More of Us to Love

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Chances are good that you’ve never heard of Cambridge, Ohio. It’s a tiny hamlet located in eastern Ohio, near the West Virginia border, that happens to be my ancestral home. My maternal grandparents, along with relatives and fellow immigrants from the same region of Lebanon, made their way over in the first decade of the last century, set up shop, and had a lot of children, my mother being the final installment (she moved to Columbus, where I was born, to attend nursing school, and has lived there ever since). Cambridge is nestled at the foothills of the Appalachians, and there are some beautiful state parks nearby. It is God’s Country; quite literally, as “The Living Word”, a popular outdoor drama depicting the last week of the life of Jesus, is performed at an amphitheater outside of town on weekends during the warm months. Collectors of glass know Cambridge for its historic glassworks factory that closed in the 1950s. The name “Cambridge Glass” is associated with a high quality, distinctive product line that eventually fell out of favor as tastes moved on. Cambridge has a picturesque Victorian county courthouse, and a quaint main business street. And that’s about it.

Oh, and Cambridge has LOTS of fat people. I’ll never forget an experience I had when my daughter and I were back in the States for a family visit a few years ago. We were in Cambridge, and decided to head down to the charming, and miniscule, downtown area for lunch. The restaurant we had decided upon, we were informed, was famous for its pies. Now, I love pies -blueberry and pumpkin being my two favorites – and as we headed over, one of these was what I was looking forward to wrapping my mouth around. However, to my disappointment, this place didn’t have either on offer. They only served cream pies, which were proudly displayed in the storefront window to attract passersby. These pies; how to describe them? They were gargantuan! They rose up from their dishes like puffy souffles, but they were all cream. Banana cream, lemon cream, chocolate cream, and another one that I couldn’t be sure about, but perhaps it was cream cream! No longer in a mood for pie, but still plenty hungry, I wandered in with my group, and things got surreal.

My family is blessed with a metabolism such that we generally don’t put on excess weight. In actuality, I considered this more curse than blessing for much of my life, as, to my humiliation, I was rewarded with the unlovable nickname of “spaghetti legs” by my second grade classmate Carla. Carla is of Italian descent, and her mom was a great cook, so I can easily imagine that she wouldlove to be called “spaghetti legs” herself these days, but I digress. Anyway, we sat ourselves down, five or six skinny folks at a table in the middle of the restaurant. It was then that my daughter and I, accustomed to seeing Japanese bodies all around us, observed that everyone else in the restaurant was enormous! One of whom was the waitress, who brought menus to our tables and, while walking off, told us to “be sure and leave room for some pie!”

I’m not exactly sure where she imagined that room might be, as the portions of food at this eatery were staggering. The only thing remotely healthy that I could make out was the Greek Salad, authentic enough because the proprietor was Greek, but still an Olympian mountain of feta cheese and olives. Almost everything else was grilled, or deep-fried to the point that one may as well have inserted Super Glu directly into one’s arteries. Barely able to finish what was on our plates, dessert was out of the question. The waitress was aghast. Surely we couldn’t leave without tasting this restaurant’s specialty. As she persisted, I began to get a weird feeling that I had entered a Twilight Zone episode. Perhaps just one bite of pie would have been enough to transform us into the restaurant’s typical patrons. I could practically hear the chant from the movie “Freaks” in the back of my head as I doggedly refused: One of us! One of us! Gobble Gobble One of us! We left, as the waitress saw us off by shouting, “Y’all come back and have some pie next time!”

The U.S. has a weight problem, and Cambridge is hardly outstanding in this regard. As someone who only visits the country occasionally, I may be less inured to this fact then my fellow countrymen, but people from other parts of the world are looking on in amazement. Nearly every Japanese who has visited has a story to tell about the giant portions served in restaurants, and the fatties who order said along with that ultimate gesture of futility, a Diet Coke. If our blubber was just the (elephantine) butt of jokes, it would be bad enough. But with the number of Americans suffering from diabetes, heart disease, clogged arteries, etc. the country’s obesity curse is far beyond a laughing matter.

How did we get here? There are numerous explanations, and as I am not a dietary expert I shall limit myself to my own observations and thoughts on the matter, coming from someone who has spent twenty years in a country highly regarded for the nutritional value of its traditional cuisine, and the longevity and slimness of its citizens. Let’s begin with that Diet Coke mentioned earlier. Leaving aside the hopelessness of doing anything positive for one’s health by slurping one down, one might begin by asking: why have soft drinks with meals in the first place? Japanese people don’t. Certainly, for most of the country’s history, neither did Americans. Where did this habit, of drinking fizzy, sickly sweet beverages with meals come from? And that is the right place to start, because much of America’s fat problem can be attributed to the brilliant (and tragically so) promotional schemes of America’s junk food purveyors. Here is how cokes became a staple of America’s restaurant (and eventually home) meals. The Coca Cola company made a “generous” offer to all food establishments, large and small, all over the country. Install a soda fountain that serves our drinks, and we’ll buy you an electric sign to display outside! What could be better for attracting clientele than a brightly glowing sign? Only one little thing: half the sign space had to be used to advertise – you guessed it – Coca Cola.  And thus it was that a triumverate of American cuisine, an Axis of Dietary Evil, was now complete; a burger (or a BLT, or a grilled cheese sandwich), fries…..and a Coke!

Burgers! Aw, yes, now we are really getting to the meat of the problem!  For burgers mean fast food, and fast food, in two fell swoops, delivered the coup de grace to America the Beautiful (or at least beautifully built). I remember when there was only one Wendy’s on the entire planet. It was a fantastic and hugely popular eatery in downtown Columbus, at the intersection of Broad and High, which, as Columbusites will inform you, is smack in the center of town. It may also be the epicenter of American fast food culture. For not only did it provide the birthplace of America’s third most successful burger chain, Columbus itself is known as an ideal “test market city”. So many of the things that Americans devour in fast food restaurants, from chicken “nuggets” to burritos the size of your head, appear on the menu because they tested well in Columbus. But back to that first Wendy’s. The burgers there were not just good; they were amazing! Pretty much everyone who walked out of there, when it was just the one store, was certain they had just consumed one of, if not the, best burgers they had ever tasted in their lives. They were nothing like the burgers you get in Wendy’s chains nowadays. They were handcrafted antique Swiss watches to today’s mass produced gadgets. But, success breeding excess, Ray Thomas, Wendy’s dad, was not content to leave well enough alone, and Wendy’s was soon challenging McDonalds and Burger King for American burger supremacy. The only thing he had to squander was the impeccable quality that made his burger joint a star in the first place.

Mass production: that was the first ingenious, and disastrous, step that fast food restaurants led the American people down into today’s dietary fiasco. For perhaps the first time in human history, all pretense of there being something special about food, and a human being’s relationship to it, was trashed, or at least drastically altered. Prophetically so. Long before fast food, everyone in the U.S. had heard the expression, “you are what you eat”. That expression could thereafter be modified to say, “…and what I eat are mass produced food thingies that do more harm to my body than good”.

The second step flows naturally, or unnaturally as it were, from the first: drive-through windows. Only in America could such an insult to dining have come about (the first McDonald’s drive-thru appeared in 1975, six years after the first Wendy’s was opened. This period of time should perhaps be thought of as the beginning of the modern American diet). Food had now morphed into what most Americans think of it as today: fuel. Nothing more, nothing less. Your car runs out of fuel, you pull into a filling station, plonk down some money, fill up,  and you’re all set. Same with the body. As all too many Americans practically live in their cars, the metaphor was now complete. Americans are cars! Large objects that move around from place to place, filling up on fuel when necessary, and continually getting bigger. SUV, you ain’t got nothing on us!

Food as cheaply mass-produced fuel. This, I believe, is the key to understanding the obesity problem in America. Truly, you are what you eat. If you think of food as merely fuel, then you do not love it. You do not revere it. You, I believe, dishonor it. 

And then you put it in your body. So this stuff, that was never loved, not by the farmers who factory-produced it, not by the hands and machines that processed it, and not by the person actually eating it – is it any wonder that when it gets inside it  becomes more ravaging marauder than nourishing friend? When you love the food you eat, really love it, it loves you back. There are plenty of French and Italians and Swiss and Belgians and Austrians stuffing themselves with rich concoctions, washing it down with beer or wine or cream dolloped coffee, and still not bloating up like beached whales. There are Chinese and Japanese stuffing their faces with foods that are too salty, too oily, too sweet. But their mentality as they do so is totally different. They love food! Ask the Japanese. Better yet, ask any person who comes here from overseas. They turn on the TV and it seems like all they see are images of Japanese, almost worshipfully, stuffing food into their faces, and then gushing about how delicious it is! Ridiculous? Perhaps, but telling as well. These are very old cultures, and they retain a relationship with food that, even in this age of mass production, of nearly everything we eat coming out of a box or a can or a jar, acknowledges a simple truth that the majority of Americans have lost altogether. What you eat becomes you! You wear it as your cells, and your cells keep you alive, keep you vital and healthy. Or not. Americans have got to relearn that simple truth, as valuable in its own way as The Golden Rule. Otherwise, we may as well just change the “four food groups” to Sugar, Salt, Fat and Artificial Coloring. And save room for some pie.


I'm You; Kanye, Lebron and the Cult of Celebrity

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Am I the only one that's not crazy here?

- Kanye West, November 23rd, Bowery Ballroom

   In the solipsistic universe that Kanye West inhabits (in which he is Kanye West, and we are not) he has been done an injustice. By Taylor Swift. Yes, the winsome VMA award winner who stood, dumbstruck, as Kanye jumped on stage, grabbed her microphone from her as she was giving her acceptance speech, and proceeded to let viewers know that he felt the award was undeserved, and should have gone to Beyonce instead, has not gone to bat for him in the year since. "Taylor never came to my defense", he lamented, toward the end of a very bizarre soliloquy he ad-libbed at the end of a concert at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC earlier this week. In the nine minute rant, Kanye had plenty of other gems to offer his adoring audience as well. Hastening to assure them that "I never talk about the numbers", he proceeds to do just that, bragging about the sales of his recent album, (100,000 the first day, digital alone, 650,000 projected in the first week, without a #1 single - just some of the numbers he never talks about); defending former nemesis George W. Bush, portraying him as equally "villainized" as Kanye himself by a rabid media always looking to tear people down, etc. He tops it all off with the humble admission that, "I can't be your role model. I can't be your savior. I can't be your antichrist". Personally, I was thinking to myself, "well, that's a relief, because I wasn't really counting on my savior being a boorish, loutish, self absorbed egomaniac to begin with".

   But that's just me. For their part, the audience gave him the requisite dose of adulation, even as his rabbit-hole speech took them deeper into his child's brain mentality about the world. Like the frightened adults in that classic Twilight Zone episode, who heaped only praise upon the terrorizing bully child who otherwise would "send them to the cornfields", Kanye's fans shouted out affirmations and gave their applause to his every utterance, no matter how bizarre they increasingly became. And why wouldn't they? In our celebrity-obsessed culture, why should we use our own minds to decide if what we are hearing is egotistical drivel or words of wisdom, even "salvation"? He's famous, after all!  If his words seem weird and hard for me to make any sense of, if they seem to go against my own ideas about what is and isn't proper behavior, the problem is obviously with me. I'm not the one who's up there on stage. I'm not the one who never "talks about the numbers" of my mega-selling records. In the presence of a genius like Kanye, my own conventional assumptions need to be checked at the ticket gate.

   Meanwhile, for self-proclaimed "king", Lebron James, things are not going according to plan. Ever since his nationally televised (and widely watched ) "Decision" (which I suggest should heretofore be known as "The Derision") to bolt his home state of Ohio and head for Miami to join fellow superstars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in pursuit of multiple NBA championships, the wheels of karma seem to be churning as if propelled by a benzedrine popping lab rat to bring "the chosen one" down to earth. A week from now he will be returning to Cleveland, and the team he jilted, for a match-up between his Miami Heat and his former team, the Cavaliers. And the Cleveland fans are going to be rabid! Never has a local hero fallen in stature faster than this "traitor", and the boos that will fill the stadium from the second he exits the  locker room to the second he heads back in again, surrounded by security, will be deafening, a cathartic primal scream from a fan base that had placed their hopes and dreams and aspirations in him, who had believed him when he proclaimed as an eighteen year old rookie, who had already appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, that he wouldn't quit until he reached his goal of bringing a championship to the city on Lake Erie that has known nothing but heartbreak and decline for decades.    And the moment will be all that much sweeter for his former fans knowing how disappointing this season has gone thus far for the would-be superteam. Currently standing a mere one game above .500, with a record not all that much better than that of the Lebron-less Cavs, the Heat players are well aware that they may very well lose that night, as derision rains down upon them and unprecedented hatred blasts James at every turn. Cleveland fans would probably prefer that the Cavs lose every other game this season in exchange for handing Lebron a humiliating defeat on his former court. The mayor of the city would be crazy not to declare the next day a city-wide holiday if they win. Adding an almost painful note of irony, a few years ago, when he was Ohio's favorite son, Lebron built a fifty million dollar home in nearby Akron, and is now probably the least loved person in the entire state. Will he shut himself up there, like Charles Foster Kane did, surrounding himself with phantoms and mirages?

   The story of Lebron is similar to that of Kanye, one of unrestrained hubris that tunes out everything that doesn't speak of ones own personal greatness. At the tender age of eighteen, upon entering the league, Lebron declared as a goal that he become a "global icon",  as if unaware that no one in history has ever become a global icon by having that as their goal. He could say that with a straight face because his basketball skills had elevated a mere teenager to a stature that could only exist in a society gone screwy. The hatred being shown toward Lebron now is nothing other than the flip-side of the inappropriate and unjustified adulation showered on him by the working stiffs of northern Ohio and elsewhere as they built his ego up to Ozymandias-ian proportions. In short, it says more about his fans, and the American Cult of Celebrity they spring from, than it does about the man-child himself.  What did they want him to be, and why? What part of themselves did they transfer from themselves to him? Like Kanye, Lebron is nobody's role model, or savior, OR antichrist.  He's Icarus. And as his former fans watch with glee as he falls like a stone through the sky, one hopes they might remember that they are the ones who gave him the wings.


Wild Night, Good Cause!

Guy and I performed as "The Rusty Nails" at a charity event  last Thursday to support a school for the deaf in The Philippines. The event was called "The Rose Sessions II" and the main draw was clearly the many belly dancers who appeared and did their thing.
A night  to remember!
photo credits: 
Charlie K and COBA


Frog and Friends

A watercolor I completed recently for my friend Kyoko. The "frog" in the story is actually the name of her German Shepherd. Kyoko loves frogs! So much so, in fact, that the little frog getting tea poured to her is actually Kyoko herself, in another incarnation. :)
The pets are named Frog and Mame. And the setting is Kinuta Park, near my home. 


Interview With Kim Kardashian's Butt

Unless you've been living on another planet recently, you're surely aware of the phenomenon that is Kim Kardashian's butt! We caught up with it outside Grauman's Chinese Theater, just after making a fresh imprint on Hollywood Boulevard, and it agreed to sit down with us and tell us what it's like to be one of today's hottest stars.

ab: It's so great to finally get to meet you, face to.....it's so great to finally get to meet you!

kkb:  The pleasure is all yours!

ab:  Indeed! You've become so BIG recently!

kbb: Yes, isn't it great? I owe it all to my fans!

ab: What I mean is, you've become, uh, really big!

kkb: yeeessss...? What are you trying to say?

ab:  Well, is there such a thing as becoming too big?

kbb:  Gosh, I guess I never thought about it that way! I'd have to say no. I like to think I'll just keep getting bigger and bigger!

ab:  I imagine you will! I notice you've come all by yourself to this interview. May I ask, where's the rest of you?

kbb:  You mean "ROK"? That's what I call her, it stands for "rest of Kim". She's been a little difficult, lately. It's become clear that I'm what everyone wants to see, and frankly, she's pretty jealous. She doesn't like standing in my shadow!

ab:  I see. So is it kind of like Michael Jackson? You know, how he got so much bigger than his brothers?

kkb: Yeah, maybe. I never thought about it. But I adore Michael! I practice all his moves. You should see me moonwalk!

ab: I wouldn't want to miss that! Tell me, as one of the world's most popular celebrity body parts, how do you feel about your chief rivals? For instance, what do you think of Katy Perry's boobs? 

kkb: Oh, please! Don't get me started on those! Talk about trying too hard! Always so flashy, anything for attention. I like to think I'm above all that.

ab: A butt above boobs, huh? That's an interesting perspective.

kkb: Well, on second thought, maybe that's not the best way to put it. We're just in different places.

ab: You mean in your careers?

kkb: No, just different places. I'll leave it at that.

ab: Gotcha. Then, how about Miley's tongue?

kkb: Oh, gross! You're not seriously comparing us, are you? You know what she can do with that tongue? She can stick it...

ab: Uh, stop there, please. We have our younger readers to consider. KK's Butt, do you think you could tell us just a little bit about your sex tape?

kkb: Look, I'm really trying to put that behind me. All that overexposure! It really left me badly burned!

ab:  I understand. You were the butt of a lot of jokes for a while.

kkb: Hey, watch it!

ab:  So what would you like to talk about? Any interesting new projects in the works?

kkb: Are you kidding? These days I've been working my....working my.....uh, I don't know how to finish this sentence.

ab:  You mean you've been really busy, right?

kkb: Exactly! Ever since the Huffington Post set up a whole feature page about me, I'm in more demand than ever! People want to know who applies my dresses, what beaches I've been plopping down on, you name it! So I'm working on my newest reality show, "The Ins and Outs of Kim's Butt". And I'm starring in a superhero movie that comes out next year!

ab:  Wow, you are busy! Tell me more about the film! 

kkb:  I'm not supposed to say much, but I will tell you that I'm a super-powered heroine from the moon! I have to stop asteroids from smacking against the earth. I don't know where they get these crazy ideas, tee hee!

ab:  It sounds like it was made for you!

kkb: You think so? Anyway, It's going to be a lot of fun! But you have to see it on the big screen! And in 3-D!

ab: Well, you certainly lead a full life, KK's Butt! Thanks so much for your time. Any last words for your fans?

kkb: Just keep watchin', folks!

ab: Don't worry; we will!


Andy Live

My friend Yasuko took this picture of me singing at a Live Event (hosted by JAMBO International) last month. A very fun night, that!


What Color Is Your Paradise?

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Okay, I suppose it's possible that the reason I am not as happy, rich, famous and world renowned as I could be is that I didn't read "The Secret", the blockbuster bestseller that proved the effectiveness of "The Law of Attraction" for one Rhonda Byne, the author who "magnetized" millions of happiness seekers as purchasers of her book and DVD, by first "giving intent" that Oprah Winfrey would do that thing she does, which is turn self help authors into overnight sensations, such being the "manifestation" power of the Big O.

On the other hand, I DID read a book that, from what I can tell, is nearly identical to it, which came out about ten years earlier than "The Secret". That book was titled, "Excuse Me, Your Life is Waiting!", and it also sold quite well. In it, author Lynn Grabhorn makes the same points that Ms. Byne makes; essentially, everything we could ever desire, including, say, a European sports car right down to make, model and color, is there for the taking if we just feel strongly enough about having it. According to both books, the all important tool to use is "The Law of Attraction", an aspect of this universe that simply can't refuse us anything we want, provided we are so attuned with our desire for it that we have no doubts whatsoever about its arrival, and are able therefore to experience it as if we already have it; in other words, feel it into being.

Well, it seems pretty obvious that this "secret" doesn't work as well as advertised, because if it did, we wouldn't need to have these books pop up in stores every ten years or so, would we? And certainly, no one who bought Ms. Grabhorn's book would have needed to buy the Byne one, right? But, you want to bet some did? Yet there is  an even more glaringly obvious fact of life that makes it clear that there is more to fulfilling our desires than what the two books teach. That being, and correct me if I'm wrong about this, babies don't simply dematerialize their restrainers and fly over to the toy they want to play with. I mean, babies? Certainly they don't have the "negative mindset", the "poverty consciousness" that messes up the smooth functioning of the Law of Attraction for us neurotic adults, do they?  They just got here! If anybody knows how to "feel" strongly enough, it's a baby. He sees that toy, and it's the only thing in the room, in the universe, for him. His eyes light up, his hand reaches out, and then somehow, unfathomably, his hand fails to grasp the longed-for object. Hey, no problem for the baby. He'll just make everything between him and the object disappear, grab the sucker, and then.....still doesn't happen! Now it's time for the poverty consciousness to kick in. The baby wails like life has no meaning, as he sits trapped in his high chair. Poor dear! What could have possibly gone wrong?

Well, it could mean that there IS no "law of attraction". In the first place, calling it a "law"; what is that? Is that meant to make it sound like some scientifically demonstrable universal phenomenon like gravity? Was it called a "law" just because that makes it easier for self help gurus to deceive the gullible?  On the other hand, it could also mean that there is some truth to be found there, that our life experiences do, in fact, tend to mirror our outlook on life, at least in certain ways, but that the authors have just overstated its power. We all know some glass half full types, and glass half empty types. Give each type the same boss, and for the latter, they end up wondering why they "ALLLways have to take orders from such assholes!", while the former often ends up winning the boss over and getting a promotion. On yet another hand (which I am magically manifesting now using this all-powerful tool), it could be something far more, to me, wonderful and mysterious that is happening. And that is that this universe is very complex, and we humans are very complex as well. At any time within our consciousness, all sorts of ideas, memories, patterns, images, etc.  are at play within us as we go through each moment of life. We can't reduce ourselves, the universe, or the results that we experience in our lives to simplistic formulas that fit into a paragraph of gushing, exclamation point-laden prose from a self help author. Would we really want to? Would we want either ourselves, or the universe, to be so flat, so one dimensional? Even if we managed to manifest a Ferrari for each day of the week, would that kind of basic, yes/no, ones and zeroes universe, completely lacking in nuance (both authors liken it to a copy machine) suit our souls?


But then, who am I to judge success? In the New Age world of the self-help movement, a bestseller bestows a great deal of credibility on its author. Since the purpose that compels people to purchase such books is to achieve more in life, the fact that someone does just that, by writing a book and becoming rich and famous, makes them, de facto, a person to be emulated and listened to. A guru. And then, the bonanza begins. The tapes you can listen to in your car.  The workshops and seminars and DVDs.  The crowded auditoriums from Fresno to Jacksonville to Melbourne. The overpriced cruise ship tours to Mykonos and Hawaii in the company of the teacher. As the success trajectory shoots upward, the authors can begin to start wearing white all the time, to have beatific photos of themselves doctored to make it look like they have halos. They must appear to be happy at all times, enlightened beings who show the rest of us how far we still have to go. Their critics can be easily dismissed as being "negative", "not ready to heal" and "still under the spell of poverty consciousness". Poor things, stuck in kindergarten while the newly wise followers of their rich, famous,newly-minted guru prepare to graduate to a form of existence where only benevolence prevails.

And here's the thing. In the New Age, you can write the most outlandish things in order to get that book up there in the Oprahsphere, and hence up the New York Times chart. Because we're talking about, you know, the Universe, it can pay (literally, and handsomely) for the claim to be as outlandish as you can make it. For example, you can claim, as Neale Donald Walsh did, that lil' ol' you had a conversation (actually a whole bunch of conversations) with God! His Conversations With God series has sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages. Mr. Walsh, with his long flowing white beard and impeccably white robes, was obviously so impressed with his conversation partner that he decided to copy His fashion sense! Or, you can claim, as one Gary Renard did in his bestseller, The Disappearance of the Universe, that two attractive "Ascended Masters", one male and one female, just happened to appear in your living room one day, from the future no less, to share with you cosmic wisdom, along with instructions to share it with the remainder of humanity that doesn't  have beings from the future materialize in their living rooms on a regular basis. Maybe they liked his CD collection?

But even those claims fall well short, on the hubris meter, of what I consider to be the most outlandish claims I have ever encountered from any author (I've forgotten his name), in any book, (the title of which escapes me). His book didn't go on to become a bestseller, but I can assure you he was none too disappointed about that. Because, you see, according to the book, this individual has had many incarnations on this earth plane, and was always a king and a leader, even the founder of religions. In order to be coaxed, grudgingly, by his Spirit Guides to incarnate just one more time (this current life) he accepted, on the condition that he "[wouldn't] be worshipped again!" I kid you not. The only other thing I remember about the book (interesting how little of its actual content stayed with me) is a passage that describes him visiting a psychic of considerable power. As she read his energy field, she became increasingly astonished at just who was sitting in front of her, thinking perhaps he may have been one of the Twelve Apostles, and then finally exclaiming to an onlooker that - wait for it - "this guy taught Jesus!"

Such extravagant claims for oneself is an area where the New Age excels, and it is not simply because its adherents are gullible, foolish, and easily misled, although that certainly figures into the equation. More significantly, it is that the New Age is a unique field of human experience, one where the goal is to be as "high" as possible. People who delve into it are seeking, above all else, enlightenment. And it doesn't help to have a lot of "judgment" and "negativity" floating around in your head if that is your goal. New Age authors and teachers are thus able to make use of a loophole that nearly all their followers would, a bit red-facedly, admit to, regardless of how intelligent and thoughtful they are. They want to believe in a world where something as extraordinary and desirable as their own enlightenment is possible; they want to be able to do things with their own minds, and experience things in their own reality that, if not as hard to believe as the claims of the teachers, are nevertheless far outside of our everyday world of frustrations, disappointments and heartbreaks. If they, the followers, feel that being positive, non-judgmental, accepting, etc. is going to put them in the right energetic space to receive the teacher's messages and move closer to that goal of enlightenment, whereas being "negative"; i.e., using their critical thinking skills and God-given bullshit detector, will only serve to keep them stuck in their unenlightened condition, they will feel an internal pressure to choose to approach the material with the former attitude. Suspension of disbelief never had a higher incentive!

Now, it would be all too easy at this point to clutch one's Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan books close to one's chest and say that the whole New Age deal is just one enormous mountain of hokum. That it only exists because certain "memes" about the nature of reality have hardwired themselves into our awareness since long before the Scientific Method was ever developed, and that some very flaky folks with loads of ambition and no problems stretching the truth have decided to exploit those memes for maximum profit and self-aggrandizement. I can certainly understand why people would hold this view. But I, personally, will not go there.

Because despite all the flimflam, all the grandiose claims, all the marketing excess and fallen heroes of the New Age movement (including Rhonda Bynes, who has been sued by some of her earliest collaborators on "The Secret" for not paying  what she owes them), I am convinced, as I am of anything in this world, that the existence of the New Age "movement" (and it should be said that nobody involved in it really thinks of it as such) is attributable not  merely to human gullibility. Rather, it has emerged from mankind's eons-long associations with some very real aspects of this universe, and very powerful ones. I think that people do themselves a disservice, and pay a price for it, either by attempting to turn these universal forces into a hyped-up, dumbed down industry, or by denying them altogether as unscientific woo woo.


If you live in a fairly large city, and you spend any time exploring the New Age community there, you will meet some truly exceptional people. Well educated, intelligent, clear minded, open hearted, fit and youthful, hardly conforming to the stereotype of suckers lining up to buy the latest snake oil. Furthermore, you may note that they are not at all defensive about the low regard with which they are held by the scoffing, science minded, "rational" types whose views adhere to Dawkins and his ilk, and are convinced we are living in an essentially stupid, dead and mechanistic universe. If anything, they are bemused; certainly you won't hear the vitriol that comes from the other side, the pejoratives such as "whack-job", "nutter", "loony", etc. Indeed, one reason for the lack of animosity will be that many of them, perhaps even most of them, have been in a similar state of mind at some point in their lives. Having seen through the baloney of their childhood religions, they went through a period of questioning, doubt and agnosticism that those who scoff at them still inhabit. When one can look at one's own history and recognize that ten or twenty or thirty years ago, one was in precisely the same position as the scoffers, it is hard to feel overly sensitive, or needlessly retaliatory. 

Some among the people you encounter will be practitioners who have trained in, and offer services in, such esoteric "healing modalities" as reiki, psychic reading, feng shui, acupuncture, hypnotherapy, shamanism, channeling, past life trauma work, Rolfing, tarot, crystal, etc., etc. You will hear from people you talk to that some of these healers have extraordinary skills or talents. They may have the ability to see auras, for example, or have experienced numerous out-of-body experiences, and so on (indeed, one of the reasons that New Agers are receptive to the outlandish claims of the megastars of the field is that even in their own circles there are people they admire and trust who have some pretty amazing experiences to tell of). Furthermore, many of these teachers will have achieved a considerable reputation, at least at the local level, and have a following of people who can testify that without question their lives have improved immeasurably by working with them. They wouldn't be paying large, sometimes very large, sums of money for the workshops, one-on-one sessions and so forth unless they were experiencing tangible results. Furthermore, those who visit the teachers and healers are themselves not just spiritual wannabes. Many of them will also have experienced (as I have) truly extraordinary, transformative, revelatory experiences, the kinds which are far too lightly dismissed by science-minded atheists who consider all such things delusional nonsense. 

So it's not that there's no there there. There is.  The problem lies in how, in our commerce-driven world, even the mysteries and powers of the universe end up being corralled into a moneymaking "industry" that doesn't always benefit those who get caught up in it. As someone who has spent a fair amount of time exploring the New Age, I have come to the conclusion that it is indeed very problematic when The Big Questions become Big Business.

We all gotta make a living. That's the way the world is set up, isn't it? But when one has "been to the mountaintop" (i.e., had a numinous experience of some kind), it can seem like a real drag to go on working the same boring job, and continuing to share office space with folks who "just don't get it". It can easily cause you to lose your high. When a spiritual awakening occurs, it doesn't simply find a nice little place to inhabit in the back of your mind. Spiritual awakenings are powerful things, and don't comfortably settle into your consciousness; they tend to blast all the doors and windows open and tear up the lawn! They quickly become the most important thing in your life, and your goal becomes staying in that energy, and moving it forward as much and as quickly as possible. This is not some small, egotistical thing. It is in fact very analogous to the sexual awakening that young people experience, when all of a sudden, family, jobs, studies, etc. fade to insignificance as one's attention fixates almost exclusively on this new, immensely powerful energy in one's life.

It is only natural that when this happens, many people feel a strong urge to change their jobs, to make their work about spirituality and healing, so that they can spend the majority of their time in that energy, commingle with like minded people, and give something valuable of themselves to the world and the universe. This should not be looked down upon as mere vanity or delusion. This is both an appropriate response to the transformation one has experienced and a clear indication that the spiritual energy has begun to put down roots in one's consciousness.

And that's where the problems occur. Because ours is not a society that has the slightest notion what to do about spiritual awakenings. We've barely managed to deal with sexual awakenings! Consequently, all too often what happens is one decides to get "certified" in some special esoteric field so that one can then begin to charge a fee for services of some kind. In some cases, this is a very good thing. There are many reputable schools of alternative healing therapies, any number of really good teachers out there, and lots of genuine healing happening in this world as a result. But there is also a lot of what can only charitably be called dubious in content. There are courses being offered in all sorts of "energies", "mastery courses", courses that teach you how to become a channeler, etc, etc. Often as not, and this should throw up a red flag for anyone, the courses become increasingly more expensive as you move up the ladder and attain different levels of certification, so that you can ultimately go on to become a teacher yourself. This "certification" process has become downright silly. I know of a person who developed a very unique and quite wonderful spiritual dance and movement program, and subsequently started up a "certification course" when she herself had only been doing it for a few years and had only a small following. I'm sure she figured, "hey, why not? It's my program, so I can choose my own way of certifying that others are able to begin teaching it, right?" Well, actually, no. For certification to have any meaning, it clearly must be administered by a body that consists of more than just one person,  and it must involve a discipline that has been well observed and tested, by numerous practitioners, and over a number of years. 

But at least she wasn't selling enlightenment! Seriously, that's what some of these courses do. As you move through their various esoteric courses, each revealing an even more wondrous and mysterious power that the universe withholds from all but a select few, each costing many hundreds, or even thousands of dollars (because, hey, the universe needs to eat too, right?) you will become a "master". Well, whoop de do! While some people blow twenty grand on something  as silly and material as a car, you just went and purchased yourself the same status as the people in the old dusty books! All you need is to go out and find some apostles!

As a result, in the New Age movement, there are thousands of "masters", anywhere from their late twenties to early forties, certified, set up, offering their services, and (at least many of them) working with some very real and powerful energies, and passing these on to paying customers. In a more enlightened society, with a saner approach to the numinous, these young and middle aged people would still be apprentices. They would still be spending years of their lives in discipleship to a true master, who would demonstrate to them as clearly as possible that what they are working with is not something to take lightly, nor to pass on to those who are not able to handle it. There can be consequences, really devastating ones. Furthermore, the work shouldn't essentially be about helping others, to begin with. It should be about self mastery, and then, as a result of that, if one happens to be graced with some healing powers, then these can be offered discriminately, and under the teacher's tutelage. One has to be absolutely clear about one's motivation for becoming a healer, as there is a lot of glamour involved in that term and it is very easy for the ego to reduce one's work to a caricature of true spiritual practice. What is required more than anything is patience, and patience is the first casualty of our crazy, money-centered world.


Several years ago, I experienced a personal tragedy, the suicide of someone I'd known my whole life. This happened in January, shortly after the Indian Ocean tsunami that had wiped out whole villages, and caused the death of upwards of 200,000 people. Those two events, coming so soon one after the other, affected me very strongly, and as a result I was at a very low point in my life. I had been a spiritual practitioner for many years, mostly meditating, but having also participated in various spiritual study groups. I had many friends who were engaged in various esoteric practices. During a get-together at the house of one of these friends, a very lovely, deeply spiritual, woman in her mid-thirties announced that she had something to offer anyone there who was interested. She had just returned from an ashram in India, and while there, had studied with a renowned guru. He had passed on a powerful healing energy to her, and explained that she would be able to pass it through her to others. She had experienced this energy as very beautiful and very healing, and wished for those of us who were willing to experience it as well. Feeling that I needed something to help me shake my blues, I gratefully accepted her offer.

I got into a meditative pose, perched upon a stool, and she held her hand near me as I sat there, eyes closed. Almost immediately, I began to go into a deep trance. I experienced an incredibly blissful energy moving through me. I felt as if I could have stayed there forever. I was aware, vaguely, of all that was going on around me, such as snippets of conversation and so on, but my overriding state was one of absolute bliss that seemed to get deeper and deeper the longer I stayed in it. There was no desire on my part to move myself out of it, so I let my body go stiff as a statue, in that precarious perch on the stool. Other people also received the energy, but no one in the room experienced it as powerfully as I did. Perhaps no one else welcomed it in as deeply as I, because it had been a long time since I had even felt good, much less blissful. Eventually, after perhaps an hour, I had to be nudged, gradually, out of that trance so that I could return to the world of the here and now.

What followed in the subsequent days and weeks was not as wonderful as the feeling that I had experienced that day. Soon afterwards, I began to feel quite strange. My identity seemed to grow more and more precarious. I felt sometimes like I was losing my mind, at other times that I was hollowing out somehow, perhaps even losing my soul. I couldn't explain these feelings to anyone, and tried to hide what was happening. To make a long story short, eventually I fell into a deep and hellish depression. Only after about six months, and after finding the right type of traditional medication, was I able to recover, slowly and agonizingly. 

Now, I can't say for sure what influence, if any, my experience at the party had on the events that followed. Human psychology is very complex, and I am sure that a mixture of many things, most certainly the personal tragedy, the entry into middle age I was experiencing, different problems with work and relationships, etc. contributed to the depression. Furthermore, I cannot say that even if that energy had played a role, that that was necessarily a bad thing, considering my life as a whole. As difficult as that period was, as I recovered new talents and personal qualities began to emerge, seemingly out of nowhere. Before my depression, I couldn't have imagined writing these "visual essays", for example. I am happier now than I have ever been at any time in my life, and it is possible that going through that dark period was exactly what my soul required in order to grow and ripen. Nevertheless, on that day I possessed neither the wisdom nor discernment to know if accepting that very powerful energy at such a vulnerable time in my life was the right choice. I don't think the lady who passed it on to me did either. Without question, her intention was purely altruistic. She simply wanted to freely share something beautiful with her friends, no strings attached. But there was no warning that I may be biting off more than I could chew, either.

I feel this episode reveals that much of what is referred to as the "New Age" is rooted in things that are indeed very powerful, and must be treated with great care and respect. They are not something to be packaged in bright, appealing colors or passed around like a new cake recipe. We occupy a precarious place in the universe, the nature of which we ourselves are quite uncertain about. It is unwise to cavalierly experiment with energies that have been here since before our ancestors wiggled out of their prehistoric lakes and rivers, or to audaciously attempt to fit them into our monetary system and reduce them to mere products to be sold. "The Secret" may be over-hyped nonsense, but The Great Mystery is something else entirely.


Kings and Queens

I am excited to be showing a group of eight of my earlier works, the majority acrylic, with one graphite and one pastel, for a month (October 15th to November 15th) at a great restaurant near ever popular, unabashedly upscale, Roppongi Hills. The restaurant is called Roti, and the Maestress Of Ceremonies is Lauren Shannon : writer, activist, chef, curator, teacher, and probably the busiest person in Tokyo! 
Here is what I wrote about the show for the postcard announcement ( the images shown above are the ones that will appear on it):

The show is called "Kings and Queens", as that is a subject that has long interested me. Whether it be playing cards, fairy tales, medieval tapestries, stained glass, etc. (the influence of all can be seen in this work) these archetypes touch me very deeply. They are not meant to represent worldly  "power over", but rather "power within", as I think that human life is foremost about attaining a higher level of being, and in that sense the royalty and mastery of a king or a queen are personal qualities within us that we should seek to cultivate, and that I wish these paintings to evoke.


Selling Gingerbread

Here we are now, entertain us!

- Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Just look at Bob and Judy, they're happy as can be

inventing situations, putting them on TV

- Talking Heads, "Found A Job"

   About six weeks ago, the world was introduced to its newest superstars. 33 Chilean miners, who would otherwise have passed their entire lives unknown to anyone other than their neighbors and family members (and really, is that so bad?), became trapped in a precious metals mine in the northern part of the country, and instantly became world news. With horror, we learned that the miners were stranded 3 miles below the surface of the earth, and would remain so for anywhere from three to six months. The story, that the world's media purveyors rushed to report on, had it all: heroes - the miners themselves; villains - the heads of the mine company, Empressa Minera San Esteban, which has a shoddy safety record that has resulted in earlier tragedies; suspense, drama, and a setting right out of our scariest nightmares. The world's attention has since moved on, of course, as is its way, although the story of the miners and their ongoing ordeal continues to make headlines in Chile and throughout portions of Latin America. But when their story first made its way onto the airwaves as the-thing-you're-supposed-to-be-fascinated-by-today, and millions of people fixed their attention on it, received updates from breathless reporters and anchormen and women, and contemplated the unimaginable hardship being endured by the new TV stars, I cannot help but muse, ironically, that the thought occurred to many of them, "six months without television? How will they survive?"

   In the midst of the real life drama of the miners, the media had an even more compelling subject to consider - itself. Yes, the 62nd Annual Emmy Awards Ceremony was held with much fanfare, as television, for a brief, but yearly, sliver of time had nothing better to entertain us with than its own greatness. Again, audiences had their heroes and villains, along with suspense that reached a crescendo as millions quivered in their chairs awaiting the news that their favorite celebrities, such as Alec Baldwin of 30 Rock,  and programs such as Mad Men, had prevailed against worthy, or unworthy, adversaries. With the unearned pride that only a fan can understand, they watched their beaming heroes head for the stage to grab that slender little gold plated angel holding the world, or an atom, or whatever that thing is she's holding, and hoist her proudly into the air. The case of Mad Men, and 30 Rock, are particularly revealing. These are shows about mass media. When one chooses to spend a night of one's life being entertained by rooting for an entertainment program about entertainment,then one is being meta-entertained. And no, I do not think this is a good thing.

   As a continually evolving species, perhaps we should now be referred to as "Homo Entertainus". Entertainment, for many, has quite literally become the most important thing in life. I doubt many readers would argue this. I bet we all know at least someone, an elderly aunt or parent perhaps, who turns on the tube first thing in the morning and basically leaves it on until it's time to sleep, to finally give their brains a brief respite from its spell. Their daily schedule revolves around what time shows come on. The only things they seem to enjoy talking about are the programs they watched recently. In all of the long march of human evolution, people like them would have been unthinkable, even unimaginable, up until a very recent period in our history. This is not to put them down, necessarily. I fully understand that for those who are elderly and alone, perhaps unable to get around much, the television and its offerings are nothing less than a savior. I'm just pointing out that, for well over 99% of our existence as a species, such a lifestyle was neither possible nor desirable.

   We are vastly, grotesquely over-entertained, no less so than we are overfed, as a nation. Our Ipods are filled with thousands of songs, our computer's memory is filled with movies, TV shows and sports events, our conversations have become flabby with limitless commenting on films, sitcoms, albums, games, etc. It has become such a large part of our lives that we have ceased to ask, if indeed we ever did, what is the point of all this entertainment? How could it possibly have come to play such a large role in our lives? What does it give us that we can't get in some other way? From our own lives, not fantasies?

   It's been a long road getting here. Perhaps the modern age of entertainment has as its beginning a date in late 1902, when Enrico Caruso's angelic voice was recorded and made available for distribution. For the first time in history, the world's greatest opera singer could be listened to and appraised without traveling to the theater to see him perform. In that instance, every local singer and musician, from opera diva to Mississippi bluesman, was put on notice. The competition just got stiffer, pal. From now on, you're competing against the best the world has to offer.

   Plato, surely one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived, put a lot of thought into the value of art and entertainment. One shudders to think what he would make of the world we live in today. It is like his Republic turned upside down, particularly in terms of entertainment. In his ideal society, plays, musical performances, poetry and pictorial arts were to be strictly censored. They were to show "only the good". Those who created them were to be placed in special colonies outside the metropolis, as their very presence among regular folk was potentially corrupting. Why? First of all, because the very nature of art, as a representation of something, whether an event or a flower, was a further diminishment of the real, the ideal world beyond from which this one arises. A painting of a flower was thus a further removal from reality than the flower itself. Looking at the world around us now, is it not possible to see some wisdom in his apprehension? When people spend as much time talking about their favorite shows with their colleagues at work as they do actually working, when characters in dramas seem as, or more, real to us than the people we share our lives with, have we not perhaps crossed a line the great Athenian warned us about?

   Furthermore, according to Plato, art is intrinsically manipulative. Because of the way it entraps our senses, it wields a power, that can be used for good or evil, to influence us. In his age, when poetry and plays were the chief form of entertainment, retellings and enactments of battles could easily have the effect of stirring up uncontrollable, violent passions, such as emotions of rage and desire for revenge. We take this for granted now; in fact much of our entertainment is built upon generating precisely those emotions, even in the entertainment we create for our children. This would have outraged Plato. He was particularly censorious in his attitude as to how children should be introduced and exposed to the arts. Though many would like to reduce Plato to a caricature, an old fuddy duddy who wanted to control people like some small town city council member in the Bible Belt, the reality was that Plato felt threatened by art in the same way that a great Native American hunter would have felt threatened by a grizzly bear. He himself was a poet, and a great lover of music and all arts. Writing as an artist, and a great one at that, he understood its power as well as anyone in The Age of Pericles, and he felt that the place of art and entertainment in one's life should be limited, and its content controlled by discerning folk.

    "The Circus is coming to town!" In our hyper-entertained world of today, it is hard for us to imagine the excitement that exclamation generated among young and old in the small towns of Europe and  North America, for centuries. For only a few times in one's life, one could be dazzled by the extraordinary skill and strength and bravery of the performers, awestruck at the sight of exotic animals, particularly elephants and giraffes (the "stars" of the animal world during the heyday of the circus industry), and swept up in the spectacle and grandness of the atmosphere. Mothers could be shocked at the costumes the lithe lady acrobats donned, while fathers and sons hid their enthusiasm under pamphlets or boxes of popcorn. When one's life was for the most part a monotonous repetition of the same necessary acts, day in, day out, imagine what an otherworldly diversion these shows must have provided the masses. And today? The circus has been relegated to the furthest fringes of the vast, multi trillion dollar worldwide entertainment industry. Once its sole titan, it now barely registers as a sliver on the Entertainment Market Share pie chart. And to survive at all, it has found it necessary to modernize. The most successful "new circus" in the world today, The Cirque de Soleil of Quebec, has incorporated a story line into its shows, and done away with animals. Where is the shock and awe of seeing an elephant or a giraffe these days, even for children, who can look at them any time they want on their giant TV screens, and can see even more fantastical creatures in movies like Star Wars, Avatar, and the Harry Potter series? And they talk! Though adult viewers were appalled by the Jar Jar Binks character in the 4th Star Wars movie, he (or it) had the kids at hello.

   So, what about the 360-odd days of a year that those country bumpkins had to endure when the circus wasn't in town? Were they deprived? Were they like the Chilean miners, trapped in a world of darkness, without stimulation, without color and spectacle? Of course not. They just had to make their own fun. If they wanted to reenact the circus scenes that had so enchanted them, but were without all the "merchandising" of toys, games, dolls, pajamas, costumes, etc. that modern day entertainment events leave in their wake, they had to make their own toys, out of corncobs, buttons, animal hairs, peach pits, whatever their searching hands could come upon, and their fertile minds could synthesize. The adults were okay as well. When work was done and they felt like treating themselves to entertainment, they had music to listen to - their own, in many cases played on instruments fashioned by their own hands. Sure, the singers didn't sing quite as well as Caruso, and the fiddler was no Paganini, but what did that matter? Likely as not, they had never even heard of Paganini, such was the benighted nature of their plight. But in such a case, ignorance is bliss, because without the multi-billion dollar recording industry pointing out to us just how far short of greatness we mere mortals fall, without it serving up Maria Callas and the Beatles to our hungry ears, what difference does it make if the music is awkward and unprofessional? Making friends and neighbors happy is what it's about, right? Or shouldn't it be? The same with sports. Without the entertainment industry turning folks like Joe Montana, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods into demigods, would folks still have the same incentive to achieve their own, personal best? If anything, even more so, I imagine. Insidiously woven into the world of hyper-entertainment we inhabit today is the message that we, the vast majority of us, are entertainees. Our job is to sit back, absorb, adulate and even worship the output of the well-paid pros who we give large swaths of our lives to.

    I readily concede that in a world as fraught with problems as this one is, railing against the entertainment industry, not for its content but for its pervasiveness, must seem to some like a waste of effort. Why go after our diversion, our culture, our escape? Well, in answer all I can say is that I don't feel comfortable about an industry of diversion and escape becoming such a large part of peoples' lives. It robs us of reality, I feel. It violates my personal belief in the adage, "all things in moderation". It dements our perception to the point that all phenomena is on its way to becoming fused, such that politics is entertainment and war is entertainment and sports is war and the circus has reinvented and reasserted itself resulting in our world now being run by clowns who do and say the most outrageous things to get our attention, and daredevils who take tremendous risks with our money. Many people will tell you with pride that they have unplugged their TVs, that they "hardly ever watch television". But if they are still listening to music for hours each day and catching a movie a week, is that really all that different? As I see it, when one is bored, one has three options. One can just accept being bored. This is not so bad. Being bored can be a good thing. It is not an evil to be clobbered by a gigantic octopus of an industry that has a diversion to offer for each moment of our lives. The second is to be an entertainee. Watch something. Listen to something. Read something. I would say that both of these options have their place, and are roughly equal in my estimation in terms of value. I would hope that would be reflected in the amount of time one spends with either choice. The third choice is to me far more interesting and important and valuable. Create something. By yourself or with somebody else. Write a poem to a lover or sing a song to nature. Deposit something into the Bank of Human Creativity; don't just consume that which others have produced. It doesn't have to be great, what you create; in fact, a disservice has been done to you if you have that expectation. A silly little ditty that you take the time to write and sing can be more valuable to your soul by far than listening to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony for the umpteenth time. I don't think Beethoven would mind, either. He wasn't making music because he wanted to be worshipped long after his death. He made music because it was in him. Just like something is in you, longing to be expressed.