Posted: February 24, 2014 Filed under: articles, people, photography
The man on the left has been identified as Robert Johnson, the legendary blues singer and guitarist.
Only two verified photographs of Johnson (1911-1938) existed until now. Eric Clapton once said Johnson was “the most important blues musician who ever lived.” A third, newly cleaned-up and authenticated image has been released by the Johnson estate showing him standing next to musician Johnny Shines.
Work on the photograph began in 2007, when Lois Gibson, who works with the Houston police department, analysed the features of the long-fingered figure holding the guitar. Gibson, who found the identity of the sailor kissing the nurse in the Life magazine photo of Times Square on VJ day during the second World War, said forensic techniques showed a match between this photograph and Johnson’s image in two other photographs, which were previously thought to be all the photographs of Johnson that existed.
Posted: February 19, 2014 Filed under: articles, books, people, states of mind, writing
The estimable The New York Review of Books has reissued William Gass’s On Being Blue, a philosophical romp through moods, colours and much more. Gass is a writer who, one hundred years from now, may emerge as one of the few contemporary writers whose work will enter the American canon. Here’s the NYRB description:
“On Being Blue is about everything blue—sex and sleaze and sadness, among other things—and about everything else. It brings us the world in a word as only William H. Gass, among contemporary American writers, can do.
“Of the colors, blue and green have the greatest emotional range. Sad reds and melancholy yellows are difficult to turn up. Among the ancient elements, blue occurs everywhere: in ice and water, in the flame as purely as in the flower, overhead and inside caves, covering fruit and oozing out of clay. Although green enlivens the earth and mixes in the ocean, and we find it, copperish, in fire; green air, green skies, are rare. Gray and brown are widely distributed, but there are no joyful swatches of either, or any of exuberant black, sullen pink, or acquiescent orange. Blue is therefore most suitable as the color of interior life. Whether slick light sharp high bright thin quick sour new and cool or low deep sweet dark soft slow smooth heavy old and warm: blue moves easily among them all, and all profoundly qualify our states of feeling.”
Posted: February 18, 2014 Filed under: articles
Where is the world heading, and where are the populism and egalitarian mass movements when we need them? Where are the enlightened leaders brave enough to speak the truth? Has Big Money forever silenced people who would stand up for the poor and underprivileged?
Where is the outrage of the masses? What will it take to turn governments around so that the elected leaders will represent the majority of people instead of a minuscule minority who have money? Tax them, tax them, tax them and let’s recalibrate our elected representatives to stand up for common sense and fairness. What’s going on in most of the world’s developed countries is economic rape.
Just 1 percent of the world’s population controls nearly half of the planet’s wealth, according to a new study published by Oxfam ahead of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting.
The study says the 85 richest people control $110 trillion, or 65 times the total wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion people.
Other key findings:
— The world’s 85 richest people own as much as the poorest 50 percent of humanity.
— 70 percent of the world’s people live in a country where income inequality has increased in the past three decades.
— In the U.S., where the gap between rich and poor has grown at a faster rate than any other developed country, the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of post-recession growth (since 2009), while 90 percent of Americans became poorer.
“Oxfam is concerned that, left unchecked, the effects are potentially immutable, and will lead to ‘opportunity capture’ — in which the lowest tax rates, the best education, and the best healthcare are claimed by the children of the rich,” the relief agency writes.
Support Oxfam, which works for economic fairness and justice throughout the world.
Posted: February 6, 2014 Filed under: articles, interviews, people, states of mind
The Edge, an idea-oriented collective of innovators and thinkers, has a new issue here.
It includes a 9,000-word interview with Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine. Kelly ranges across the future of technology, the good and the bad. He says technology is “telling me” it wants to track. I immediately nodded my head, and thought, “We are technology,” and we’re telling ourselves we want to track. Why, for more reasons that we can imagine, and I hope, on balance, it will be a positive phenomenon, and I hope I’m not being characteristically positive here.
Normal computer tracking capabilities (built into the Internet/computer system) and government surveillance are two separate issues, and each will require different answers and regulations to make them work positively within society.
Here’s Kelly on technology and tracking:
“How far will we share, when are we going to stop sharing, and how far are we going to allow ourselves to monitor and surveil each other in kind of a coveillance? I believe that there’s no end to how much we can track each other—how far we’re going to self-track, how much we’re going to allow companies to track us—so I find it really difficult to believe that there’s going to be a limit to this, and to try to imagine this world in which we are being self-tracked and co-tracked and tracked by governments, and yet accepting of that, is really hard to imagine.
“…How does this work? How can we have a world in which we are all watching each other, and everybody feels happy? I don’t see any counter force to the forces of surveillance and self-tracking, so I’m trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched. What the Internet does is track, just like what the Internet does is to copy, and you can’t stop copying. You have to go with the copies flowing, and I think the same thing about this technology. It’s suggesting that it wants to monitor, it wants to track, and that you really can’t stop the tracking. So maybe what we have to do is work with this tracking—try to bring symmetry or have areas where there’s no tracking in a temporary basis. I don’t know, but this is the question I’m asking myself: how are we going to live in a world of ubiquitous tracking?
“I call myself a protopian, not a utopian. I believe in progress in an incremental way where every year it’s better than the year before but not by very much—just a micro amount. I don’t believe in utopia where there’s any kind of a world without problems brought on by technology. Every new technology creates almost as many problems that it solves. For most people that statement would suggest that technology is kind of a wash. It’s kind of neutral, because if you’re creating as many problems as it solves, then it’s a 50/50 wash, but the difference in my protopian view versus, say, a neutral view is that all these new technologies bring new possibilities that did not exist before, including the new possibility of doing harm versus good.
“One way to think about this is if you imagine the very first tool made, say, a stone hammer. That stone hammer could be used to kill somebody, or it could be used to make a structure, but before that stone hammer became a tool, that possibility of making that choice did not exist. Technology is continually giving us ways to do harm and to do well; it’s amplifying both. It’s amplifying our power to do well and our power to do harm, but the fact that we also have a new choice each time is a new good. That, in itself, is an unalloyed good—the fact that we have another choice and that additional choice tips that balance in one direction towards a net good. So you have the power to do evil expanded. You have the power to do good expanded. You think that’s a wash. In fact, we now have a choice that we did not have before, and that tips it very, very slightly in the category of the sum of good. …”
Personally, I want to be optimistic, like Kelly, and see tracking, in spite of the current cultural dread, as becoming a force for positive good in culture and society. On balance, I want to believe it will somehow expand our possibilities for change that is good even though we can’t envision that at this moment – how that will take place. To do otherwise, is to fall into the Big Brother trap. It’s not that simple, and we shouldn’t reduce tracking to a dangerous rubric or else we help to create Big Brother rather than to see this as a technological moment which moves us into a new future that carries with it all the possibilities of good and bad, just as technology has done throughout history.
That said, the tracking issue demands some immediate innovative codifications of principles that offer people choices, some protections, and some control over unbridled tracking. This need, of course, will be on-going in order to keep up with technology.
The challenge is on the par with the long road of codifying democratic and human rights principles. It will take a lot of seriousness of purpose, work and time.
Posted: January 10, 2014 Filed under: articles, buddhism, people, states of mind, writing
Red Pine hitching a ride in China. Photograph by Ted Burger
Red Pine’s probing and understanding of the major Buddhist sutras: The Heart Sutra, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, The Diamond Sutra and, the latest, The Lankavatara Sutra, in addition to his earlier translation and commentary on The Tao Te Ching continue to deepen. With each translation his commentaries have grown more profound, especially on how all the sutras, taken together, form a whole, offering an approach to the difficult metaphysics that bewitch people looking for the answer to life’s riddles.
Red Pine’s latest commentary on the Lankavatara Sutra is a good example of how he draws all the sutras together. For instance:
“Buddhism is concerned with suffering, which is the inevitable result of desire. But the real issue is the self, which is the cause of the desire, which is the cause of the suffering. In the centuries following the Buddha’s Nirvana, instructions centered around a trio of concepts designed to focus attention in such a way that the nonexistence of the self would become evident and the liberation from suffering would follow. These included the five skandas (form, sensation, perception, memory and consciousness), the twelve ayatanas (six powers and six domains of sensations), and the eighteen dhatus (the ayatanas with the addition of six forms of consciousness). These were three views of the same thing: our mind.
The were simply different ways of dividing any given moment of awareness into a manageable matrix to demonstrate to anyone willing to wander around these matrices that they contained the universe of our awareness, its inside and its outside, and yet they contained no self. This was their function: to show practitioners that there was no self.
While these three schemes dealt with the problem of the self, they didn’t help explain how we become attached to a self in the first place, and how we go from attachment to detachment to liberation. Hence, to these were added three more schemes, all of which play a much larger role in the Lankavatara Sutra than the previous trio. The three new schemes are the five dharmas, the three modes of reality, and the eight forms of consciousness.
The five dharmas divide our world into name, appearance, projection, correction knowledge and suchness. The three modes of reality do the same thing with imagined reality, dependent reality, and perfected reality; and the eight forms of consciousness include the five forms of sensory consciousness, conceptual consciousness, the will or self-consciousness, and an eighth form known as repository consciousness, where the seeds from our previous thoughts, words and deeds are stored and from which they sprout and grow.
As with earlier trios of concepts, these were designed to account for our awareness without introducing the self. But they had the advantage of also providing a look at how our worlds of self-delusion and self-liberation come about, how enlightenment works, how we go from projection of name and appearance to correct knowledge of suchness, how we go from an imagined reality to a perfected reality, how we transform our eightfold consciousness into Buddhahood.
….But then the Lankavatara Sutra sets all these schemes aside in the interest of urging us to taste the tea for ourselves….Cup of tea or not, no one said it was going to be easy…”
He goes on to explain how the Lankavatara confounded his understanding for 35 years. Everyone’s approach may differ, but a good step would be to try the sutras in a sequence such as this: the Tao Te Ching, The Heart Sutra, The Platform Sutra, The Diamond Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra.
Good advice from someone whose life has been devoted to translating these sutras to deepen his own understanding and wisdom.
Also, as his wisdom – and his humor – ripen, he becomes more humble. The mark of a good teacher…
Posted: January 7, 2014 Filed under: articles, buddhism, people
Bill Porter, aka Red Pine, has a new book scheduled to be released in February 2014, titled Yellow River Odyssey. It’s a collection of photographs and recollections of a trip along the river when China was just beginning to open up in small ways. The book is published by a great, small publisher called Chin Music Press based in Seattle. It is a bestseller in China, where it was first published.
I’ve also just come across a fan Facebook page for Porter, which you can see here.
Here’s the Amazon blurb on the book: “Bill Porter follows the Yellow River, the world’s sixth longest river, from its mouth to its source high in the Tibetan Plateau, a journey of more than three thousand miles through nine Chinese provinces. The trip takes the master translator into what was once the cradle of Chinese civilization and to the hometowns and graves of key historical figures such as Confucius, Mencius, Lao-tzu, and Chuang-tzu. Porter’s depth of knowledge of Chinese history and culture is unparalleled. Yellow River Odyssey, already a bestseller in China, reveals a complex, fascinating, contradictory country. Porter masterfully digs beneath China’s present-day materialism and the deep wounds of the Cultural Revolution to get at the roots of Chinese culture.”
Posted: January 5, 2014 Filed under: articles, buddhism, people, poetry, writing
I looked for Roxy Gordon’s website today, and couldn’t find it. I’ve written his wife, Judy, for more information. I still can’t write about Roxy, who’s dead and buried outside of Talpa, Texas, near his “house up” home/campsite in West Texas. It’s one of those small, flat-top hills with the mesquite-desert spaces in between. Roxy was a writer-artist-musician-poet. Even more important, he had what Indians call medicine. People in Asia would say he was a man of The Way. He knew some things.
Here’s a link to Smaller Circles, his poem/talking word song (also the title for a book of poetry).
Here’s a poem/talking word song Indians.
Here’s a story written upon his death by a Dallas friend.
Roxy Gordon, Dallas, circa 1980s
Posted: January 2, 2014 Filed under: articles, books, people, reviews
Back in business…it’s been a while since I last posted. What’s happened? A lot and not enough. I finished The House of No Mind, my travel-memoir, tried to get an agent/publisher, etc., and hit the “No go” sign, which wasn’t a good way to end the Fall season but there it is. I like the book, but you know the story. I had a range of feedback, but no takers. I don’t have the energy or the brilliant idea right now about what to do to make it work (other than find an agent/publisher who would take it on as is…), so I’ll let it rest for now and come back to it later. If you know of a good small press that might like a vivid travel/memoir that ranges across Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, drop me a line.
Meanwhile, I’ve read a score of books in the past six months. Right now I’ll mention only one: Philip Larkin’s Jazz Writings. It’s a great education on the transition from the old-time jazz to the modern jazz that most people know today. The great Louis Armstrong is the key symbol of the transition (and a Larkin idol). Of course, he was one of the original giants, but his great experimentation, freshness and techne was left behind as he slipped into the image that become the later day, worldwide icon for American jazz. Larkin knew his jazz, and he couldn’t comfortably ride the Coltrane/Davis/et al dominance over older, original masters who created the art form (and languished in later life, forgotten). The moderns essentially took jazz to more abstract levels with greater individuality. But the crazy spontaneity that Larkin cherished had disappeared: the feeling that makes you tap your feet and snap your fingers when a big jazz band or ensemble cranks it up.
Check out these tunes on Youtube, one slow and one fast.
If you have one hour, listen to this compilation track featuring Armstrong with notables such as Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and others. Rare and wonderful…
Posted: May 26, 2013 Filed under: articles, books, people
Here is a revealing birthday profile of M.H. Abrams, who turned 100 years old, peer of Lionel Trilling, teacher of Harold Bloom, and editor of the Norton Anthology. The article, here, appeared in The Tablet.
A quote from the article by Adam Kirsch:
“What he demonstrates in The Mirror and the Lamp is that the intellectual lenses through which we understand the world and ourselves are always changing; what he shows in Natural Supernaturalism is that our deep longings for transformation and redemption are constant. The combination of these two insights naturally leads to a certain tolerance, a forgiving kind of relativism, when it comes to ideas and theories, none of which is allowed to have a monopoly on truth.”
Posted: December 17, 2012 Filed under: articles, people, places
By Roy Hamric
This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe in 2007.
MAE SALONG, Thailand – Uncle Soo, sporting a San Francisco Giants cap and a frayed US Army field jacket, sat on a wood stump at his neatly arranged desk. A classic Chinese herbal doctor, he has his pharmacy of plants, herbs and roots arrayed on the concrete floor in plastic bags.
He carefully poured me a cup of green tea, as puffs of white smoke spiraled around his head from the thin, brown cheroot dangling from his lip. Yellowed pages of old newspapers glued to the interior walls of the shop covered open spaces between the wooden planks.
“Green tea was one of the first medicines in old China,” he said. “Opium is a medicine, too, to heal pain.”
When talking about tea or opium, Soo, 91, is an expert. He served as an herbal doctor in the Kuomintang’s 39th Regiment shortly after it had retreated into Burma in 1949 following General Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat and exile. The battle-hardened Chinese carved out a fiefdom in the rugged mountains of Burma’s Shan State near the Thailand border and the regiment soon cornered a large portion of the poppy growing trade.
Led by General Ma Tuan, the army moved its base here in 1961, and the soldiers and their families created a Chinese way of life along this 3,800-foot mountain ridge. With more than 80 inches of rain a year, humid days and cool nights, the mountains provided a perfect location for tea plantations. By the 1980s, the community’s involvement in opium had subsided and almost all the Chinese in Mae Salong cultivated tea plants, which now cover the surrounding hills, or they operate businesses devoted to tea.
Fortified with the lingering taste of Soo’s green tea, I walked out to the main road in search of the real reason I had come here: to taste the town’s specialty, fine oolong tea. I wanted to learn how to appreciate fine tea, and this was the place to do it.
Today, the town has about 10,000 residents, and almost all the shops have something to do with tea: processing, tasting, selling, or promoting it. Some are elaborate, open-air structures devoted to a Zen-like presentation of the drink. Others are tiny street stalls with a single counter.
Of the many teas grown here, oolong, or Camellia sinensis, is a favorite variety that connoisseurs compare to fine wine. Seedlings were brought here from Taiwan decades ago. With some of the finest tea in Asia, the village, though remote, attracts hardy tea lovers who love the village rhythm, the nearby hill tribes and the mountain atmosphere.
I walked down the main road where Chinese characters on shop signs outnumber Thai script. As the Lisu and Mong traders began filling up the town’s market, the village felt more like China than Thailand.
I spotted a nondescript tea shop with only two wood tables and a few squat stools. A picture of the Great Wall of China adorned one wall. An elderly lady, her hair neatly pulled back in a bun, said in broken English her name was Madame Ming, and she offered to give me a short course in tea tasting.
“What kind of tea do you like?” she asked.
“There are many varieties,” she said, smiling. “What kind?”
“Please serve the one you like best,” I said.
She opened a plastic bag bulging with tea buds.
“Oolong has been used as a medicine for thousands of years,” she said, selecting three or four small buds. “Tea stimulates blood circulation and calms the mind.”
In scientific terms, it’s all about polyphenols and catechins, organic chemicals found in all tea leaves. The trick is how much oxidation to allow in the processing.
Silently, Ming prepared a pot of tea, pouring hot water into a small, unglazed, clay teapot. Such pots are said to improve with age and bring out the flavor in the leaves. After it had steeped for a few minutes, she poured the tea through a fine strainer into two cups. Then she picked one up and motioned for me to do the same, all the while inhaling the aroma.
It was Dong Fang Mei Ren, or Oriental Beauty oolong tea, which she said she saved for special occasions. Its color, light red, is one of its gifts.
With the first sip, it was as if I had never tasted tea before. There were hints of honey, peaches, and oranges on my tongue. I sought the flavors again with each sip, smiling at Ming in appreciation.
The tea’s color, its smell and its flavor signaled subtle pleasures. Each demanded attention and anticipation, or they passed unnoticed. It was another lesson in how to live – and how to travel.