31 October 2012

Halloween Street Art

"Frankenstein & His Bride," Barcelona. Work by Sav45, Ros, Oiter, and Undos
      Happy Halloween! Happy Samhain! Feliz Dia de los Muertos!

28 October 2012

Books for Into the Wild Fans

Books for Into the Wild fans, Chris McCandless, Into the Wild book, Into the Wild summary, Into the wild notes, Into the Wild film, Quotes from Into the Wild, Chris McCandless, McCandless Chris, Quotes Into the Wild, Everett Ruess, Into the Wild, Jack Kerouac, Jon Krakauer, krakauer jon, Thoreau, Walden,
Since Into the Wild is one of my favorite books of all time, I'm always on the lookout for related reading. Here's a list for Into the Wild fans, which includes several titles from Chris McCandless' personal library. Aside from Walden (of course!), my favorite among these is The Other, by David Guterson. But you can't go too far wrong with any of them.

Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer, by David Roberts
With a foreword by Krakauer, this book traces the life of another rugged individualist, a writer and artist who mysteriously disappeared in the Utah desert in the 1930s.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
A well-written account of an inexperienced hiker who undertakes the PCT to gain some perspective on her life. She's not Chris, but she does have an interesting story to tell. I've reviewed this at: http://utzling.blogspot.com/2012/05/cheryl-strayeds-walk-on-wild-side.html

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert
An earlier book by the author of Eat, Pray, Love, this is the story of Eustace Conway, who moves out of suburbia and into the wilds of Appalachia as a teenager to live as a mountain man.

The Other, by David Guterson
From the author of Snow Falling on Cedars, this is a beautifully written fictional account of two best friends, one of whom is a quirky eccentric who leaves behind his wealthy family to live alone in a cabin in the back country of the Pacific Northwest.
More at:

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson
Amusing account of AT thru-hikers and history of the trail itself.

Into the Wild book, Into the Wild summary, Into the wild notes, Into the Wild film, Quotes from Into the Wild, Chris McCandless, McCandless Chris, Quotes Into the Wild, Everett Ruess, Into the Wild, Jack Kerouac, Jon Krakauer, krakauer jon, Thoreau, Walden,
Walden or Life in the Woods (unabridged & annotated), by Henry David Thoreau
THE place to start reading, if you haven't already.

Wilderness and the American Mind, by Roderick Nash
Delving into Americans' attitudes about the idea of nature throughout history, this 1967 book influenced the environmental movement.

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
Three seasons as a park ranger in southern Utah. Abbey is feistier and more political than McCandless.

Coming into the Country, by John McPhee
Well-written, literary account of Alaska and Alaskans

Books for Into the Wild fans, Chris McCandless, Into the Wild book, Into the Wild summary, Into the wild notes, Into the Wild film, Quotes from Into the Wild, Chris McCandless, McCandless Chris, Quotes Into the Wild, Everett Ruess, Into the Wild, Jack Kerouac, Jon Krakauer, krakauer jon, Thoreau, Walden,
Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout,  by Philip Connors
Poetically written book about a man who spent a decade as a fire lookout in NM and other "freaks on the peaks."

Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains, by Jon Krakauer
His first book. Articles and essays about mountaineers and rock-climbers, and what motivates them.

The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears, by Nick Jans
The controversial subject of the fascinating Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, who lived beside grizzlies for 13 years...until he didn't...

The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen
Excellent, thought-provoking bio of a man who's spent 12 years dwelling in a cave in Utah, reflecting deeply on life's big questions while living without coin.
More at:

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
The last book McCandless read. His highlighted passages appear in Into the Wild.

Books for Into the Wild fans, Chris McCandless, Into the Wild book, Into the Wild summary, Into the wild notes, Into the Wild film, Quotes from Into the Wild, Chris McCandless, McCandless Chris, Quotes Into the Wild, Everett Ruess, Into the Wild, Jack Kerouac, Jon Krakauer, krakauer jon, Thoreau, Walden,
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
McCandless was unquestionably influenced by Jack London. This classic is one of several London books he was known to have read.

Education of a Wandering Man, by Louis L'Amour
The famed Western writer's unfinished memoir of globetrotting during the 1930s. McCandless tore the final page from it, which quotes a Robinson Jeffers poem.

One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, by Sam Keith
Keith’s 1973 book about Richard Proenneke, who exited the rat race in 1968 to go live in the Alaska wilderness, in a cabin he made completely by hand, by himself, for $40. It's more descriptive than deep. I actually enjoyed the Alone in the Wilderness DVD version more.

On the Road / The Dharma Bums / The Subterraneans, by Jack Kerouac
McCandless was known to have read Kerouac. I'm going to take a not-so-wild guess that he polished off at least one of these in his voracious reading.

The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, by W.H. Davies
Another known influence on McCandless was this famed Welsh writer/poet, who tramped around the world for a significant portion of his life. This book covers his time hoboing in the UK and US in the 1890s.

Back to the Wild, by Christopher McCandless
Original photographs, postcards, and journal entries from his travels. I have not been able to get my hands on a copy of this (it's out of stock on Amazon), so can't vouch for it, but sounds great.

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Other titles you'd like to add? Please leave comments. I'm always interested in eccentrics and iconoclasts who took to the wilds.

Looking for an Into the Wild tattoo? Check out some samples of skin art at http://utzling.blogspot.com/2011/03/into-wild-skin-art.html 

19 October 2012

Can Technology Cure Our Loneliness? A Buddhist View

Several weeks ago I attended an event billed as a “block party.” Part of the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) conference, it was themed “The Machine Wilderness.” “Re-envisioning art, technology, and nature” is just my thing, so I entered the stretch of cordoned-off street ready to engage with like-minded people and hopefully make a few new connections. Indeed, lots of art and some interesting installations sat on display, along with people evoking discordant sounds from odd instrument hybrids that made me long for John Cage’s composition 4’33”. As I walked around, feeling open to conversation, no one spoke to me or even met my eye. The crowd felt like monads drifting in space. Eerie. Just about everyone held a camera or smart phone, and most were so hellbent on documenting the event that they barely even participated in it.

ISEA 2012 Machine Wilderness Conference Robot Birds
Machine Wilderness robo-birds. They paid more attention to me than anyone else...
You could almost hear them plotting their Facebook or blog entry about all the whiz-bang art they were cool enough to be seeing. And despite our physical proximity, no one was present. Perhaps presence wasn’t the point. Perhaps the point was to be seen as someone who attends an ISEA conference. This wasn’t a block party, it was a blocked party. 

And thus we return to one of the core questions of the day: are our online lives bringing us closer or making us feel more isolated? Last summer Stephen Marche wrote an Atlantic magazine cover story, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?,” in which he made a number of trenchant observations about the effects of social media on our lives and psychological well-being.

But the most fascinating insights I’ve found have come from researcher Sherry Turkle, founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, who’s authored a trio of books about human relationships with digital technology (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet). In her books and TED talks, Turkle asks some critically important questions about how we are employing our devices to mediate--and avoid--our immediate reality. E.g., how are we increasingly using technology to avoid being present with ourselves and our oft-messy emotions?

Sherry Turkle, MIT, Alone Together, The Second Self, Life on the Screen
Sherry Turkle, talkin' TED
Turkle, a clinical psychologist, argues that some of the loneliness people are feeling actually derives from a lack of practice at being spending time with ourselves. While we sometimes use technology as a defense mechanism, to shield us from our vulnerability and fear of intimacy, it can backfire. She asserts that we need to develop a solid foundation in self-intimacy before we can give ourselves to others in healthy ways. Thus, texting or using social media doesn’t allow us to acquire the skills we need to stand on our own two feet. Using others to prop up a fragile sense of self becomes a seductive loop we enter instead of burrowing inward to discover our own truths.

The thing is that many people fear solitude, even for a few minutes. As Turkle notes, “Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved.” This is where technology provides a convenient babysitting service. It’s a whole lot easier to relieve our distress by jumping online and distracting ourselves than it is to do the hard work of sitting silently with our angst and getting to the root of it. This is where meditators have a big advantage. Our ability to walk unflinchingly through the corridors of our own minds makes us less afraid. We know what’s there. We understand that mind states come and go like clouds. Our minds are not phantoms in the attic, but old friends we know well. Emotions are not to be feared, but understood.

Turkle speaks in purely secular terms, but from a Buddhist perspective, the question becomes more about presence and attention. Turkle refers to people’s feeling entitled to choose where they put their attention. Thus, they feel perfectly warranted in using their phone in every situation--even during a funeral. Despite being deeply disrespectful to everyone around them (and bifurcating their own emotional process), using a device enables them to pay attention to whatever they deem most interesting. The spiritual problem here is that our human experience is not meant to be cherry-picked. In this bardo of waking life, all kinds of phenomena come our way, many of them not so pleasant. A Buddhist might argue that the reason we chose to incarnate was to experience all of life’s flavors, so that we could one day benefit others with our experience and compassion, as a Bodhisattva. When we shut off that experience by using a personal device as a bullet-proof vest, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to be fully alive.

 I can still remember one of the most checked-out sights I’ve ever seen. It was the spring of 1999, and my girlfriend and I were on vacation, enjoying brunch at a tony LA restaurant. Glancing over to the next table, I saw 6 well-dressed women gathered together, ostensibly preparing to share a meal. Within a few minutes of being seated, every woman had whipped out her cell phone and was chattering away with someone not in the room. At the time, most people in our home town did not own cell phones, and I looked at these women as if they were utterly crazy. Why would you want to call someone else when you had 5 friends and a fancy meal right in front of you? Today I still can’t answer that question. And yes, despite the ubiquity of digital devices, it still seems more than a little crazy.

 I also can’t get used to modern family life, which may include parents emailing and texting during family meals or a child’s baseball or recital, while their kids mimic them by walling themselves off with their own devices. What Turkle dubs “alone together” behavior cheats us out of the preciousness of family time and all that is learned in its conversations and shared experience. And while these can be painful at times, isn’t enduring challenging situations part of our growth as human beings? If we constantly outsource such pain to an electronic device, not allowing ourselves to develop muscles essential to being human, aren’t we missing one of the key points of being alive?

 All of this shutting out places us in a precarious position: we’re both lonely and frightened to death of intimacy. We want to have in-person conversations, but if they veer off in unpredictable directions, we can’t control our reactions as we can when using email or text. Kids are especially unnerved about this prospect. And thus, fear makes us settle. We settle for relating with avatars in cyberspace. We settle for engaging with everyone else’s highly mediated selves, while we struggle to mediate our own on a daily (or hourly) basis, much more so than we were ever asked to do in the past. And so we become holograms at play with other holograms, preening our pixels and wondering why we feel empty and alone, malnourished at our emotional and spiritual core.

A digital pool for Narcissus. ISEA Conference.
This quandary also involves the notions of acceptance and equanimity. Are we truly able to accept our lives, who we are and where we are? Or must we be constantly escaping, attempting to manufacture fictions that trick us into believing things are something other than they really are. Social media is Narcissus’ largest pool, allowing us to present to millions the self as we want it to be and imbue ourselves with characteristics we may lack. Never mind that Narcissus’ name means “sleep” or “numbness.” I recently heard about an app that will take an average woman’s photo and turn it into someone with a tiny waist and huge breasts, specifically to impress friends on Facebook.

We also seem to have lost the sense of what it means to be present in our own lives. In a recent NPR story about Facebook's mobile app, emarketer.com analyst Debra Williamson spoke about how she checks Facebook when standing on line. "That's my own personal time to get caught up in the world around me," she noted. Really? Has Facebook become "the world" we need to be present with? What would happen if she simply stood on line and took in the human life that is quite literally surrounding her?

With popular sites like Second Life, we can even create entirely new identities and existences for ourselves and dwell in them as many hours of the day as we’d like. Before the Internet, such behavior would have been equated with addiction, nodding off into a land of illusion. Today it’s been awarded a certain legitimacy for being online. Sure, escapism has its place, as a way to relax and unwind. But if we’re on a path of conscious living, a little goes a long way. Some would say that this falls under the advice of the fifth precept: avoid intoxicants that cloud the mind.

As the Buddha taught, life is inherently uncomfortable. We may try to deny or outrun dukkha, but eventually it catches up with us. While we relish the fantasy of the loner who needs no one, the eternal bachelor who never experiences the pain of a breakup, the addict who avoids her pain courtesy of work or meth, these strategies ultimately fail. As animals, we all need each other. As humans, we all experience suffering. Erecting a technological smokescreen may seem like a clever fix, but what happens when hiding behind it no longer works?

Digital technology is perhaps a more seductive medium than we’ve ever experienced. It’s revolutionized our world in a way that makes some of us want to jack in constantly and others want to become Luddites. But Buddhism being about the middle path, how do we use it to benefit us judiciously? Because digital technology is still in its infancy, we are still learning how to synch our cyberlives with 3-D reality. But, as with any other medium, we need to approach it with consciousness and balance. Spending all of one’s time in front of a screen simply isn’t healthy. We need to put ourselves in the company of real people so we remember how to relate with them.

For those who spend copious time before a screen, it’s also important to simply recognize when you’re in nonvirtual space and acknowledge fellow humans in human ways. To be aware that, despite our virtual walls, many people these days are lonely and would welcome even brief connection. Families need to find a way to share cell-free time with each other every day. And of course it’s important to respect our neighbors who are trying to be present with the experience they’re having and don’t wish to be distracted by the noise and light devices create. Funerals and wedding ceremonies are sacred space; you gain a whole lot more from simply witnessing and feeling them than a circuit board could ever provide.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/308930/ http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together.html http://alonetogetherbook.com/ http://www.npr.org/2012/10/18/163098594/in-constant-digital-contact-we-feel-alone-together

07 October 2012

Literary Graffiti: Go Rimbaud!

Street art Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud Paris, Rimbaud art, Graffiti Rimbaud, literary graffiti
Blvd Raspail, Paris, 2009, by PedrĂ´
Arthur Rimbaud has no followers, according to Flickr. We beg to differ.

Street art Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud Paris, Rimbaud art, Graffiti Rimbaud, literary graffiti
More by Pedro. Paris. Photo: Chrixcel.

Street art Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud Paris, Rimbaud art, Graffiti Rimbaud, literary graffiti
"Love is to be reinvented..." (A Season in Hell, 1873).
Sceaux, Paris. Photo: Metro Centric.

Street art Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud Paris, Rimbaud art, Graffiti Rimbaud, literary graffiti

Street art Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud Paris, Rimbaud art, Graffiti Rimbaud, literary graffiti
"Oh arthur arthur. we are in Abyssinia Aden, making love smoking cigarettes, we kiss, but its much more, azure, blue pool, oil slick lake, sensations telescope, animate, crystalline gulf, balls of colored glass exploding, seam of berber tent splitting, openings, open as a cave, open wider, total surrender." -“Dream of Rimbaud,” Patti Smith, Witt

Street art Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud Paris, Rimbaud art, Graffiti Rimbaud, literary graffiti
Graf by NiceArt. Photo: Urbanhearts, Eric Marechal.

Photo: Philippe Gillotte

“I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple; Garlands from window to window; Golden chains from star to star ... And I dance.”  -Rimbaud, Complete Works

"I will not speak, I will not think a thing,
Yet infinite love will rise up into me.
Far, far I will wander like a vagabond
In Nature like a woman's company."

                          -Rimbaud, "Sensation"

05 October 2012

Mitt Romney Grounds Big Bird: It Takes a Tough Man to Fire a Tender, Fictional Chicken

Mitt Romney, Big Bird, Sesame Street, Muppets, Romney debate, Romney campaign, Romney PBS
In his well-rehearsed litany of vagueness and lies, Mitt Romney chose to get specific and truthful about one thing during Wednesday night’s debate: his willingness to fricassee Big Bird from Sesame Street.

I’m not sure why Republicans are so dense about human emotion, but apparently Mitt believed that skewering America’s avian sweetheart would win him street cred for being tough on “frills.” What this guy is too obtuse to realize is that, like the infamous 47% comment, this was a statement that would instantly alienate hordes of potential voters. He might as well have told us that he killed Bambi’s mother. ("Damn right I did. Hate that bitch. And her crack babies. One less doe living off entitlements.")

When you’re faced with a country as fearful and struggling as America has been in the last 4 years, you just don’t pull away its teddy bears. Even someone who hasn’t raised kids can tell you that much.

Mitt wonders why he can’t seem to capture the female voter. Great mystery of mysteries. Could it be that women realize that a man this oafish is probably not only bad in bed, but is also going to be clumsy with the things that matter--number one of which is human emotion? Could it be that a guy who lies, calls us derogatory names, and offers to slaughter our children’s beloved video playmate might not make such a great president—or human being?

Guys like Mitt are the smirking frat boys so cut off from human emotion that they think it’s a bright idea to make new pledges drink beer and urine to the point of near death. For whatever reason, they have not been raised to understand what makes people human or to have empathy for those less fortunate. They believe that the only thing that makes life worth living is making a killing off the work of others, whom they have no qualms about exploiting. And thus, the arts and educational TV fall into the category of “fluff”—unless of course they’re cashing in on a Sesame Street marketing venture. In that case, get that cuddly puppet in there and make him dance!!

And then there's Romney’s conflation of public broadcasting with Sesame Street. It strongly implies that this candidate for president has spent no time watching or listening to media other than mainstream—perhaps, like so many conservatives, only Fox News. That he has not experienced the broad-based education that NPR and PBS imparts to adults on an hourly basis. I don’t discriminate against Romney for being Mormon; however, it does concern me that a member of a conservative religious cult might be biased against proper critical thinking. That he might not understand that education offers perspectives other than those proclaimed by a preacher and mandated by a controlling religion.

Either that or he understands it all too well. As Orwell showed in 1984, when there's no truth in media, it's easier to manipulate the masses.

PBS and NPR deliver such valuable programming that their audiences actually pay money to keep them on the air (and willingly endure tedious fund drives twice a year). Ninety-one percent of all American households tune in every year, including 81 percent of all kids age 2-8. The measly $400 million allowance the government gives them ($1.35/person per year) isn’t actually enough to cover expenses. Hell, Ann Romney complains that her family is struggling with its $250 million, so you can only imagine how strapped PBS must be. The fact that Mitt is ready to shred other perspectives than his own solipsistic worldview should tell you all you need to know about what his presidency would look like. 

It would be a fine day when we didn’t have to utilize a TV for education, but in some neighborhoods, the other options can often be bleak or nonexistent. Sadly, underprivileged kids sometimes learn more from Sesame Street than they do in their pathetically underfunded schools. And what’s a guy like Mitt going to do when he realizes that there’s no money in the education game? Either institute cheap programs that yield nothing (like Bush’s No Child Left Behind), or cut it completely. Because he may think your kid’s just as cute as a muppet, but he’s not going to “borrow from China” to fund the frill of educating him. And with his plan to hike the military budget by $2 trillion, you better buy some flour, 'cause there's gonna be a lot of bake sales.

Big Bird Romney, Romney gun, Romney assault rife, Romney Shoots Big Bird, Romney Muppets
Montage by Heidi Utz
Romney and his peers love imagining that they’re Clint Eastwood, walking tall, talking tough, while eviscerating the very programs that keep people alive, fed, healthy, and sane. They pretend that life is divided into 2 camps: those who are “too lazy” to work and those, like themselves, who have pulled themselves up by their $10,000 boots’ straps. The GOP enjoys drawing these broad generalizations because it allows them to dehumanize the very people who must use these programs, so they then have no qualms about cutting them and making more money.

Wouldn’t it be nice if their version actually was the truth? If the key to life was simply a matter of rousing the indolent? Probably Stephen Covey or Tony Robbins or any number of motivational speakers could take on that little quandary in an afternoon. Stick their manifold lazy asses in a room with Covey and presto!, their Franklin Planners would brim with purposeful living. Sunny day, sweepin' the clouds away! But what Romney and the other boys with the $250 million bank accounts fail to notice is that some people are legitimately sick, out of work, mentally ill, addicted, disabled, filled with PTSD, unable to put in a full day’s work due to causes completely outside their control. Like prolonged military service and bad genes and environmental toxicity and voices in their heads they can’t silence. And maybe, if we were any kind of a nation—or any kind of human beings—we might put some effort into caring for their needs rather than sucker-punching big yellow Muppets.