and refracting visible light and audible beat: Globally, interdependently. Joyously.
And after a rousing encore, the lights came up, the PA went on . . . and the crowd flowed out into the Brooklyn night, lustily singing along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” blasting over the loudspeakers. Hey, everybody saw The Sopranos ending, I guess.

It’s not that I like to spy on people. And it’s not that I like to be a nuisance, either. But I want to meet the researcher who has a reserve shelf full of books with titles like Why Byron Matters, and I want to know, honestly, why. I’m working in the Wertheim Study in the New York Public Library, and I am trying to understand.

I took a quick poll of the books around me and got stern looks from my would-be new friends—the people, like me, with laptops and piles of notes and their own assigned numbered shelves. They seem like a nice enough bunch. But the room is tomb-quiet and any activity other than going to the shelf with your number on it, retrieving your books, and sitting down at your spot at one of the desks and “doing research” just doesn’t happen. No frolicking. No sex. But I am taking notes.

The Mexican American War. Nasser’s Egypt. A Metaphysics for the Future.

What could these people be doing in here? And would they like to help me with what I’m doing? Or find me a snack machine? They look at me sternly whenever I shuffle. It might be the filter of my own self-criticism coloring that, but I don’t think it is. I shuffle louder than I mean to. Then I go back to my little green desk lamp and sit in the chair I’ve claimed: a creaky oak thing cut for a schoolteacher’s ass. Comfy in a bare wooden way, like a paddle.

My reason for being here has to do with the Hertog fellowship program at Hunter College, where MFA writing students get paired up with novelists to work as research assistants. I’m not very good at it. I haven’t visited a library since I wrote my last history paper in college (economic depression in Great Britain during the inter-war period), and the list of books on my shelf (number 12, down at the bottom) is not so intriguing, or so long: Hammer and Tongs: Blacksmithery Down the Ages. Early American Ironware. Iron at Winterthur. Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution. But I’m learning. I’m researching iron ore and the extraction and smelting thereof, specifically in 17th century bloomeries across New York State. Fascinating stuff, I promise. I also promise that I’m saving the specifics of all of it for a later blog (from one Williamsburg to another), in which I’ll somehow relate all of this to the Dharma (and the anvil of mindfulness!). But not today.

Today I want to tell you that initiating contact with fellow your human beings is much better than spying on them. Talking to people beats the feathers out of remotely wondering about them every time. I’m bad at it, both contact and the spying, though I try. Mainly through offerings of food. The other day in the Wertheim Study I offered a bag of tortilla chips—an ice breaker, I had hoped—but the unholy crinkling of the bag, the salty pop of its opening, the toasty rustle of its oven-baked contents—all of it was met with shock and disapproval!* First they looked at me—they looked those looks again, like I had done something wrong—farted in an elevator—but all I meant to do was make friends.

“Don’t you guys want any?”

One of them opened his mouth. “You can’t have food in here,” he said.

“But they’re baked. I have a whole bag and I don’t mind if you have some.”

I had an apple to pass around, too. It was a big one, and we all could have had bites.

But it was not meant to be. The Wertheim Study is not a fiesta, and my voyeurism-in-place-of-intimacy has been cut short.


By Stillman Brown
Sometimes it happens that two works of art, perfectly innocuous on their own, come to my attention at the same time and spark like the copper teeth on jumper cables, red and black making a small electrical arc that cracks and leaves behind a metallic, burnt smell. When this happens, I feel a palpable change in how I see the world, like when I was reading Junot Diaz’s Drown and listening to Keith Jarret’s “Radiance” – Diaz’s constant motion between elegant prose and gritty street vernacular spoke to Jarrett’s improvisation and revealed a new, deeper way of writing dialogue. When someone says with genuine feeling, “man, that blew me away,” I suspect this is what they’re talking about.
It’s happened again. Friends have been telling me to watch The Corporation, a documentary critique of corporations and globalization, so I picked it up over Thanksgiving weekend and watched it with my mom. I’ve also been reading Fritjof Capra’s Uncommon Wisdom, a book about Capra’s coming of age as an activist, ecologist, and synthesizer of contemporary physics and Eastern religions, particularly Taoism and Buddhism. The two have met, mingled, and jilted me, and I find myself changed.
If you’ve found this blog, it probably means you’ve read Naomi Klein or Noam Chompsky or John Kabat-Zinn, so I don’t need to contextualize The Corporation or Capra’s book – you’re familiar with counter-culture thinkers, the Green movement, and mysticism-meets-Western-science. In fact, you’re probably more familiar with such concepts than I am – it’s not new to you, or to the folks at the ID Project, where I go to get my enlightenment on. The perspective put forth in The Corporation is old news to a studied feminist, activist, or meditation practitioner. Hell, it’s not even new to me – I was an avid participant in my elementary school’s Earth Day celebrations from 1st to 6th grade (I still have a Thoughtful Gorilla t-shirt in my drawer). What’s different this time is a convergence of information and openness; Finally, it’s reaching me with a proper sense of urgency, like a college friend I took for granted until she came back from summer break looking slim and toned (“Damn, Julia got fine over break”). In other words, I’m paying attention.
Step back to childhood and adolescence: My rearing as an omnivore Midwesterner (Indiana & Illinois) gave me a healthy dose of skepticism when it came to environmentalism (the term Green hadn’t yet permeated the Hoosier consciousness). The presence of Indiana University, in my hometown of Bloomington, meant things were relatively enlightened – a hippie haven or sorts – but the dominant social understanding was: environmentalists are crazy and feminists are lesbians or worse. I didn’t realize it until college, but this quiet and pervasive mentality set me back years. Now, I’m not saying such prejudice is unique to the Midwest or that it represents Indiana without exception – I love Indiana. It’s a beautiful, much under-appreciated state. I simply didn’t have the benefit of a social atmosphere that handled issues like sustainability. The extent of our environmentalism was sorting the recycling on Wednesday nights.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving, 2007: Sitting on my mom’s white and pink floral print couch, watching The Corporation. The film itself had basic production value and, oftentimes, that particular preachy liberal tone that infuriates this blogger and conservatives alike. The information, however, was gold. I’m a tall guy (nearly 12 feet) (actually, 6’7”), and the section on Monsanto’s cover-up of the harmful effects of Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) caught me like a brick to the jaw. I looked at my mom and asked, “Did I, uh, drink a lot of milk as a kid?” She nodded, looking both alarmed and guilty. “You loved milk.” Casual Google research hasn’t turned up a definitive link between BGH and height, but I remain suspicious. My genes can’t be that good.
The bit that really hit me were the words of Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface, the largest carpet manufacturer in the world. Anderson is physically unremarkable – a bit fleshy around the neck, a typical middle-aged scion of Corporate America. His voice had a South Carolina drawl which he made no effort to soften. In a dark gray suit, shirt and tie, he was the image of bland success. Then he gave a small soliloquy with images of early attempts at flight cutting in and out:

Drawing the metaphor of the early attempts to fly: The man going off a very high cliff in his airplane, with the wings flapping…and the wind is in his face, and this poor fool thinks he’s flying, but in fact he’s in free fall, and he just doesn’t know it yet, because the ground is so far away, but of course the craft is doomed to crash.
That’s the way our civilization is. The very high cliff represents the virtually unlimited resources we seemed to have when we began this journey… And of course the ground is still a long way away, but…The visionaries have seen it and have told us it’s coming.
There’s not a single scientific, peer-reviewed paper published in the last 25 years that would contradict this scenario: Every living system of earth is in decline… (and) some people have called that intergenerational tyranny, a form of taxation without representation, levied by us on generations yet to be.

Without asking my mom, I rewound to the beginning of Anderson’s parable and watched it again. The phrase that reverberated in my mind was, “every living system of earth is in decline.” A small voice responded, he’s right, and suddenly it felt like 15 years of accumulated harping, outcry, journalism, Earth Day celebrations, sea temperature satellite maps, films, Al Gore, Bill Nye, earth sciences class, and sheer common sense came to a boil and spilled over. This is real, I thought, with a meta-awareness that my mind was stretching to fit itself around the enormity of the thing. Every living system of earth is in decline – the death, or at least the crippling of the biosphere is well advanced.
For the next week I mulled and thought and mumbled about Anderson’s words. With such an experience in hand, what was I going to do? Quit writing and get a law degree and work for the Sierra Club? Charter a pirate ship and ram whaling vessels in the Arctic Ocean? Sequester myself in the New York Public Library and read every treatise on sustainable development until I had the answers? During this rather confused time (I’m still confused, but perhaps less so) (And I don’t think the confusion will ever really abate, by the way), a friend lent my Fritjof Capra’s book Uncommon Wisdom: Conversations with Remarkable People. I had never heard of Capra, and I set the book aside in order to concentrate on my confusion.
Last week, I toted Uncommon Wisdom along on my morning commute (L to Union Square, NRW to 49th St.) and was taken with this early passage (Capra is talking attempts to develop an intellectual framework for quantum mechanics in the early 20th century):

In the 1920s physicists, led by Heisenberg and Bohr, came to realize that the world is not a collection of separate objects but rather appears as a web of relations between the various parts of a unified whole. Our classical notions, derived from our ordinary experience, are not fully adequate to describe this world.

This struck me as true. Language, at least the language I use, cannot adequately describe the experience I had listening to Ray Anderson. It’s as if terms of the ultra-big, words like “awesome” and “global” have lost their meaning, to say nothing of the laughable “freedom,” or watered down “liberty.” I read on, increasingly excited by Capra’s own process of discovery throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

[In the 60s] Our critique was based on intuitive feeling; we lived and embodied our protest rather than verbalizing and systemizing it…. Two new political movements, the ecology movement and the feminist movement, emerged during the seventies and together provided the much-needed broad framework for our critique….In the eighties, we are fleshing it out.

I thought, sonufabitch, people have been working on this stuff for years. The yawning frustration I had felt after watching The Corporation suddenly had context and an implicit community. Riding the N train on the last leg of my commute, I was excited and I looked around the car to see if anyone else was excited, but of course I was the only person reading Uncommon Wisdom and geeking out about it.
You don’t have to agree with me or Capra or The Corporation, and I welcome critical comments (except from Tucker Carlson, who is a jerk). This is part of a larger narrative about expanding my brittle, Gollum-like brain to include concepts like interdependence. It’s also a time of consolidation – taking threads and scraps of environmentalism and political awareness that have percolated over the years and making them in to a coherent ideology. After all, I need something to deploy against the skeptics with whom I have to dialogue – revelation has to be backed up by facts and sound reasoning.
Is it possible to be a bookish vigilante? I hope so. I am seeing that the teachings of a yogi are just as important as data from a research physicist at CERN, and that it doesn’t matter what I’m reading or watching, as long as it brings me closer to acting on my principles.