Sunday, January 30, 2005

A matter of taste

One of my favorite adult short stories by Roald Dahl is about a dinner party where a family (father, mother, teenage daughter) invites their good friend, a wine connoisseur and famous gustatory snob, who prizes himself on his ability to recognize any wine. The father greets his guest, saying proudly, "I've got a wonderful bottle of wine, and it's so rare that you'll never be able to guess it!" In response the wine snob offers a bet: his country house in France against the hand in marriage of the host's teenage daughter, to be determined by the accuracy of his tasting. The man's wife and daughter gasp at this, since the wine snob is a pudgy, greasy, thoroughly repulsive specimen of a human being - but the father shakes on it, with the proviso: "You've got to guess, not just the year and the vintage, but the particular small village where this wine was made."

As they walk into the dining room the mother hisses at the father, "You bastard! How could you do this to our daughter!" and he replies, "You don't understand, dear. There's no danger at all! There are ten thousand tiny wineries in France, making different types of wine every year. It's impossible for anyone to identify just by tasting - the general area, maybe, but the individual village? Inconceivable! Our daughter is safe, and now she'll have a French country house for a dowry!"

The wine snob takes his glass and makes a gigantic rigmarole out of swirling it, sniffing it with a huge snort, sipping it with his gross fat lips, and sloshing it around his mouth, all the while murmuring to himself: "That slight metallic taste...lots of iron in the soil...grapes must have been grown on the shady side of the's a flirtatious wine, little kick in the hips...quite a bit of sunshine that year but only medium rain...a good year but not a great year, not a truly great year...either 1976 or 1965...oh! do I detect hail? Must be 1976..." In fact, the bulk of this short story in terms of pages is the wine snob's drawn out taste deliberations, which Roald Dahl describes with his virtuoso attention to grotesque detail and suspense, as the family listens: the father with increasing chagrin, the daughter with increasing horror. You'd never have imagined that five pages of wine aficionado bullshit could be so enthralling.

At the end the wine snob guesses right. And just as the daughter is about to fling a dinner-plate at her father's head, the family maid sweeps into the room with a look of icy triumph and hands a pair of spectacles to the wine snob guest. "You left these behind, sir, in the drawing room... on the table where Mr. B left the bottle of wine out to breathe."

I love the story, not so much for the punchline at the end, or even for the character of the snob (one of my favorite Dahl monstrosities - who would have thought a description of oversized nose quivering over a wine glass could make your skin crawl?), as for the delicicious skewering of the rituals of wine connoisseurship. Because, let's face it, it's really hard to identify wines, and in fact most famous wine critics refuse to subject themselves to completely blind taste tests aimed at testing their identification powers. The potential for embarassment is just too high. I know that at the consulting company where I used to work, we'd have a wine critic come in every year to give a lecture, and he'd serve us six different wines that we'd rank. The last time we did it, one of our VPs - self-confessedly wine mad - ranked at #1 the box of plonk, and #4 the $50 red.

The point is NOT that there's no difference between the box of plonk and the bottle of sunshine, just that critical distinction is very hard for a human being to make in a vacuum, without other supporting factors. The long run average of a lot of human beings' critical judgements may be extremely accurate - ask the author of "The Wisdom of Crowds" - but in terms of a one-time, snap judgement you have to make, on a day when you're distracted by the gurgle in your stomach, and that noise over there, or perhaps you're in a particularly good mood because that girl called you back, and everything tastes sweeter - well, maybe it's a tossup.

If you are smiling patronizingly at this line of argument, I'd like you to reflect upon how many independent critical judgements you make (and I'm not just talking about wine, now, of course): judgements without reading the review, without knowing the reputation, without looking at the label, without watching the other peoples' faces. If you were shown a closeup of Rembrandt and Vermeer brushstrokes could you tell the difference every time? If I read you two poems, one by a nobody and one by a Nobel-prize winning genius, could you pick out which was which? If you heard a recording of two violins would you know the Stradivarius?

And it's not just these sort of esoteric aesthetic matters, either; we make all kinds of terribly important, and very particular, critical distinctions about politics, about lifestyle, personal ethical philosophy, friends, enemies - and yet did we arrive at these distinctions through a drawn-out subtle tasting process, or by peeking at the bottle in the drawing room? This is not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose. It's convenient to have brands, and lots of experts, so that you can have the best without needing the expertise to pick it yourself.

I suppose there are a few responses to this dilemma.

One is to "pshaw" at the whole notion of anything gourmet that cannot be personally verified by a blind taste test; you drink the box o' plonk, you buy the store brand, you read trashy thrillers and you mock the fools who pay more for stuff even though they can't even tell the difference. I think that people who follow this philosophy like to pat themselves on the back for their integrity and lack of pretension, and rightly so. It also seems to have a certain element of squatting in the mud because it's warm.

Another is to throw up your hands, subsume any individual judgement, and rely on the experts. You eat at the busy restaurants, you read the movie reviews first, you drink the most expensive wine - relying on the market's knowledge - and you buy the classics. The most cultured gourmet wouldn't have a nit to pick with your taste; but your genuine appreciation of it is another story. Independent critical judgement muscles atrophy like any others not in use, and it's possible you just like Picasso for the pretty colours, not ever actually having chosen him. Perhaps the most atrocious example of this tactic - going back to ole vino - is the story of the investment bankers who were fired for running up a $62,580 wine tab. By the time those dudes ordered their sixth $13,000 bottle, they must have been so drunk that if I'd been the waiter, I would have swopped labels with the house wine and they never would have known the difference.

And another tactic, practiced by my dad (a colourful character, tales of whom my friends are familiar with) is to relentlessly hone your taste, by reading the experts, subjecting yourself to blind taste test experiments, meditating on your artistic experiences, and generally trying to make every single aspect of life into a gourmet experience, from the architecture that surrounds you, to the style of the furniture you sit in, the delicious food you eat, the wine you savor, the luxury stereo system playing you the best recordings of the best classical music, etcetera, etcetera... This strategy does have many advantages; my dad has a lot of energy, he gets a lot of enjoyment out of life, and he has genuine knowledge of these various artistic experiences. The danger is that your sense become so fine-tuned that any sort of ugliness causes you acute pain. My dad can no longer stay in a hotel that's not clean; he's oppressed by a badly designed room; bad music playing in the background makes him go stark raving bonkers.

In practice I guess we all follow a combination of these various tactics. If a particular sensory experience doesn't matter much to us, we ignore its gourmet potential and settle for the basics; sometimes we try to educate ourselves by reading the classics even if they don't particularly appeal to us, and in some areas of life that we have a genuine passion for, we develop a discriminating taste, although perhaps never enough to guess a 1976 second-pressing burgundy from the shady side of the northwest hill in Chateau Leblanc's little vineyard.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Yoga Teacher Training, Weekend 1 - Friday

I’m starting Level 2 teacher training at the Tranquil Space studio. We’ll be in class from 6-9 PM every Friday and from 2-9 PM every Saturday for four months, and at the end of the training I’ll be a Yoga Alliance-certified teacher with 200 training hours. Those 200 hours of training include:

-40 hours already completed in my Level 1 training
-100 classroom hours (10 weekends x 10 hours/weekend)
-20 practice hours (taking different classes at the T.S. studio)
-40 "non-contact" hours:
-Take 5 classes in different yoga styles (Bikram, Iyengar, Anusara, Ashtanga, etc.) and write up studio reviews
-5 book reviews from a list of recommended texts
-Teacher assisting in studio classes
-Personal journal writing

I'm going to post many of my teacher training-related meditations, because, well, I think it's a fun thing to do in DC!

Friday evening, Weekend 1

We start right on the dot of 6pm. Kimberly Wilson, the owner of the Tranquil Space studio and leader of the teacher training, is an affectionate, bubbly, pink-accessorized sprite of a woman, but she is amazingly good at enforcing timeliness in her students (something I appreciate, since the lackadaisical attitude towards the clock I was born with has been reinforced by my many South Asian friends, and I'm usually lucky if I get the time right within an order of magnitude). She's got a fist of steel inside that purple velvet glove with cute little hearts embroidered all over it. And although I suspect that she was one of those people who, in second grade, bound their book reports inside a glossy binder and printed out colour cover sheets, I can forgive her for that. (Or perhaps even accept that there is nothing to forgive.)

We spent a while reviewing the syllabus for the course, class policies, and broke up into groups to introduce ourselves. Most of my fellow teachers-in-training are in their late 20s or thirties; everyone is a woman except for two men, both (I think) in their forties. Some of us have been teaching yoga for a long time; some are beginners; some intend to teach full-time, some part time, and some intend to apply the training to other disciplines.

One woman I met. Christina, is a former ballerina whose career was ended early by injuries, and now teaches ballet and flamenco. "Most dance teachers used to just teach you the poses, but not how to keep your body in condition for them," she said. "But the field is changing; there's much more of an emphasis on keeping dancers dancing for longer, allowing them to have longer, more healthy careers. I wish I'd known about yoga before I'd started dancing; I think I would have avoided several major surgeries."

Caroline is a social worker and interested in meditation and its effects on mood and lifestyle. She is slender and was dressed all in black last night, with a soft voice and a weak aura. "I want to build my confidence as a teacher," she said earnestly.

Kelly, works in opera; she used to sing, and now works for the Kennedy Center, edits an opera newsletter, and is working on producing a modern version of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," incorporating yoga/dance choreography. She started yoga to help rehabilitate a severe injury from a car crash three years ago, and said, "I was very aggressive with the rehabilitation and trying to get my body back into shape. Eventually I started to accept my body's limitations, and reconciled myself to the fact that there would be some poses I'd never be able to do."

I said that as well as intending to teach part-time, I was interested in the connections between different types of sacred meditational movement: yoga, tai chi, qi gong, capoeira, belly dancing, aikido, the Dreamtime dances of the Australian Aborigines - as well as the roles that these different disciplines play in society, and how they are changed and adapted as they move between different cultures.

Among our assigned readings was the Anusara Teacher Training Manual, and we discussed the idea of applying the yoga yamas and niyamas to our teaching. Following these ethical "dos" and "don'ts" is the first step of a yoga lifestyle, and they comprise:


AHIMSA (Non-violence)
SATYA (Truthfulness)
ASTEYA (Non-stealing)
APARIGRAPHA (Non-attachment)


SAUCHA (Purity)
SANTOSA (Contentment)
TAPAS (Austerity/Discipline)
SVADHYAYA (Study of the Self)
ISHVARA PRANIDHANA (Worship of God/Surrender to the Divine)

How can a yoga teacher exemplify these? Well, an important principle of ahimsa is not causing damage to the body by pushing it too far; we should not encourage our students to strain themselves. Part of satya involves speaking with an authentic voice; we should not parrot learnings we've heard if we don't truly understand them, just to seem like a wiser teacher, and if a student comes to us with a question we don't know the answer to, we should never pretend to. Asteya, non-stealing, involves treating students with respect for their time, effort, energy, and money: not wasting their time by starting or ending class late, making sure to always be prepared for class and to give them a good experience. The concept of moderation is often applied to sexuality, and obviously it's important to avoid what Lisa likes to call the "player assist", but more generally is linked to ahimsa in terms of not pursuing anything fanatically, including a yoga practice. Non-attachment involves letting go of ambition to achieve a certain goal (as Kelly, for example, learned to accept her injuries).

Saucha, or purity: always keeping class space clean and organized, as well as keeping a class organized and structured. Santosha, or contentment: being happy with whatever you have, whatever stage of your practice you're at, and encouraging a similar attitude in your students. Tapas, or discipline: making sure you push yourself to your edge, using willpower to exert effort to achieve your goals. (Kimberly on tapas: "The most frustrating thing is when I try to show beginning students a new pose, like crow, and they all just sit down and don't even want to try it. Oh, it drives me crazy!") Svadhyaya, study and study of the self: meditation, reading yoga texts and educating yourself; learning more about yourself and the way that your body responds to your yoga practice also allows you to teach your students with an authentic voice, and better anticipate their responses to challenges you've already faced yourself. Surrender to the divine got a lot of raised eyebrows from the secular members of our training group, but it was proposed that this could be thought of as serving a larger community, or dedicating oneself to ideals - not necessarily a specific divinity. (This seems to me a bit of a cop-out, but anyway, I think that Ishvara Pranidhana is embodied in the other niyamas and yamas, so if you follow the rest of them, it doesn't matter...or perhaps you'll come to change your mind.)

There was a lot of discussion about how these precepts are intertwined, with a Platonic unity-of-the-virtues flavour: for example, following ahimsa by not stretching yourself too far in a pose also involves satya, or truthfulness to the stage that you're at, moderation, non-attachment to your goal, asteya in the form of non-covetousness (being jealous of your neighbor's greater accomplishment), contentment with your current level, svadhyaya in terms of understanding your own capabilities...and so on.

Nicole, a perky girl I met in my Level 1 training, piped up, "Kimberly, whenever I put back my block and blanket after class it's like I hear your voice echoing in my head: 'Saucha, guys! Keep the yoga studio clean!' "

Tomorrow we're going to review our Level 1 training and go through the anatomy of all the different poses. Kimberly asked us to bring one of our favorite books to share ("Something inspirational!") and I'm completely torn between Rilke, Rumi, Hafiz, my Sufi anthology, Pablo Neruda, Tagore, and the Dalai Lama. Perhaps I'll bring them all.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Dear Internet,

I haven't been writing to you much recently, and I apologize. I've been sick with a cold, and distracted, and honestly I haven't been doing very many fun things in DC. Among other things (such as sneezing, whining, and blowing my nose), I've been thinking about the right way to live.
Camus opens his famous essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" by writing "There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that." He goes on to compare the absurdity of the existence of humanity to the labours of Sisyphus, a Greek mythological figure who tricked Death and bound him in chains, preventing anyone in the world from dying, until Zeus rescued Death and punished Sisyphus by condemning him, through all eternity, to push a boulder to the top of a hill and watch it roll down again. Gosh, it seems silly to paraphrase Camus when I could just quote his beautiful words:

"The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment whose end he will never know. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering; that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same task, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moment when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. . . .The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

To me this sounds a lot like the Buddhist concept of finding meaning and happiness by mindfulness during everyday toil, although I don't know how much Camus studied Eastern philosophy.


I dated a guy who loved existentialist philosophy. We broke up because he moved away, and on the last day we spent together, we drank wine and yelled "NOTHING! ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!!" out my apartment window. I remember him telling me, "I'm often really depressed, but I'm never suicidal. I don't understand people who are suicidal. If you're going to kill yourself, why not just abandon your whole life and move to Hawaii and be a bike courier or something?" It was a good point.

But in fact there are many replacements for suicide. You can drink a lot, or you can watch a lot of television and movies, or you can have lots of intense romantic relationships that fail spectacularly, or you can make a whole lot of money, or you can build a very noteworthy academic career, or you can cultivate many titillating friendships, or you can devote yourself to your family, or you can build a model of the Lusitania out of 2,000,000 toothpicks, or you can do a lot of charity work trying to help people who are even less sure about replacements for suicide than you are, or you can carve a monumental sculpture of Ozymandias in the desert. There are so many different options, and for every option you can think of, there's probably someone who has chosen it as their replacement for suicide.

This is all very confusing, and it's why human beings had to invent religion and philosophy. For heaven's sake, it wasn't because we saw the sun in the sky and, lacking science, wanted to come up with a cute reason why it was there. It was because we needed to figure out how to live.


I dated another guy who was a famous heart-breaker. He was very charming with women, and very efficient at making them fall in love with him and then giving them a shoulder of ice. In fact, I watched him at one house party meet a girl in the beginning of the evening, have an intense conversation with her, disappear into a bedroom with her for an hour, re-emerge, meet another girl, have an intense conversation with her, and somehow end up in group of people in a car getting a ride home, with the original girl in the back seat, fuming, and the new girl sitting on his lap in the front seat, slobbering all over his face. (I was also in the back seat, and also fuming.)

This same guy wants to devote his life to helping the world. He's now in the Congo doing conflict resolution work, and also sleeping with lots of ex-pat women. Before he moved to the Congo, I remember getting into a heated argument with him (supposedly theoretical). I denounced people who dedicate themselves to generalized altruistic work - especially of a policy-oriented nature - while maintaining execrable ethical standards in their private lives. "What's the point of helping some random stranger if you're making your family miserable?" I demanded. "In fact, if you're the kind of person who makes your family miserable, you're not qualified to go around trying to help strangers. It's just going to be counterproductive."

The argument never actually got too far - I think he was shocked by my vehemence - but if I'd been him I would have argued, "What about Einstein? He was terrible to his family. Gandhi had a wife but he used to sleep in bed with young naked girls. And Jesus made all his disciples eschew their family bonds in order to serve him whole-heartedly. In fact it's hard to find a genius or a world-changing leader who wasn't a bit of a bastard in his or her personal life. If the work is good, it can come first."

To which I would have replied, "Yeah, well, maybe, but are you Einstein, Gandhi, or Jesus? I don't care about the few exceptions, too many people try to run from the messy obligations of their intimate relationships by taking refuge in nice, vague, impersonal, supposedly altruistic duty. It's so much easier to do lots of small favors for people you've never met, than big favors to a person you've been connected to for ten years, whose faults you've seen and have had to forgive, and who (even worse) has had to see and forgive your own faults."

Yeah, I had that whole conversation in my head with him. Damn the guy. But still, I hope that he is safe and happy in the Congo, resolving other peoples' conflicts.


My wonderful friend Marcella once told me about a junkie she met while walking through Dupont Circle. She said that he was so sick, and so crazy. He had these round staring eyes that rolled back into his head like marbles, and he pointed at her, and he said, "Life is beautiful. Never forget it, that it's so good to be alive, be thankful for every breath you're lucky enough to take, count your blessings. You're alive! You're alive! You're alive!" Marcella stopped and listened to him, and she wrote down every word in her journal. And if you are thinking to yourself that she is silly and sentimental, she is one of the happiest, reallest, and bravest people I know, and perhaps she knows something that you don't.


So I sneeze, and I blow my nose, and I think about it.

There's a wonderful scene in Willa Cather's "My Antonina" where a few characters are talking about the grisly suicide of a homeless man who jumped into a threshing machine. They're obviously fascinated by the morbidity of it all. After some discussion:

"`Now, wasn`t that strange, Miss Frances?` Tony asked thoughtfully. `What would anybody want to kill themselves in summer for? In threshing time, too! It`s nice everywhere then.`
`So it is, Antonia,` said Mrs. Harling heartily. `Maybe I`ll go home and help you thresh next summer. Isn`t that taffy nearly ready to eat? I`ve been smelling it a long while.`

There was a basic harmony between Antonia and her mistress. They had strong, independent natures, both of them. They knew what they liked, and were not always trying to imitate other people. They loved children and animals and music, and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to prepare rich, hearty food and to see people eat it; to make up soft white beds and to see youngsters asleep in them. They ridiculed conceited people and were quick to help unfortunate ones. Deep down in each of them there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over-delicate, but very invigorating. I never tried to define it, but I was distinctly conscious of it. I could not imagine Antonia`s living for a week in any other house in Black Hawk than the Harlings`."

I am not Mrs. Harling or Antonia; I can't maintain my vital appetite for taffy in the face of wondering about why someone would want to kill themselves in the summer. But I comfort myself that Willa Cather - capable herself of thinking up the scene - probably knows how I feel.

Namaste to you, Internet.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Squirrels at Yale

I mentioned, in a previous post about lunatic squirrels, a parody assignment in a literature course I took. Here you go, internet - I reckon they're still pretty amusing.

The Squirrels at Yale
(apologies to Yeats' The Wild Swans at Coole)

The trees on Old Campus are getting their leaves
The lawn is filled with frosh
The sky's a perfect April blue
Girls' summer dresses are posh
And upon the verdant grass they race
Nine and fifty squirrels.

The fourth spring has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had finished,
All suddenly start
And scamper in a circle - one had a muffin in its mouth -
Grunting that strange little grunt they grunt.

I have looked upon these ratlike creatures
And now my heart is sore
All's changed since I, a sweet little freshman
The first time on campus,
The "eh-eh" of their cries ringing in my ears,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, fighting over the muffin,
They play upon the lawn
Or dash up the trees and scold from there:
Their hearts have not grown old;
Acorns or bagel crumbs, wander where they will
Await them in the grass.

But now they play on Old Campus
In Spring, the college student's Fall;
Into what entryway will they venture,
In what garbage can, delighted, root -
Amazing the frosh while I awake some day
To find that I have graduated?

(apologies to Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken")

Two streets diverged that New Haven night
And sorry I could not travel each
And be one traveller; not long I stood
And glanced down York to where it would
Bring me at last in the library's reach.

Instead we went down Broadway
And ordered shots at Viva's bar.
We joked and laughed the night away
(More fun than work, but who can say?)
English left my mind - but it hadn't gone far.

A parody exercise was due in just hours
And though I swore I'd do it when I got back
We stumbled in glee up Harkness Tower
Drank some more, and talked for hours -
I got home at six, and I was a wreck.

I'm telling this story with a sigh
and a splitting head - I need more sense!
Two streets diverged last night, and I -
I took the one that got me high
And that has made all the difference.*

(Well, actually, I don't feel like apologizing to Ezra Pound's cantos.)

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?
--Horny Frenchman
Naughtius Maximus, Bigus Dickus, Incontinentia Buttocks!
--Pontius Pilate in The Life of Brian

Asclepius Daedalus Romulus Argos
Bellerophon Circe Demeter Callisto
was bathing green-ruddy in the moonlight
the foam of Neptune's sea
Athena, my proud moon
Athena, my proud moon

"To my dear and ever-patient reader, the frustration you feel
in hunting down every one of my obscure references
is no less than the glee I feel in watching what is essentially
a chain of random classical references be discussed in whole forests
worth of dissertations; it is my version of a Roschach test
for bespectacled grad students; remember I am laughing!
Your favorite Imagiste,
the ever devoted Ezra Pound
(written this 1 April by his mortal spokeswoman

phallocentric fundament
icy in the sea's swift pull
the goddess bares her smooth white arms
antithesis; anaxagesis, epilogue
insert latin quotation here

atlas! thou must set thy house in order
i like to potter around on my ship
and play with my toys, and pretend to be Odysseus
I have a crush on Deng Xiaoping
jade mulberry blue china yellow river rice paddies
insert Chinese cliche here
who's on first, who's on first -
it's a joke - who's on first -


zmcx vnml;w!!!!!!

My teacher's comment on this last poem: "This is such an effective parody of Pound as to seem almost cruel. Very funny though!" More than "almost" ... I was indeed a vituperative little girl, gosh. To be fair to Pound, my last English lines (based on his famous couplet "The apparition of these faces in the crowd/Petals on a wet, black bough") are misplaced - his words may be bullshit, but I'm sure he did not get a big ole check for them. Although they may have seemed thus to me at the time, poets are not rock stars!


*Actually the story in that poem is bogus. I was totally dorkily excited by the assignment, as evidenced by the fact that we were only required to do one parody, and I wrote three, and anyway I was underage my whole time at college and never went to bars.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Nothing Much

In a bookstore in Baltimore I bought the most wonderful little book. I found it in the "zine" section and it is about the size of my hand with the fingers spread, and it has eleven wonderfully-textured, all-cotton pages. The cover is made of slightly heavier brown all-cotton paper, and reads, in small, black, sans-serif type: Nothing Much - Robert Schreur.

On the back page reads: "I set the type and printed a hundred copies." and is signed, in pencil, "RS".

The book contains eighteen short poems. I will quote a few of them for you.



If it fits
Fits in it."


"I longed for
long before
but forgot
would not
be for long."



I know
I did
not see
what now
I know
I saw."


"I read
and write
to excite
my want
for what is
neither real
nor not."


"As much
as I
wanted much
much less
even least
was best."


This is a feeling that perhaps people who scour used record stores and people who frequent yard sales will appreciate: knowing about something that's really really good that very few other people know about. It makes you feel devoted to the passionate artist, as if to a person drowning in the river when you are the only bystander who knows how to swim. They have an artistic vision that they are driven to communicate to the world, but who else will appreciate it but you? Without your appreciation, your understanding of their wonderful gift, their art would be meaningless. They really need you! I feel this way about Robert Schreur. But I don't want to be selfish about this; I'd like him not to have to depend on me (or whatever lucky 99 people got the rest of his print run). So I'd like to share him with you.

To the dear sir or madam who found my page by searching on Yahoo for "things to do besides having sex"

Good luck to you!

This is something I can actually help you with (as a girl whose frequent dry spells are not, like my friend Waveline's, superstitiously self-imposed in the hopes of sending my favorite basketball team to victory). And you know, you'll be following in the grand tradition of humankind, repressing your sexual desire and channeling it into an obsessive pursuit. When I'm in a nice relationship with someone that I'm attracted to, I usually have sex about five times a day, and if I'm not actually having it, I'm thinking about the next time I'm going to. Add in massages and snuggling, and you're left with little time for creatively productive activities. Do you think that Christopher Columbus had a honey at home when he set off for his voyage out to sea to ravage an alien continent with his Western diseases? OK, maybe that was a bad example. But take Shakespeare. It's commonly agreed by scholars that he was married to a sour older woman who trapped him with her pregnancy - and his immortal love sonnets are fueled by frustrated desire for the mysterious Dark Lady. Do you think he would have had the energy for all those coruscating plays (and the production, and the promotion, and the endless travel) if he was worried about keeping the wife he loved happy? Dante's Divine Comedy is haunted by the unattainable Beatrice, and Yeats' love Maud Gonne (of whom he wrote "Was there a second Troy for her to burn?") spurned him and married another man. On a slightly different note, I've got to doubt that the man who built a model of the Lusitania out of 2,500,000 toothpicks in Baltimore's Visionary Art Museum was gettin' any regular action. In short, dear sir or Madam, by finding bizarre substitute activities for your sexual urges (none of which will truly sate your genetic drive for propagation) you'll be following in the footsteps of generations of geniuses and obsessive cranks. I wish you the best!

I have also noticed an increasing number of readers coming to my site by searching for "fun things to do in dc." And although my own strange viewpoint colours everything, I hope I really have provided some good ideas for activities in this city. So, for a summary...

Beautiful nature
Wander the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks, hang out in the Meridian Hill Park and watch the drum circle there, or go for a walk at the National Arboretum. You could also play tennis in the Georgetown park, and the nearby cemetary actually has lovely gardens.

Cults and religions
Tour the church of Scientology, learn all about the Scottish Rite Freemason World Headquarters, or check out a local faith healing.

Go to a Phillips Collection Sunday concert,, a World Premiere at DC9, a Dresden Dolls show at Iota or the 9:30 club, or check out that Meridian Hill Park drum circle. The best thing about all these musical activities is that they leave you with less time to listen to Enya.

Ah, the National Gallery and its ice rink, the Phillips Collection, the Hirshhorn sculpture garden, the local festival the Art-o-matic, the Jules Feiffer gallery reception. Then there's the stuff you do yourself, whether it be painting the milk crate on your bike, chipping in for a figure model, sketching strangers at Tryst, making exquisite corpses at a poetry reading, or making angry posters to protest the Inauguration.

Ride your bike with no hands through traffic, take a yoga class, dance at Meridian Hill Park, ice skate, play tennis, walk in the National Arboretum.

Ponder sociology at the computer kiosk in Kramerbooks, study at the Library of Congress, shop at the Idle Times $1 cart.

Swing on the pole at a Scantily Clad Party, go to the Native American museum, go to an S&M Masquerade Ball, watch monsters stumble home from Adams Morgan (but be very careful when you're walking home)

Any suggestions? Please do write me, dear reader, at I love getting mail from you guys!

Thursday, January 13, 2005


I just got back from the Jared Diamond talk on his new book "Collapse." I thought showing up at the Lisner Auditorium with fifteen minutes to spare would be plenty, but arrived to find a scene that looked like the opening night of the new Star Wars movie. The line of ruffled academics stretched all the way around the block, and they looked like they were getting ready to start up a barter economy in New Yorkers, Odwallada juice and granola bars. I ran into the preternaturally affectionate Mansir and his friend Joanna, whom I'd last seen at a Quaker house party, juggling flaming torches. "This guy is like a nerd rock star!" Mansir said, giving me a huge hug.

As I filed into my birds-eye-view seat in Lisner, I said a brief prayer of thanks that my nose generally only bleeds for reasons of psychosomatism, not altitude.

I'll summarize Jared Diamond's speech for those of you who don't ever intend to read his book.

He said that he'd been fascinated by the glamorous mystery of human groups that collapsed and perished ever since he was a teenager: Atlantis, the Maya, Easter Island, the Spice Girls. Now that he was a famous academic, he had a chance to indulge his interest, and travel around studying societies throughout history, and modern times, that collapsed - or else that succeeded and overcame their problems, for some societies do manage to do this, although the price is sometimes prohibitive ( Rwanda's population pressures and environmental degradation, for example, were relieved through the grisly means of a civil war that killed six million people.)

A major theme of his book is environmental management, and he was sometimes lucky enough to come across perfect control studies. The Caribbean island of Hispaniola, for example, is divided down the middle with Haiti to the west and the Dominican Republic to the east. The western side is brown and deforested, while the Dominican Republic has maintained 30% of its forest coverage; thus when hurricanes recently struck the island, the Haitian side was devastated by mudslides on their eroded land, while the DR escaped mostly unscathed. (Sample Dominican Republic newspaper headline: "Nah nah nah, nah nah nah!")

During the course of his research, Jared said, he decided to analyze all the various societies and their failures through the lens of five key lessons:
1. Human environmental impacts (Seen in its purest form in the deforestation of Easter Island in Polynesia, eventually leading to that society's demise)
2. Climate change (which has happened in the past, often in the form of droughts)
3. Attacks by enemies (for example the barbarians which overran Rome, although it's debatable whether enemies only ever take advantage of a society's inherent internal collapse)
4. The failures of friends (the economic collapse of a trading partner you depend on, for example, such as another Polynesian island, Pittehendeson, which depended on raw materials from another island which wiped itself out through deforestation)
5. And finally, how a society chooses to respond and reorganize itself in response to these four types of problems.

He gave a brief review of some of history's more spectacular failures. Easter Island has always been a favorite case study in environmental degradation, since it's so isolated and had no friends or enemies to complicate the picture. Before humans arrived, the island was covered in subtropical forest, including some of the world's biggest palm trees. The Islanders chopped trees down for many reasons: building boats to hunt fish, clearing space for gardens, making tools like levers and carts to transport the stones for their sculptures, and a pro-active bid for making the Guinness Book of World Record's for "History's Largest Toothpick." And then one day there weren't any trees left. Without the boats that allowed them to fish, the Islanders then quickly exterminated all of the large land creatures on their island. When those were gone, they ate each other.*

The Norse in Greenland were a European Christian settlement that arrived around 450AD and died out around 1400AD. Their demise was a more complicated mixture of Jared's five factors, but he believes one of their most important mistakes was to cling stubbornly to their old Christian values, so that they refused to learn survival techniques like ice-fishing from their neighbors, the Inuits. And eventually the Inuits overran and destroyed them.

Yet there are also success stories, Jared said: not just of societies that remained remarkably stable over thousands of years, as in Iceland and China, but of societies that faced potentially cataclysmic environmental threats, and managed to respond to them in time. For example, in Japan when the Shoguns came to power, the age of peace and prosperity led to deforestation, as rulers built themselves monumental wood palaces, and a growing economy made the cities boom. And since the Shoguns pursued a deliberate policy of isolationism, they couldn't trade with anyone for more wood. So they introduced various timber conservation schemes, controlling architectural styles to be less wasteful, and also paid scientists to develop various scientific forestry techniques in the 1600s (the invention of which is usually credited to the Europeans.) As a result, Japan was self-sufficient in wood until it began trading with the West in the 1850s.

A more recent (if limited) example, he claimed, is the management of new oil-fields developed by Western oil companies. He said he had been extremely skeptical on this point, but visited a site run by Chevron-Texaco which was managed better than the national parks run by the government, with populations of endangered plants and animals that were flourishing. (This comment seem to provoke some audience indignation, and Jared had a few questions on this point.)

Jared said that he could boil down his analysis of all these different societies into three "deep" lessons:

1. You've got to take environmental and population problems very seriously
2. The blueprint for failure is a political elite insulated from the results of their decisions, such as the Mayan leadership, ensconced in their palaces (much bitter audience laughter at this point, and catcalls of "George W Bush!") Jared said he often spent time in LA, and was struck by the continuing spread of gated communities, full of people who managed to isolate themselves from the wider community's police, schooling, and general economic systems.
3. Societies that overcame their challenges were those that showed a willingness to change their core values that had been a source of strength in the past.

For the U.S., Jared thought, the most important core values that would have to change included the sense of independence and isolation, and the sense of plenty, of unlimited resources. While those values have been quite useful for the States in the past - fueling enthusiastic growth - they are unsustainable in a world that simply cannot afford for every one of its 6 billion inhabitants to enjoy a developed world living standard.

After the speech, audience members were invited to ask questions. Joanna noticed that there were absolutely no women in any of the three long lines at different microphones, so she nudged me indignantly: "Ask a question about the relationship between a society's gender equity and its environmental sensitivity! And you should ask those men if you can cut in line, since there aren't any other women asking questions!"

Unlike my cute li'l roommate, I generally don't instinctively look at situations through a feminist lens, and I hadn't noticed the all-male lines - but I was game for her suggestion, more in a performance-art sort of way than out of true sincerity, I have to admit.** When I asked, one of the men standing in line glared at me with vituperative hatred. "All I've got to say," he said, his voice quivering with rage, "is, why didn't you come down in the first place?" It was so interesting how upset he was, because I was very polite when I asked the question.

So I never got to find out what Jared thinks about gender inequality and environmental conservation. But I thought one of the best questions was when someone asked about a society's perception of time and its ability to manage disasters - particularly those which descended with very few warning signs.

What did I think of the presentation? Well, I agree with most of it, and I think it's great that so many people showed up and were willing to pay $15 and seemed so enthusiastic. But while with "Guns, Germs, and Steel" I felt as though he smashed all my paradigms for how to think about the grand sweep of human history, this book seemed like Jared was basically stuffing a lot of conventional wisdom into a well-written package. "We've got to take our environmental problems very seriously." Oh really, Jared?

But then again, the deepest and most profound concepts - like ahimsa and tapas - are not novel or hard to explain, but they're very very hard to implement, especially if you're dealing with momentum. And our society probably needs all the wakeup calls it can get. After the lecture, Mansir, Joanna and I went for some pho, and as we were waiting to cross K St, still chatting about human societies and their abilities to avoid disasters, an oncoming car smashed into another car that was making a bad left turn. One of the cars skidded at Mansir and me with an ugly screech, and it was all so fast that even though I was watching every detail of the whole thing happen, I couldn't even move, and neither could Mansir. We just stood there like deers in headlights, and with its brakes smoking, the wrecked car shuddered stop a few feet away from us. Only then - after it was all over - did Mansir grab me and pull me away.

"Oh my god," he said. "That just happened so fast. I couldn't even figure out how to react. I thought we'd had it."

I guess it's not that anybody wants their society to collapse. It's just a question of figuring out that you have a problem, and responding to it, before it runs you over. Unfortunately, unlike my K St. car, I don't think Nature has brakes.


*The book was originally taught as a Berkeley undergraduate course, and Jared said he got the most student questions on this subject: "Why the hell didn't they see it coming? What on earth was the Easter Islander who cut down the very last palm tree thinking?" He said that these types of questions led him to digress into a long chapter on the failures of group decision making, including landscape amnesia, creeping change, conflicts of interest, and the tragedy of the commons.

**I don't think I myself have ever been held back by my gender, I've never felt like I couldn't do whatever I wanted to, and the few times I've been sexually harassed, it's inspired emotions of pity for the abject lameness of my harassers, rather than internal feelings of opression. So I just don't have the fire in the belly necessary for feminist activism, even though intellectually I know it's still very necessary in the world.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Ahimsa, tapas and your yoga practice

I'm going to tell you about the concepts of ahimsa (non-violence) and tapas (discipline or heat) and how they apply to your yoga practice.

Perhaps you only know the word "ashtanga" in the context of an "ashtanga yoga class", with lots of sun salutations and jump-backs, but in fact the name of the yoga flavour just means "the eight limbs", the classical description of the path of yoga (notice that a physical practice is only the third of eight steps):

1. Five yamas, or restraints: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (non-lying or truth), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (sexual moderation), and aparigraha (non-greed).
2. Five niyamas, or observances: tapas (translated varyingly as "discipline," "heat," or "fire"), svadhyaya (study of self), samtosha (contentment), isvara pranidanah (devotion to god), and saucha (purity or cleanliness)
3. Asanas, or physical poses, used to train the mind and body for meditation.
4. Pranayama, or breathing exercises
5. Pratayahara
6. Dharana, concentration
7. Dynana, meditation
8. Samadhi, enlightenment

I possess neither the time nor the wisdom to tell you about all of this, especially considering that I have not attained samadhi (or if I have, I don't know it); I just want to talk about one of the yamas, ahimsa, and one of the niyamas, tapas, and how you can apply them when you're inside the approximately 6'x2' space of a yoga mat. And that, already, may be far too vast a subject for me to tackle.

Back in the days when I was first getting into yoga, a guy I was dating called Josh told me about a yogi he'd once lived in a house with, who he'd seen in the backyard practicing. "He was standing there with his arms up in the air, and he was probably just standing there for like fifteen minutes," Josh said with a look of disdain, the implication being that this was terribly goofy stuff and not real exercise. I can still remember my dismay at his scorn, and my stuttering attempts to explain why I thought yoga had real value, and my poorly-disguised hurt and bruised pride at the fact that he thought I was an idiot for taking it so seriously.

If it happened today, I'd be able to explain to Josh that the man was probably doing Iyengar yoga, at quite an advanced level, and that although it seemed like he was standing still, he was actually taking all of his muscles through subtle internal movements, lifting the flesh of his thighs, extending and lengthening his spine upwards, and simultaneously relaxing and wrapping back his shoulders even as his arms reached upwards, so that by the end of the fifteen minutes he may have been a half-inch taller, simply by stretching out his spine.

Even beginners in my classes probably notice a big difference between their first Downward Facing Dog and their last one, in which their hamstrings feel much more open and their heels can press back further towards the ground. When your body is still stiff, at the beginning of your practice, and particularly in the earlier parts of the day, it's difficult to stretch fully into poses. That's why, in beginner yoga classes, it is common for the first Downward Facing Dog of the day to be accompanied by an invitation to "Pedal your heels back and forth, stretch out your body, ease into the pose" - using these movements to warm up the body. In more advanced classes, however, the teacher will often instruct you, for the first Downward Dog, "Don't pedal your heels, just ease into the pose through your internal movements."

This is one of the most important things you can learn in a yoga class: that stillness doesn't mean stasis; that even if you hold the same pose for fifteen minutes, each of your breaths can help you actively push to hold it more completely and more perfectly. It's possible that the man with his arms up in the backyard managed to stretch out his spine to an extent that I'd need a half-hour of alternating Wheels and Forward Folds to accomplish.

It's the principle of tapas, or internal fire and discipline: even after you've been in your Downward Dog for twenty breaths already, you're not sagging or collapsing your arms, bored and waiting for the next pose - but ypu're still trying, still pressing your heels back a little further with every exhale, still lifting your tailbone up further with every inhale.

And the yin to tapas' yang is the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence: being gentle to your body by not taking the pose too far. Doing violence to yourself in yoga class is the eternal curse of the ambitious personality: instead of the impetus for a stretch coming from those internal, subtle, natural movements, a motion is externally imposed onto muscles that aren't ready for it, which then tense up or even tear.

Oh, I can still remember my early days of doing yoga, when I'd show off flexy twisted binds to my friends, and then my back would feel sore for days, or in class I'd keep the corner of my eye on the person on the mat next to me, and feel bad if they stretched more than I could, so I'd push myself further and strain my hamstrings. Perhaps this could all be avoided if you took a private lesson with an instructor who watched your alignment with an eagle eye, or if you took a class with other people whose bodies were all exactly the same as yours, so that the instructor never suggested a variation of a pose that was too advanced for you. But in the real world, you are often the only person who knows if you're cheating on the alignment of a pose, or hurting yourself in order to get your hand to a certain place.

Competition with other people doesn't belong on the yoga mat, and I wasn't able to explain it to Josh at the time, because I didn't understood it back then. My practice was very much centered around, "Ooh, I'd love to be able to do a cool headstand to impress people!" Unfortunately, if you spend a lot of time trying to impress people who also want to impress you, and part of that impressiveness depends on a contrast, everybody's going to try as hard as they can to pretend that they're not impressed. Further, you spend so much time monitoring your reactions to things - whether you're impressed, whether the other person is impressed - that you don't have any energy to notice what your real emotions are, in the same way that if you strain a yoga pose, you're no longer feeling the way it clicks and what it should do to your body.

I spent a lot of my energy trying to impress Josh, and it wasn't ever going to happen, because he was spending all his energy trying to impress other people. If I was interested in something he didn't know about - such as yoga - he didn't assume that since I was a dynamic person, and I thought the subject was interesting, there must be aspects to it that he hadn't seen; he dismissed it. If we hadn't seen each other for a weekend, he always assumed I'd been sitting at home, not doing much. Once, when he saw a sketch I'd drawn, he said, "Oh. Huh. That's actually pretty good."

But despite all my efforts to impress, nothing ever stuck, and my emotional yoga was overstretched and completely out of alignment, to the extent that I didn't even know what my real feelings were anymore. I'm not trying to blame Josh; he's a flawed human being just like the rest of us, but I let him do it to me, and really it was something I did to myself. Gosh, it was a real mess! I'm so glad that it's over!

I saw Josh again recently - we hadn't been in touch for a year or two - and he said, "Oh, Zoe, you look so healthy! Why do you look so good?" in tones of the utmost surprise, as if my glowing cheeks were the most shocking thing he'd seen all week. I just laughed.

Ahimsa and tapas: so hard to apply on the yoga mat, so much harder to apply to life. The concepts are very easy to explain, and mind-bogglingly tricky to truly implement - in my life, I feel as though every bit of progress is grueling and takes ten times longer than I expect it to. That's why you have to practice at it. That's why they call it a "yoga practice."

Gaze at dreamy Jared and ponder evolutionary anthropology

LOCATION: GW Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St TIME: Tomorrow (Thursday) , 6:30PM EQUIPMENT: Yourself, $15, PRE-REGISTRATION REQUIRED, copy of his most recent book "Collapse" for this academic sex-god to sign OPTIONAL: Lacy panties to throw on stage

I first discovered Jared Diamond my sophomore year in college; "Guns, Germs, and Steel" was fascinating, but my respect for the man's intellect deepened into a big ole crush, thanks to the jacket photograph on the back of "Why Sex is Fun"*, in which the fresh-faced Jared sported lovely cheekbones and an exuberant Jew-fro that scraped the borders of the photo's composition. Oh, he is beautiful, possessing of an ambitious and original intellect, enough of a bad-ass to hang out with obscure cannibal tribes in Papua New Guinea for 17 years (and get away with that hair-style), environmentally conscious, and mature enough to write about sex without being either prurient or musty...How can you not just, like, swoooon?

He's a marvellously lucid writer with a great touch for big ideas ("I've set myself the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years"), and although the picture from a more recent biography suggests that the years have taken their toll on my icon, I'm standing by my favorite sexy anthropologist.

Click here for the link to the Lisner Auditorium event (with the phone # to call and register).


*A book about the evolutionary anthropology of sex, which is probably the best cocktail-party conversation fodder I've ever encountered. Fun fact: Proclivity towards monogamy and proportionate testicle size in all primates are inversely correlated. So, for example, free-lovin' bonobos have gigantic testicles in comparison to their body weight, while harem-holdin' gorillas might have bulky brawn, but their balls are wee. This relationship makes perfect sense: if a female of the species is likely to have active sperm from a few different males inside her at once, it's in your interest to pump out lots so that your boys have a numerical advantage. But if you've got tight control over your harem, why bother wasting metabolical resources on maintaining a disproportionately large body organ? The primate homo sapiens sapiens, you'll be interested to hear, fits directly into the middle of this continuum, ni fish nor fowl: stymieing both Victorians and hipsters who like to rant about how monogamy is just not natural for our species.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Design inauguration posters and eat cupcakes at the Love Cafe

LOCATION: Love Cafe, across from Cake Love (corner of 15th and U St) TIME: Leading up to the inauguration; they're open till 11pm every night EQUIPMENT: Yourself OPTIONAL: Extra art supplies, but they provide posters, poster sticks, markers, and glitter

This is a message from Warren Brown, the owner of Cake Love (about whose cupcakes with butter frosting, this Moby-Dick reader is tempted to use leviathan-worthy superlatives):

"I hope that everyone is enjoying the holiday season. In preparation for the Inauguration, please join me and other members of our DC community for a community art party at Love Cafe during the week leading up to Jan. 20th. In Praise or Protest will be a free week long poster party. We'll supply the materials, you make the art. Come down to Love Cafe from 1/12 - 1/19 and make your own poster for the Inauguration Parade that is In Praise or Protest of Dubya. I have a few designs I'd like him to see. We'll have markers, poster board, posts, tape, glitter, waterproofing spray... it'll be fun. Let's take democarcy in action to the parade on signs with personal messages to show our leadership - and the television viewers watching from the comfort of their homes - the issues that we feel are important. Please join us and make your mark on a poster - then march it up and down Pennsylvania Ave. on Jan. 20th."

I stopped by tonight for a poster-making gathering hosted by the ubiquitous Sarah Ingersoll and my splendiferously lovely friends Jamia, Kaelan, and Natalie all showed up. (Oh, how did I get to know such wonderful people? They are all so spunky & adorable & smart & good & deep & charming & generous. Why am I so lucky?? I think I must prove the trope that pleasure is just a contrast with pain, because I spent years in school as a social pariah, a greasy-haired, sulky, semi-autistic gothed out rebel, with gangs of girls ambushing me in the bathrooms to beat me up and my classmates drawing cruel satires of my pimply face on the chalkboards, and I used to think that I just sort of wasn't ever going to be able to make friends, like my brain was missing the friendship-making bit - and so now, that my friends actually like me and don't want to beat me up, I don't think the novelty is ever going to get old.)

Anyway, I'd never actually been inside the Love Cafe, but it's a charming venue, with comfy booths and tea and coffee and delicious pastries, and a vase full of peacock feathers on the counter (a design element which I thoroughly approve). If you take your poster up to the counter and show them, they'll give you a certificate for a free cupcake.

I made a poster with a sort of 60s-inspired design with swirly letters: "SQUISH BUSH," and Natalie helped me think of some accompanying chants:

"Squish Bush!
Push him in the tush!
Squish Bush!
Turn him into mush!
Squish Bush!
He's a big douche!"

(That last bit doesn't exactly rhyme, but the sugar in the butter frosting was getting me a little over-excited.)

Monday, January 10, 2005

Gape at Cai Guo-Qiang's "Traveler" exhibit at the Hirshhorn and Sackler

LOCATION: Hirshhorn Museum, Sackler Museum (on the Mall) TIME: Now: EQUIPMENT: Yourself OPTIONAL: Gunpowder, computer-chip-guided floating rockets, contacts in city government (only if you want to try it yourself)

Cai Guo-Qiang has exhibits at the Hirshhorn and Sackler right now. I've only seen the one at the Hirshhorn: it documents his failed plans for various performance art projects around the world involving gigantic patterned gunpower explosions of symbolic significance in public places.

The exhibit includes conceptual sketches (which he made by laying out gunpowder on pieces of paper and exploding it) and small essays about the plans for the projects, and the reasons that bureaucratic approval was denied: it's the aesthetics of failure (and recovery therefrom).

I particularly liked the description of a tranquil lake in Northern Japan, famous for its spiritual placidity: "4,200 pounds of gunpowder will be exploded at intervals in the air, turning a natural wonder into a man-made wonder." Another project would have illuminated a cheeky quote from the I-Ching in front of a business complex.

The most fun from the exhibit comes when you close your eyes and imagine the explosions - but the conceptual sketches, made by igniting patterns of gunpowder on top of paper, are dynamic and expressive art in their own right. I'd really like to have met Cai Guo-Qiang as a kid... "Honey, he burned through the carpet again!"

Add your forty-two cents at a meeting of Cafe Philo

LOCATION: Brasserie Les Halles, corner of 12th and Pennsylvania; back room (ask a waiter) TIME: Alternate Saturdays, 1-3pm (more like 1-4pm by the time everybody shuts up) EQUIPMENT: Yourself OPTIONAL: Strong opinions, abstract theories, arms to flail in the air to emphasize your point (Who am I kidding? Those are not actually optional).

Cafe Philo is a philosophical society that meets in a back room at the Brasserie Les Halles every two weeks to discuss a topic chosen by the members. Some past discussions have included, "Is Democracy Just?", "Must Reasons for Our Beliefs Stop Somewhere?", "Can American Democracy Survive Rule By Irrational Belief?", "Who is Right - the Stoics or the Epicureans?" and, most recently, "What is Emergence?"

I've been to a few of these meetings, and they're always thought-provoking and also rather incoherent. There's a spiderweb tightrope to walk when you're trying to moderate a discussion between 20 outspoken people, each of whom would happily occupy the full 2 hours with their own profound ramblings. As a result, Cafe Philo has developed a system to allow members to sign up to speak in turn - the rules of which seem to rival cricket in complexity - which is enforced by a four-minute timer that beeps loudly when a speaker's turn is up, and punctuated by other members banging their fists loudly on the table. But the problem with this system is that with a backlog of 10 or 20 people waiting to speak, the conversation jumps erratically from topic to topic and it's hard to follow up on important or controversial points that people might raise.

That being said, the conversations are always stimulating, and at the very least I always leave with a long list of philosophers I want to learn more about. I went this Saturday to a discussion on "What is Emergence?" with my heartbreakingly super pals Kaelan and Sarojini, the introductory email for which I'll copy at the bottom, as it's a good example of the Cafe Philo style. There were some interesting points; I'd never thought before, for example, about the connections between the pattern of a society's culture developing, and the plot and characters created by members of an improv comedy workshop. And there were a few physics professors who made neat comments about quantum theory.

There are usually about 30 people, there, and if you're shy or unprepared, it's perfectly acceptable to sit in a chair in the back and just listen to the conversation - it doesn't feel awkward at all. If you'd like to be on the mailing list, just send a note to "". (Replace AT with @ in that address, of course; I just don't want to accidentally give him any spam.)


Greetings and Happy New Year:

The first 2005 meeting of Café Philo DC -- and the first of its 6th year of existence -- will take place Saturday, January 8, 2005 at Brasserie Les Halles restaurant in downtown Washington, DC (located at 13th and Pennsylvania Ave., NW), from 1 PM to 3 PM. (Note that the discussions and subsequent topic selection often run later, sometimes to 4 PM). The topic, postponed from early November to accommodate our post-election discussion of American democracy and irrational belief, will be: "What is Emergence?"

Jerry Chandler, who periodically attends our meetings, has kindly agreed to introduce briefly the topic at the meeting and has generously provided some background on the subject (below). He informs me that the items on his list of suggested readings vary in level of difficulty, so please pick and choose your readings accordingly.

As a first stab, the online Wikipedia defines "emergence" as follows:

"Emergence is the process of deriving some new and coherent structures, patterns and properties in a complex system. Emergent phenomena occur due to the pattern of interactions between the elements of a system over time. Emergent phenomena are often unexpected, nontrivial results of relatively simple interactions of relatively simple components. What distinguishes a complex system from a merely complicated one is that some behaviours and patterns emerge in complex systems as a result of the patterns of relationship between the elements."

Now, Jerry's exposition:

Prepared by Jerry LR Chandler
Dec. 28, 2004

The concept of emergence is developing as a central explicatory theme
in several central disciplines. Despite the absence of a common
definitions or a satisfactory mathematical basis, the abstraction of
emergence phenomena appears to be displacing other narratives of

The richness of the topic of Emergence vastly exceeds my abilities to
do justice to it. I merely offer a few words of introductory guidance
to place the topic in perspective and references to some thoughtful
articles available from the Internet. I believe that the concept of
emergence will eventually become the basis of a coherent philosophy of
science. At present, the topic of emergence is closer to "chaos" than

Several informal descriptions of the term "emergence" may be offered:

1. A view of the creative relations of nature in contrast to reductive
2. An explicit, clear, logical, materialistic explication of the
3. A synthetic co-mingling of scientific, historical, philosophical and
religious beliefs.
4. A synthesis of systems theory, cybernetics, mathematics and

The theme of emergence is conjoined across many disciplines by several
common abstract concepts or threads of reasoning. As a philosophy of
science, emergence transcends individual theories of various sciences.
Scientific examples come from cosmology, evolution, social and cultural
development: communications theories, information theories,
linguistics, mathematics, art, music, communications, economics,

Central Concept: Unity of history of the universe - temporal
development of various species.
Each species as a merelogical whole, emergent from relations among
Each whole, each science, can be viewed as a "code".
Emergence viewed as the construction of a sequence of codes.
Codes beget codes beget codes…

Primitive basis of Emergence: Big Bang Theory, Very very ancient
beginnings of history.
Presume a starting point and expansion of universe over extremely long
periods of time.
Presume development of universe was a continuous re-patterning of
matter in space and time.

Planetary basis of emergence:
History of earth approximated at about 4 billion years.
History of biology - approximated at 3. 7 billion years of development.
Major events in history of Earthly events: Emergence of Life, Emergence
of Multi-cellular organisms, Emergence of Consciousness.
History of man - approximated at circa 1 million years
History of symbol usage - approximately 30, 000 years.
Phases of human development from early man to present as development of symbolic codes from a variety of cues.

Attempt to construct a coherent story of nature based on unifying codes
from different sciences. Code development as "information." Concept of
a "system" - a coherent unity.

Possible attributes of emergent systems:
Not solely a mathematical theory but mathematical considerations play a
profound role.
(Mathematical theories invoked - chaos, fractals, catastrophes,
non-linear dynamics, networks, algorithms, …)

Not solely a physical theory, but physical theories provide a
simplistic beginning for early history.
Not solely a chemical theory, but the history of the earth and of
biological evolution are traced in the records of chemical species.
(Gaia Hypothesis, Lovelock)
Not solely a biological theory but organization of living systems
forces re-evaluation of the scope and meaning of "laws" of physics.
Not solely a cultural narrative or "just so story", relations among
facts (for example, chemical functions of man's body and brain are
integral to the emergence of man.)

Some references from a Google search under the term: "Emergence

The first reference is a good starting point for history of issues and
early terminology from a British perspective:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Systems Theory and Cybernetics - G. Bateson, G. Pask, J. Warfield, R.

For a high level summary of the reduction - emergence relation:

Invoked in relation to theory reduction, Hans Primas, Emergence in
exact natural science.

Invoked in downward causation: Downward Causation. Minds, Bodies and

Invoked in Sociology / Reductionism

Invoked as source of paradigm shift:

Invoked in Mind - Body problem:

Invoked by Music Therapists, Poetry therapists,

Invoked by Psychotherapists

Invoked to describe grammar, JH. L. Elman, in the "Emergence of

Invoked to explicate science / theology debate by P. Clayton:

Invoked to describe emergence of public institutions:

A huge range of further reading material is readily available from the
Internet search topic.

Be forewarned, as an emerging philosophy, the task of evaluating the
available literature is substantial.

Books worth reading:

Francois Jacob: A History of Heredity, The Logic of Life
James Lovelock, The Gaia Hyothesis
Teilhard De Chardin, The Phenomena of Man.
K. Jung, The Collective Unconscious
Harold Morowitz,, The Emergence of Everything.
S. Oyama, The Ontology of Information
Jerry LR Chandler and G. Vander Vijer, Closure.

For further discussion of some of the issues involved, it is always worth consulting our Café Philo DC Dialogue discussion list at

Best regards,

Ken Feldman
Moderator, Café Philo DC

Friday, January 07, 2005

Ten thousand miles trapped in a tin can*

Some advice for you about flying in planes, from a girl who flies between the US, Australia, and Russia at least once a year.

Sitting on a plane is a grueling experience that attacks your health from a number of different angles. There’s the immobility that causes your muscles to stiffen up and blood to pool in your legs; there’s the overly dry recycled air redolent with whatever germs the hundreds of other passengers might be suffering from, (and which has a lower than normal oxygen content, both for energy and storage reasons, and because it keeps passengers sluggish and easy to manage); there’s the horrendous, low-prana food; and there’s the perpetual onslaught of low-grade greasy dirtiness. Meanwhile there’s the psychological stress of being in a confined place, on intimate terms with hundreds of other passengers.

I’m a sensitive girl and often subject to bouts of crippling psychosomatic sickness, but I’m also used to being seen as an oddball, so I’ve developed a number of survival skills to help me survive the flights - and when I say survival skills, I mean just that. Taking care of yourself during a long plane ride, especially if you can't sleep well, is the difference between spending a few of your precious days before you croak feeling like a sack of meat, and actually being able to do stuff enthusiastically, as soon as you step off the plane.

Useful carryon items:
--Well-planned bag of mini-toiletries
--Pajamas to change into, comfy socks
--Eyepillow/mask, earplugs
--Extra pillow, extra blanket
--Teabags (esp some with sleep aids like valerian and passionflower)
--Massage wand

I shall now elucidate some of my more idiosyncratic coping strategies, in the hopes that some might prove useful to you.

*The basic themes are to keep yourself ridiculously hydrated (=water bottles; you can't trust the flight attendants to come round with the drinks cart often enough) and move and stretch your body religiously to keep from seizing up into a pile of knots.

*I always like window seats, because they make you feel like you're inside a marvelous bird instead of a claustrophobic tin can, and there's nothing dreamier than far-off puffs of cotton wool dissolving into speedy wisps as you break through the clouds - plus you can prop a pillow on them and rest your head there, giving you a nicer sleeping position. But aisle seats let you get your all-important regular exercise - and save you from the annoying choice of pacifying your bladder, or elbowing your slumbering seatmates. It is, however, possible to have the best of both worlds, if you can figure out how to gracefully jump over your seatmates (charming them or glaring at them so that they don't complain), which involves standing up in your own seat and stepping gingerly across, balancing on the armrests. Yoga classes would probably help with this.

*I bring silk tapestries, and wedge one corner under my folding tray and the others around my seat back, creating a little tie-dyed tent over my head to sleep, giving the illusion of privacy much like an ostrich sticking its head into some cozy sand...

*Some favored sitting positions: one leg sticking straight up in the air and resting on the top of the window, the other knee bent and resting on the back of your front neighbor's armrest. Another good leg position is to bend your knees and rest your feet inside the pocket on the back of the seat behind you. The common theme here is to elevate your legs, which helps delay the onslaught of edema. (A medical misfortune shared by celebrities. I remember seeing a story in some checkout line: "Jennifer Aniston Takes Off Her Wedding Ring in the Plane! Sure Sign She's About to Dump Brad!" Buried in the last few paragraphs was a quote from a friend: "Jennifer always takes off her rings when she travels, because her hands swell.")

*I bring my own supply of tea bags, and constantly drop by the kitchenette to demand cups of hot water. (In the future I'm going to bring my own mug, I think, because their cups are very small.) This is also a good chance to scrounge leftover meals from first class.

*I bring my own food: bags of almonds, apples, bananas, red peppers, hard boiled eggs. Once on the way back from Moscow, I sat next to a friendly blonde in a pink business suit. It turned out that she was a mail-order bride who'd been living with her husband in Idaho for three years. She was returning to him after a vacation to visit her family for three weeks. And oh, could this woman pack for planes! She had a sack with neat baggies of walnuts, pistachios, granola, and raisins. She had some crackers and a little tub of cream cheese. We both spread out all our snacks to share and it was a veritable feast. She seemed very domestic, loving, and grateful to be living in America; I'm sure she made an excellent bride. If only I could order what I need in the mail...

*I disappear into the bathroom with a bag of toiletries, and by dint of strenuous contortions manage to wash most of my parts in the tiny sink there. Yes, you can take a change of clothes into the bathroom, strip down, and if you're somewhat flexible and balance one foot up on the toilet and take your time with a washcloth, you can basically wash all your bits and feel like you've had a shower. It's fiddly and laborious - but time is one thing you've got, on an airplane. Plus all the contortions are good exercise. After the ablutions, apply some lotion to protect against the Sahara-like cabin air (I use jojoba oil which I mix with soothing aromatherapy oils like lavender, rose, chamomile, jasmine, and neroli) and, while you're still naked, do not forget to brush your teeth and floss. Not only does your mouth feel better, it gives the lotion time to sink in while your skin is still damp, which is the most effective way to moisturize. When you emerge half an hour later in a fragrant cloud of steam, you're far more likely to get some decent sleep (especially if you're used to cleaning rituals before you go to bed.)

*Flight attendants don’t mind all these strange behaviors - they understand! In fact, they’ve got some coping strategies of their own. On the flight from DC to LA, a flight attendant showed me a trick that has been passed down through the generations: Take an empty water bottle and fill it full with hot water. Take off the lid and crush it so that it accordions down into a nub (excess water will spill out), and replace the lid. Repeat. You now have two warm nubs with handles, which you can use to massage your fellow flight attendants’ backs. It feels fabulous.

*And, most importantly: do yoga in front of the bathrooms!

Yoga moves with very little space:
Stretch arms over head, and side to side
Forward fold
Clasp hands behind back, open shoulders
Hands to reverse prayer behind back
Shrug shoulders in opposite circles
Hold foot behind back to stretch the top of your thigh muscle
Standing spinal twists (grab wall to brace yourself)
Neck rolls Tree pose and eagle pose (only if there’s no turbulence, or hold onto wall)
Stand and hug one knee to chest
Jump up and down or run in place to get the circulation going

If you have a little bit more space (there's often a little passageway between sets of bathrooms at the back of large planes)
Downward facing dog
Triangle pose
Reverse triangle pose (Great to do in the little passageway because you've got two walls to brace yourself between, helping keep your balance)
Stretch hamstrings by lifting foot onto that emergency exit bulwark thing and folding over it
Chair pose, chair pose with side twists
Warrior I and II

And anything else you think you can get away with! I’ve even done headstand, when most people were sleeping.


*Actually, the air distance between Sydney and LA is 7,530 miles, but that is less alliterative, so I rounded up. Sorry.

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Object, what are you for?
And who brought you inside?
It was I: I bought you in the store!
For the bargain price of $12.95!
But for what, I can't remember.

Perhaps it was to carve eggshells -
or produce a tingle in my toes -
Suspend a hundred little bells -
Or vacuum sand out of my clothes.

I'm not sure where to put you;
Though I'm sure I needed you
In the living room,
A few days ago,
For what, I can't remember.
It was for something very important.

But ole Terence Blanchard is singing the blues
so while I try to decide, I'll juggle with you
I'll balance you on my head
Rub you along my feet
Kick you over the bed
And tap you on walls with the beat -

Beautiful object,
Object of mine
Object of value
Object with price.