Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Another dentist appointment yesterday. She had to knock me out with nitrous oxide, crank it up a notch or two, numb my mouth, and hit me over the head with a hammer to stop the whining. The poor woman – it's like the Spanish Inquisition every time I go in for a teeth cleaning. I've learned not to wear mascara to my dentist appointments, as it inevitably ends up dripping off my chin and staining my shirt. I've also started covering my wrists and ankles with Vaseline to prevent the leather straps from digging in too deep.
Carol – the dental hygienist– tells me that I have overactive glands. Well, that explains a few things. Apparently that's the reason that I have an epic collection of plaque. I was reminded of the time I was traveling in Turkey, and came across Pamukkale, the site where a mountain has been covered by calcium deposits from its hot springs (see above). Talk about overactive glands. I feel badly that I make Carol swear and sweat, but on the other hand, her arms are looking real buff, so in a way she ought to thank me.
Anyway, about that nitrous oxide. I have a love-hate relationship with it. It shows me things I already know, but don't necessarily need to be reminded of. Everything in the dental office bespoke of life's fragility: The sappy painting of flowers badly framed and hung askew on the wall, the light fixture shining down into my gaping maw, Carol's tray of bloodied torture instruments, and, most persuasively, the droning musak (so fragile!) that assaulted my senses. The extraordinarily tenuous situation in which we find ourselves is hidden behind a thin veil which can be pulled back at any time, but we stubbornly choose not to have a look. Reality is just too frightening. Instead, we wait with fear and trembling for the veil to be yanked back for us (I call this the 'reality peel'), and it always comes as a shock to see what's lurking behind. What's waiting there for us?
Nothing. Emptiness, and within the emptiness, more emptiness. An infinity of emptiness. Hey, don't take my word for it – just ask your light fixtures. Or your fork, or your plasma TV. They'll be only too happy to tell you about life's emptiness, but you have to be willing to listen. Now, that may frighten you. It used to frighten the hell out of me, so I get it if you feel like sticking your head in the oven. (Don't bother - it's electric). But don't be afraid of emptiness. It's your friend. Trust me on this one – emptiness is the best thing that'll ever happen to you. Emptiness is the end of the story that you've been calling your life. Emptiness is the end of the stories that other people have been telling you about your life. When you embrace emptiness, "you", as you've known yourself, will end, and your life will begin in earnest.
So these are some of the things that were revealed to me during yesterday's torture session/reality peel. Make no mistake about it: Life is incredibly delicate. It's amazing that we're still here, or that we were ever here to begin with. It's all so radiantly magnificent, when you stop and think about it.
Above: A snapshot of the inside of my mouth, before yesterday's cleaning. Naw, just kidding; the white stuff is calcium carbonate. Pamukkale is located in the interior of Turkey, toward the south.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
A lovely weekend in my studio. Warm and sunny, with both fans running to keep the air moving through my cell. I made it to chapter 9 in the book of Revelation, a momentous chapter indeed, so I celebrated by removing my hair shirt for a few hours this afternoon. Quasimodo took the weekend off to spend with the wife and kids (being Father's Day and all), so things are a little quiet here at the monastery.
I've been plugging away on my newest piece, "Throne: The Book of Revelation from the Koran". Briefly, for those of you who aren't familiar with my process, I cut up holy books and rearrange them to create the content of other holy books. I'm currently cutting up the Koran letter by letter to create the book of Revelation in its entirety. Hey, it's a living. And believe it or not, it's pretty satisfying work. Downright pleasurable at times.
In spite of what you may think, Revelation isn't exactly the book of levity. It's heavy. Apocalyptic, even. No one really has any idea of what St. John is describing in his prophetic visions, but everyone agrees that the greater part of humanity is going to get royally creamed. How will they meet their end? Well, according to chapter 9, they'll be tortured for five months by locusts that have the body of a horse, the face of a man, the hair of a woman, the teeth of a lion, the sting of a scorpion, breastplates of iron, and crowns of gold. Now, interpretations of this passage vary, but my favorite is Charles Manson's spin, which states that the above is none other than a description of the Beatles. Why not, right? He claimed that they had the long hair, the electric guitars (breastplates), the golden aura (crowns), and the powerful jaw of the lion (their voices). Oh, and they were named after the 'beetle', a close relative (mother-in-law, I believe) of the locust. This deranged interpretation was the basis of Manson's vision, and he claimed that the Beatles' song Helter Skelter prophesied Christ's return in the form of Manson.
So chapter 9 has caused a lot of suffering in the minds of men. It's tragic. No, actually, it's insane. Now, I'm not going to go into the whole interpretation thing here. I know, you're terribly upset and want your money back. Trust me, there's enough end times material on the web to sate all you prophesy sluts, and I don't feel called to add to the heap. But here's the ADD version, for those of you who just gotta have it:
John has a vision and writes it down. God sits on a throne. A book with seven seals is opened, and destruction begins: plagues, earthquakes, sores aplenty, four horsemen, one Anti-Christ, a massive meteor, rivers of blood, demonic armies, and then things get really bad. The battle of Armageddon ensues, but no one can agree on where, how, who, why, and when it's coming down the pike. Before St. John could put his pen down, Bible scholars were arguing about this stuff. Every generation has its candidate for the Anti-Christ: Nero, Roosevelt, Reagan, Obama, and Barney the Dinosaur, to name but a few. (Nope, sorry, I'm not kidding). Other points of disagreement include who will comprise the 144,000 who are spared from the Tribulation, at what point in time the Rapture will take place, and what temperature hell will be, in case one finds oneself roasting therein. And whether that temperature should be read in Fahrenheit or Celsius. (Me, I'm a good ol' Fahrenheit gal).
This stuff could turn you into a nutter. Tragically, legions of people have died because of the book of Revelation. And that's just one book of the Bible; there's the rest of the New Testament and all of the Old Testament to go ballistic over. Many millions have died as a result of their religious convictions, and then millions more for someone else's convictions. Just for kicks, here's a quick breakdown of deaths carried out in the name of God:
Total deaths in the name of Christianity*: 17,000,000
Total deaths of Christians by Muslims**: 9,000,000
Total deaths by Islamic jihad***: 50,000,000
Total deaths due to religious conflict****: 809,215,732 (...or so...)
Pretty sobering, huh? That's roughly 67,000,000 deaths due to Christianity and Islam alone, and these figures are dated, so they don't include recent religion-based massacres. We're talking major carnage, folks. It's a wonder that any of us are still standing, but according to most predictions, we won't be for long. Why bother to pay off my credit cards? And to hell with the gym! Makes me want to buy a big, honkin' plasma TV and start watching reality shows. I find it ironic that the killing is centered around one question: Whose God is better? Which I will answer with a short story:
Two martians were arguing about whose God was the One, Supreme God. The eastern martian claimed that it was Glock, God of the East. The western martian insisted that it was Throck, God of the West. So the Glockian and the Throckian got in a heated discussion, came to blows, knives were pulled, and finally they offed each other. "In the name of Glock!" cried the eastern martian, as he lay dieing. "Power unto Throck!" wailed the western martian, as she heaved her last breath. As their blood spilled onto martian soil, high above, peeking through the clouds, Glock and Throck shook their heads and sighed. "C'mon, buddy," said Glock, patting Throck's shoulder. "Lemme buy you another beer."
Above: There he is, Barney, King of Destruction. Apparently someone played his show backwards, and Satan's voice was heard. Case closed.
* This number includes ancient wars, the Crusades, the Inquistions, various European wars during the Middle Ages, and witchcraft trials, but not WWII, since Hitler's genocide was not purely religi0n-based.
** David B. Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Trends AD 30-AD 2200, William Carey Library, 2001.
*** Raphael Moore, History of Asia Minor.
**** Where religion is both the stated cause of the killing and the only substantive difference between the two opposing groups.
NOTE: These numbers are undoubtedly skewed by the bias of the researcher. For example, accounts vary of the number executed during the Inquisitions, from a mere 800 (Catholic estimates) to a whopping 9,000,000 (Protestant estimates, and this number would have been impossible). The actual number killed in both the Medieval and Spanish Inquisitions is probably around 30,000.
Friday, June 11, 2010
It's always been intriguing to me to check out other peoples' realities. In general, they vary wildly from my own, and thus my interest in what kind of lives other people lead. Most people don't realize, or else they just forget, that they created the life in which they find themselves. The basic assumption is that the guy in the car next to you sees the world in much the same way as you do, and that he'll keep his car between the two painted lines that designate his lane as you barrel down the highway next to him at 80 mph. It's a tenuous little agreement that we take for granted, when in fact the slightest shift of his reality (or steering wheel) could alter yours permanently.
The reality into which I was born was radically different than the one in which I now find myself. How did that happen? A series of subtle shifts over the course of decades, and before you know it, you're in another lane, going in another direction. My experience of the world has changed considerably, thus my reality looks quite different now than when I was in my 20s. And it's likely that my reality is significantly different than yours. Is my red the same as your red? Maybe. Does an apple taste the same to you as it does to me? Probably. Does my brain process things in the same way that yours does? Probably not. And what about values? That's where things start to heat up. Because who we are isn't about how our biological systems are set up; it's about what we value, and how we prioritize the things that matter to us the most.
Aside from the certainty of death and taxes, there are those institutions that we take for granted as essential components of 'reality'. Marriage is one. Faith in God is another. Patriotism, the NFL, and a weekend in the Hamptons also weigh in at some point. We don't spend a lot of time thinking about these things; we tend to follow the path of least resistance and observe the custom, figuring that it's as good as any other.
Unless it's not. If you're Jewish, you're probably not going to walk around spinning a Tibetan prayer wheel. Likewise, a Tantric practitioner would have little use for communion, just as a Presbyterian would not be inclined to practice amaroli. And if the institution of marriage is as relevant for you as the Easter bunny, then you needn't waste your time or money going through the motions. All of these rites are designed not for skeptics, but for those who deeply believe in their value and/or sanctity. There's absolutely no point in participating in a ceremony that you find insignificant.
Unless it's not. It's possible that you can create your own meaning outside of the cultural context. A newly naturalized citizen of the United States may be profoundly moved by singing 'God Bless America', while the rest of us remain dry-eyed and cynical. The NFL is a hoot for me, not because I enjoy football (heck, I don't even know how to play), but because it fascinates me to see how seriously it's taken by the coaches and players. It's like watching a bunch of martians emote and gloat about something terribly absurd, like the size of their ears, or the girth of their antennae.
As for the Hamptons, it sounds mind-numbingly tedious to me. I have visions of a bunch of drunk people swapping business cards with other drunk people, sipping Bloody Marys by a sterilized pool, and performing countless downward dogs in their Prana yoga gear. BUT...it just so happens that I'm going to the Hamptons for the first time this weekend, because my friend has invited me to join her and her kids for a couple of days in their summer home. So within the context of a ritual that I find tedious and hollow, I hope to create some kind of deeper meaning, like maybe work on my tan while contemplating the meaning of a few gin and tonics.
The chances are good that we don't share the same experience of God, but we can at least agree that it's a mystery, and unfathomable, and we're assuredly both wrong about what "it" is anyway, so no reason to get all apocalyptic about it. And patriotism, well, I don't get all weepy in the days leading up to July fourth or anything like that, but I've lived abroad and traveled enough to know that there's no place like America. However, while I deeply appreciate my access to freedoms that citizens from other countries cannot comprehend, I won't be throwing my baton in the parade.
No, I'm a silent participator in cultural rituals. I like to watch people getting married, in the same way that I like to watch the NFL. And when the July fourth fireworks go off here at the Bushwick monastery, I like to look out my cell window and thank God that I'm an American and therefore have the freedom not to participate.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
There's something baffling me that I can't wrap my head around. Apparently Sarah Palin, that wacky conservative gal wonder who just won't go away, is running around the country looking for female politicians to back. No kidding - she's on the hunt. Why? Because if she can find someone really well-respected and smart to stand behind, it makes her look smart. Guilt by association, so to speak.
Of course this is only my theory, but it makes sense. I mean, she'd be pretty daft if she was giving the thumbs up to some white male ultra-conservative evangelical nitwit. She knows to steer clear of Pat Robertson, for example, and you don't hear her mention George Bush so much these days. You have to hand it to Sarah - she's smart enough to know that she's dumb. And she knows that she has to do whatever it takes to convince the country that she's got it goin' on, because she's got her winking eye on the prize for the 2012 presidential campaign, and she knows that no one is keen on having another bonehead for a president. Not that she'll ever get that far, but she doesn't know that. So she's hunting down all the intelligent politicians that will acknowledge her existence, and then offering to lend her name and face to their campaign. This isn't speculation–this is news. She's offering her very public support for these very public women who are about to enter very competitive races. And presumably when Sarah's the presidential candidate, it'll be payback time, and she'll have the endorsements of some extremely powerful women in Washington. You have to admit that it's a clever way to garner support from high-powered politicians and executives who would otherwise remain out of her reach.
Okay, so this is what makes my head hurt: Why in tarnation would someone like California Republican Carly Fiorina, who's running for Senator and is an incredibly intelligent, accomplished, charismatic, and powerful woman, feel that she needs the support of a gun-toting, eye-winking, coma-inducing conservative like Our Sarah? The answer is obvious, right? Carly's lofty (nay, queenly) image wasn't reaching middle-class, conservative women, and she needed chirpy Sarah to give a shout-out that Carly's an okay gal. (Wink, wink). The message is: Don't let Ms. Fiorina's intelligence fool ya, ladies! She may be smart, but she's one of us! And Sarah's giving her the double thumbs up, so there's your endorsement! How's that workin' for ya?
Gad. So it's come to this. This is beyond the dumbing down of America; this is the Great American Lobotomy. This is Karl Rove advising President Obama on his approval ratings. This is Danielle Steele writing a foreword for Salman Rushdie. This is Judas doing a few magic tricks before the sermon on the mount. This is Lindsay Lohan playing Lady Macbeth. This is Joshua Bell doing the opening act for Lady Gaga. This is Renee Fleming singing death rock (oh wait, she really IS singing death rock on her new album...) and James Cameron advising BP on the oil spill clean-up in the Gulf. (Yup, he really is, due to his experience in filming underwater scenes, and his presumed expertise on devastating petroleum overflow. Oh, my aching head....are we really so desperate? Why don't they just call me? I'm equally qualified).
And so on. Surely you get my point. It's a sorry commentary that a brilliant political hopeful is forced to jettison her integrity before she's even in office. Ms. Fiorina's jaw must have been aclench when Our Sarah grabbed her hand and thrust it skyward. What a team! And a fair trade, I suppose: Sarah gets to look smart and Carly gets to look dumb. Major feats for both, and met with equal success.
Well done, ladies! I smell another victory for Barbara Boxer.
Above: There it is, the zillion dollar wink.