Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Suburbs

I was sitting out in the sun today reading this book, Clash of Eagles. It's a novel about an alternate history, if the Nazis had invaded America in 1940, Christmas Day, and the subsequent occupation and resistance. Excellent book, this is my second time reading it and it is just as good as the first. It is set in New York City, and it got me thinking. Why the hell do people want to live in suburbs?

Around here, in southwest Florida, that's what we have. Fort Myers has a sort of city center, but it's rather run down, and certainly not a place people live-- it's a business district for a small city with little actual business. Punta Gorda is nicer, with more of a "downtown" feel, but is itself much smaller than Fort Myers. Cape Coral was built from literally nothing starting in 1957, and it shows. There is no center, just long commercial strips along the main roads, then a horrifyingly unnavigable grid system of suburban sprawl amid the endless canals. The Cape is huge (considering it was intended as a retirement town/bedroom community for Fort Myers), large in area and population-wise, with more than 150,000 people, and most of it is a blight to me. I console myself with the knowledge that it will be under the waves of the Gulf in a hundred years.Who said climate change didn't come with some benefits, right?

The vast majority of the cities down here are much of the same. Even the upscale subdivisions and gated communities are rather crummy. I'm not saying there's no neighborly friendliness, but there's no life to it. Or, put another way, living here there's all the negatives of living in a city: the traffic, the noise, the air pollution, the close quarters with other people, yet also all the negatives of living in the country: namely, the long driving distances and relative (if not strictly actual) isolation. Where I lived most of my life so far, back in an older, inner-ring Detroit suburb, I used to think it a long way to Oakland Mall, a mere 4 miles from home; but I rarely had to go there, because there were places much closer that generally had what I needed. I could walk or bike to work for many years, for 3 different jobs. Down here, it's 7 miles to the first grocery store, with nothing in between but housing and undeveloped land. To the mall, double that number. There is a Walmart about 8 miles from here, but... well, fuck Walmart.

So you get all those negatives, but none of the benefits. You can't live the quiet country life, with the space and freedom to do your own thing: you're in a city (incorporated or not), and there are all the usual building codes and zoning laws. On the flip-side, cities are great because people live in close proximity, resulting in lots of interaction and mix of ideas and experience. It's a little horrifying to me how people live stacked on each other in cities like New York and Chicago, yet I always said if I were to live in a city it would have to be in the thick of it. I can see the allure, of the culture and vibrancy of it all. The excitement of never knowing who you might meet, what new idea or experience might come your way.

Part of Cape Coral. The canals make it a confusing maze.
But it often feels like we developed almost nothing in the last several decades but single family housing: the suburb, and its especially malignant form, the subdivision and the gated community. Where people huddle alone in front of their TVs and computers, with a large spatial buffer around them-- their yard-- everyone spread out and rarely interacting much. We drive everywhere because everything is so far away, and because everything is too decentralized for public transit, thus making traffic terrible. Human interaction is there reduced mainly to turn signals and road-rage middle fingers. We often don't work, shop, or publicly recreate near where we live, reducing the feeling of, the reality of, "neighborhood" and "community". We are alone out there, in the midst of thousands.

I've been told, on the way to this or that job or other trip to the nicer areas down here, like Bonita Springs, Naples, Marco Island, that "oh, that's a really nice area down there." Then I get there and see nothing but the same sprawling, broken living arrangement that you can't really call a city, because it's just a bunch of juxtaposed homes. This is more horrifying to me than living in the middle of New York City.

Mind you, I'm not really critiquing here the houses themselves, though I find them disagreeable as well. What ultimately bothers me is the lifestyle of modern Americans (yes, in the cities too, where people hide in their apartments just as much as the suburbanites do in their homes). People who live in a subdivision but work elsewhere, who's neighbors work elsewhere as well, almost never at the same place as each other, who have little relation to each other save for proximity and the general beliefs and biases that often at least somewhat unify socio-economic groups. Neighborhoods are planned and developed, and therefore there is even less mixture between the classes than before. Obviously they've always lived separately, but now, great blocks of land are built up to cater to a specific income level, and are often gated off.

It's like a massive sterilization of our culture, this move to the suburbs and the attendant car culture and television addiction. Does any great art or poetry or philosophy really come from the suburbs? Sure, you can have those things anywhere, from the idyllic pleasure gardens to the dankest gulag in frozen Siberia. Clearly, though, there are places that better encourage such endeavors. The country and the wilderness provide raw, inhuman reality, where insights and inspiration fall upon you like the sunshine. Meanwhile, cities have always been the engines and factories of art and high culture. They are where things mix together, where there is struggle and competition, influence and interaction, the great coming together from many places and many ways of life, all fermented together in the crazy alchemy of concentrated living.

But the suburb, well, it is a weak dilution of both. Things are made more interesting, true, by the internet, which connects people in unimaginable ways. Before, someone not living in a city had little access or exposure to the great thinkers, poets, artists, writers, and musicians. Now, I can interact with people from all over the world on message boards and blogs, can hear music from foreign countries, read (and contribute) poetry and stories and get critiqued on them, can post paintings and have more people view my amateur art than great artists ever did in their day, can find people with the same interests and hobbies, no matter how obscure... and all that interaction and influence is real.

Yet, one feels something vital missing. How often do you expose yourself to things you aren't interested in, aren't in agreement with? The internet is very self-centered: we search out people like ourselves, with common interests. We read the blogs and newspapers and editorials we agree with, and never see the ones we don't. I exaggerate a bit, but if you think about it, it's basically true. But if you're hanging out in some hip urban bar or cafe, you're going to hear people who aren't like you, who challenge you, who will speak things that you disagree with. You can't just change the channel, close the webpage, tune them out; they are there and demand to be dealt with. It is the unpredictable nature of the city that fascinates me; but the suburban lifestyle is made to be safe, secure, predictable, and in the end, bland and lifeless.

I'm not saying anything new here. It's been said before, to the point of it being a cliche: the suburbs are boring. But why, then, do people continue to flock to them? What is the allure of those dead-end cul-de-sacs, the confusing, windy streets and the cookie-cutter homes? I grew up in them and never understood it, always knew I'd have to get out of them, or somehow die inside. Am I really that different from everyone else? Someone tell me what the great thing is about the suburb, because I just don't get it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Telescope. And, incidentally, my truck.

The last two nights I've been over at my uncle's house messing around with his telescope. As you can see in the pictures, it's the real deal, a pretty serious piece of hardware, complete with a computerized tracking system and star/object database. We had some trouble with the tracking program, getting it zeroed in on Polaris and a second star for triangulation, especially the first night. So at first, until we figured it out, we mostly did things manually with the spotter scope, looking at the planets and the crescent moon; they are, in the end, more interesting anyway.

The Moon is especially fun to look at, because you can really zoom in there and study the craters and mountains, and with it in the crescent phase, the shadows and relief were excellent. Sorry these pictures aren't. I tried playing around with ISO settings and such, but am new to night photography, and anyways, my camera isn't at all set up for telescope photography. I was just using the Macro setting and trying not to catch glare off the telescope lens.

I assure you, this looked far more impressive to me than it does to you. I tried to reduce the glare and brightness, and improve the contrast here, which is why it's kind of dark. By the way, this isn't even the "close up" eyepiece we later put in. Through that, you half expected to see the American flag and the lunar rover.

Saturn was the by far the capstone of the experience. I couldn't get enough of it; it's so bizarre to be able to see the rings, at least 7 moons, the gap in the rings, and even a hint of cloud bands-- again, these pictures are just to give you an idea, and I'm sorry they fail miserably to really show what I saw.

Click and look closely to see 2 moons

For a second it almost looks fake. When I was a kid visiting him at his house, outside of Manistee, Michigan, where the stars are far brighter, I missed an opportunity to see the ringed planet. I was tired and had gone to crash in my sleeping bag on his living room floor (some things never change, eh?). My dad came in and woke me up, said Saturn's rings were visible, but I was sleepy and declined. Regretted it ever since, and am glad I was able, almost 20 years later, to finally get another chance.

Gordon zeroing in on Regulus; Moon and Venus in background

Once we got it all sighted in properly (above picture is our failed first try), we could use the database to slew straight to various objects, such as open clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. First up was the Orion Nebula, that second "fuzzy star" in the sword hanging from his belt. I thought it would just be a fuzzy patch of light, but it was in fact an awesome sight. Awesome in it's original sense. The gas cloud was lit up, seemingly from behind, and though there was no color, as in the renderings NASA gives us, it was beautiful nonetheless.

Later we looked at a bunch of other Messier Objects, including some galaxies, none of especially bright magnitude, and somewhat limited by trees and Gordon's house, and further impaired by the light pollution. Andromeda, the closest and therefore brightest galaxy, had already set; should have done this 2 months ago. Still, the ones we were able to find were interesting, if only because we knew as we looked that we were seeing not just a fuzzy nebula, but a massive conglomeration of hundreds of thousands of stars, equals to our own Milky Way. You can't get your head around, really, one galaxy, let alone a universe full of them, and the implications for distances and even other civilizations. It was enough to leave us silent, necks cranked backwards and eyes wide open.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Is growth necessary? I've long thought of the growth economy as a problem, summed up so succinctly by Edward Abbey: "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." But I wonder, is there any other kind of economy? At least in a civilization? Sure, hunter-gatherers are extremely stable, but if you look at things historically, once agriculture began, and thereby this project of civilization, that is when change began. Change and growth. Earlier societies were largely changeless, in that they changed so slowly that it was imperceptible to a people with no memory storage devices besides their elders. If something took longer than a few generations to happen, it didn't happen at all, it was always so.

But with agriculture, now things start to move. Slowly at first, because there is less to build on. The wheel, domestic animals, new ways of building houses, the first villages, towns, cities, new forms of governance. But there is a definite movement of change, the civilizations, the cultures, the empires, always expanded, either into the wilderness or into neighboring tribes, and either by assimilation or by conquest. And of course recent history has shown an explosion in innovation, starting in the 1850s or so. Along with this, human populations are growing all the while. Now, I'm not saying it was a smooth increase for the last 10,000 years; obviously it was not. There were discrete civilizations all that time, which rose and fell and birthed the next.

But that's sort of my point. The rise and fall of civilizations: they form, expand, maybe plateau a while, then decline. It seems a natural pattern, and one senses that civilizations are almost living organisms themselves. Most things behave this way. Water rises and falls in waves, continents rise as mountains and fall with erosion (imagine watching that in a sort of geological time lapse, that'd be incredible!).

Certainly most life follows the growth/decline cycle, with the exception of bacteria, and maybe single-celled life, which seem to divide, grow to normal size, and divide again. Bacteria don't decline or die of old age, only from predation and environmental constraints. But higher life seems to embody this rhythm. Remember the cycles of population booms and bust in the lynx/rabbit relationship? The rabbits produce more young, and a few years later that change is embodied in a growth in the lynx population, which eventually eats up more of the rabbits, leading to their decline, then eventually the lynx decline as well... and on and on. Nature is stable, but in a dynamic way. They call it dynamic equilibrium, in that nothing ever gets an upper hand for good, but maybe for a while.

Boom and bust, the way of the world? That is my question. It seems to be an inherent feature of nature-- nature meaning the process of existence, not some "thing" apart from mankind, a usage I am more and more switching to. You can appeal to the concept of yin and yang and be done with it. So you can see my concern. I've long been interested in and read much about sustainability-- though often what is to be sustained is not specified by such speakers and writers. For myself, I'm about sustaining not the current mode of civilization, complete with superhighways and space shuttles, but some mode of life that keeps alive and well human happiness and wellbeing, meaning of course living in tune with the rest of our environment. I for one do not see "subsistence" as inherently negative, as if we always need to be in a state of progress, though again, to what we are to progress towards is never defined-- therefore we are a ship without a port to sail for, eternally lost and merely thrashing about the planet in a gluttonous, terrified rage. But I digress.

Can we have sustainability? Is stasis always to be in the backwaters, the stagnant pools far from the main flow of Life? Is it inherent in all Being to expand and contract? If one culture decides to go the sustainable route, is it then doomed to be overrun by the cultures that do not so choose? Is there a way off this treadmill? I mean, we can't simply forget the last 10,000 years' worth of knowledge. We aren't simple hunter-gatherers anymore, we know farming on vast scales, transportation at incredible speeds, mass communication all around the globe. We can't simply go back, if only for the simple fact that there's too many of us. We're stuck working within the constraints of what we know, i.e., civilization, lest we perish.

Yet to continue with civilization is to perish as well, as we seem to be on a collision course. I've long thought of nuclear weapons as an opportunity, a litmus test for humanity: either control our violent streak, or die. It is far beyond such simple concepts now, as we threaten to topple the entire biosphere. We hack at mountains for the coal, we drill deep into the crust for the creamy nougat center of oil, we burn, burn, burn everything in sight, swallowing everything in our path towards progress: forests, cultures, oceans of fish, entire rivers, and millions of lives in our wars. Extinctions are peaking at a frightening rate. Horrifying.

A lot of times you'll hear from the environmental crowd, especially some of the Deep Ecologists, that humans are a disease, a cancer. I think that is ridiculous, and am in line with Daniel Quinn and others who see that it is civilization that is the problem. And perhaps it is only our concept of being separate from the rest of the world, the ego divide, dualism of city and country. The concept of civilization itself, and its counterpart "nature." Dualism everywhere destroys a clear understanding of reality: look at the Occupy movement. I sympathize with it and I'll explain why in a moment, but clearly the evil and greed in the 1% is present in the 99% just as much. The only difference is, in the 1% it is magnified by sums of money and power far above what the 99% has access to when we try to put our schemes into effect. In the end, the world can never be saved by political action, only by everyone killing their ego and opening their eyes in an enlightened state. But, as this will never happen, I must support this movement that at least tries for evenness and fairness. Yet therefore also do I dwell in despair. A corrupted means will never attain an uncorrupted end, and we are all corrupt. This is why communism failed, and why capitalism also failed.

So we seem to be doomed, and our happy talk about sustainable civilization is a sad joke, an oxymoron gone unrecognized. Growth and expansion seem inherent, and of course that means decline and collapse. I know I harp on this a bit, but it is obvious that we have overshot certain limits and are basically in the position of the Coyote: we have run over the cliff but haven't looked down yet, floating on a fading illusion and moments away from a fall. And there's nothing we can do; like Wiley E., technology isn't going to save us, and it's actually part of what put us here. Or our misuse of it, based on our clouded worldview.

I welcome your thoughts on all this: the concept of growth vs. stasis, as well as what I consider the imminent collapse of [our] civilization. This is something I'd love a discussion over. Also, as I've changed the blog around a bit, feel free to comment and critique the design as well. Note also that I've added some links there on the right: especially relevant to this post is The Dark Mountain Project, which I will hopefully talk about in an upcoming post.

Saturday, April 21, 2012



                                                        Driving on this country lane
                                                        light is flashing on my brain--
                                                        the forest alters solar fire:
                                                        the sun and trees seem to conspire
                                                        to rush a message down my way--
                                                        but who knows Morse code, anyway?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Comparative Religion

Despite my great interest and inclination towards eastern religions, especially Zen and Taoism, I find that I'm still greatly influenced by my Catholic upbringing. It's hard to escape such things. I mean, raised in a Catholic family, went to Catholic school from K-8, my whole neighborhood, including my best friend, was all Catholic. Say of Freud what you want, childhood influences at least are for real. It's actually amazing that I escaped as much as I did. But I've heard it said, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. And maybe so.

In a way, I feel I'm in a similar position as Alan Watts mentions of himself in his book, The Supreme Identity (which I consider his best, or most in depth at least). He says in the foreword to the new edition, 25 years after the initial publication, that he considers the book that follows a "somewhat torturous" argument coming from someone who was about to leave the Anglican priesthood, but hadn't quite made up his mind to do so. He goes on to say, that after all his years of comparative study of Eastern religions, "things have come to such a point that I could almost function again as a Christian priest," but it's better that he stay outside any and all systems.

I sort of fit the same pattern. I used to think of Christian doctrine closed minded, narrow, exclusive, and restrictive. Too dogmatic, too illogical. Eastern religions opened the door for me, turned spirit or divinity not into some separate, distant entity, but something more immanent, the Ground of Being. I moved beyond theology into metaphysics. It was refreshing and liberating, something that resonated with my mind as much as my heart.

Recently I find myself beginning to come to terms with my Christian background. The key is to abandon literal readings in favor of a mystic's view. For example, if you read the Gospel of John not from the traditional sense but as a Hindu or Chinese philosopher might, it turns into a text every bit as amazing as the Gita or the Tao Te Ching. Just the first few lines are incredible from this perspective. You can think of the "He" "Him" "God" "Light" and all the subjects of this mystical text as Buddha-nature, Brahman, Tao. Even "Christ" can be understood esoterically, rather than literally. As Paul said, "not I, but Christ in me." The deeper spirit that resides within us, Christ Consciousness, the atman, which is our individual share in Brahman.

When Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father but by me" did you really think he meant his physical, human self, the person of Jesus? That's ridiculous, how can a flesh and blood being be the only way to Truth? Or was he speaking from the spirit which we all share? He also said "what I have done, you too can do" and "I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you." There are tons of sayings and things in the Gospels that can be understood this way, you just have to look deeper. Think of the "I" that Jesus uses as the atman, and the Father as the Brahman, and it fits perfectly. He did teach in parables, after all.

I have come to think of the God of the Bible as a combination of things. In large part it is the confused term for the Brahman or Tao, of a people who have lost touch with it. They don't have the experience of it anymore, just a term, a concept, and over time such a concept can drift into strange territory. On the other hand, it's not all confusion. It is in places, like the Gospel of John's opening lines, used in an esoteric way by a people limited by a highly textual concept of spirit.

But I mean, this was a culture very text/scripture based; they have to be careful of blasphemy, for one, because they only had these words, not the experience, and so anything that contradicted the text destroyed their only link to Spirit. And therefore they just didn't know how to talk about the mystical experience, they didn't have the language for it as they had in places like India. So they were stuck with convoluted and out of touch terms and explanations; like a Bushman trying to explain quantum mechanics to his Kalahari brethren. He won't have the words, and it's going to get lost in translation.

Also, there are many instances in the Old Testament of God is obviously being used as an excuse of rationale for atrocities, either to whip up military fervor, or later, to explain why these whole cities were exterminated down to the last dog and goat. The priests, a class of people so often in collusion with rulers and therefore corrupt with power, used the concept of God as a weapon. You didn't destroy cities out of lust for power, they told the ignorant people, but because God ordered it.

I'm not about to return to the Catholic church, but I have found, through comparative religion, a real catholicity-- catholic, of course, meaning universal. Think of it this way. You can live your life wearing rose tinted glasses, and never realize there's a tint. But, understanding other religions is a way of changing what glasses you wear. You put on some blue tinted ones, and get a new way to see the world.

Drugs do the same thing, both they and religions initiate new modes of consciousness-- smoking a bowl, eating peyote, drinking ayahuasca, or studying Taoism and Vedanta; all are a way of trying on other realities. Shifting modes leads to great insight; thus I view drug use ideally not as a recreational thing, for kicks, but a serious spiritual tool, to be used with restraint, wisdom and respect. Right up there with fasting, meditation, music and dance (especially the trance inducing kinds), chanting, and so forth. Tools, all.

The important thing, I think, is not to say, well, the blue glasses are truer than the original red ones, or that the red ones I grew up with are the real ones, the blue are illusion or lies from the devil. I mean, it's not like we have only one state of daily consciousness anyways, we'd go crazy if we could stick in rational thinking all the time. But we are capable of switching through all kinds of states: deep sleep, dream sleep, lucid dreaming, hypnogogic and hypnopompic states, day dreaming, the Zone, trance, SMR, and the Pure Consciousness Event.

So the point of trying on these different worldviews isn't to find the right one. The narrow path of wisdom is to realize that the various worldviews, the various tinted glasses, are just different perspectives, and that there is out there a real, untinted world beyond the frames. Don't get hung up on the comparison, but use the comparison to transcend both.

So I'm not about to start going to church or anything. I won't call myself a Catholic, and I still find the Christian spiritual language a confusing, overly complex and convoluted language that makes that narrow path of wisdom even harder to find. It's a rich tradition, and valid, but for the majority the real thread of truth has been lost, forgotten in favor of dogma and external truths with a long history of abuse by power. I can understand Christ in more esoteric terms, but prefer not to use the word because it brings along too much baggage, calls up too certain an idea that inhibits deeper understanding. People get stuck on the "letter of the law" and therefore miss the Spirit.