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The Invariant Memory of Empire

The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, Getty Villa –  When, in a crowded casino, the endangered hero of a lousy movie grabs his girl and jumps into a car that is on display to zoom out through shattering windows into the neon-lit boulevards of Las Vegas, it is all about generating a moment of surprise. When Teardrop, in the film Winter’s Bone by Debra Granik, grabs his niece Ree by the hair and tells her “I told you to shut up once with my mouth” we are caught off guard, and in that shocked opening we engage anew with the world. When Shakespeare writes “And pity, like a naked new-born babe…” he varies the um-pah, iambic rhythm in the last three syllables to surprise us, and then focuses our opened minds on that vivid closing … [Read more...]

From Santa Monica to Santa Fe – Part 2

The Century of the Non-Self –  Talk to people about sustainability and you might notice them recoiling into a resigned stoicism. The momentum in the direction of over-consumption seems vast and formidable, as indeed it is. Better, when caught picnicking between the hi-speed rails, to avert your eyes from the onrushing bullet train, and focus instead on how the honey drips off the baklava. You can invoke Thomas Malthus while you do so. Malthus, the 18th century economist, who, extrapolating food supplies against population growth, predicted mass famine in Europe in the not-too-distant future. The resourcefulness of human beings in their economic activities has proven Malthus wrong again and again, and perhaps we will sidestep disaster … [Read more...]

From Santa Monica to Santa Fe – Part 1

Slowly we discover how we are. On a visit to Santa Fe recently I read up on neuroplasticity and found myself haunted by the memory of a set of cement stairs. These stairs I encountered briefly when I was eight years old and my parents were hurtling toward their final separation. The stairs belonged to a monthly rental in Santa Monica where we had traveled for the summer from the East. They led up to a hallway and, at the far end, an apartment I never wanted to enter. At night the thin walls would shake with my father’s wounded bellowing and the sound of things breaking. We children would gather in the corner of the bedroom, the three of us, around our youngest sister as she cried from an ache in her chest that wouldn’t ease. There was no … [Read more...]

The Kali Machine and the Stem of the Lotus

The Seven Points –  Each day my wife visits the Kali machine at UCLA. The techs lay her down on a metal pallet and bolt to her head a hard white plastic mesh that’s been molded to fit her face. The linear accelerators of the IMRT (Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy) device, big as a small car, start up. Seven beams of X-ray radiation target the zone beneath her right ear where the parotid gland used to be. This gland, the largest of the salivary glands, was surgically removed in January, along with the malignancy that had grown within it. Any cancer cells that lingered in the wound would eventually sprout into new tumors, so they need to be destroyed. Each day the X-rays of the Kali machine tear into the exposed DNA of cells in the … [Read more...]

Razors Edge

The Katha Upanishad Recitation by Christopher Isherwood The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard. —Katha-Upanishad, 3.14 So begins Somerset Maugham's bestselling twentieth century novel The Razor's Edge (1944),  whose main character gives up a life of privilege in search of spiritual Enlightenment. Maugham himself visited Ramana ashram where he had a direct interaction with Ramana Maharshi in Tamil Nadu, India in 1938. But, it is said that Maugham received his inspiration and direct translation for this epigraph from Christopher Isherwood, with whom he had become acquainted through The Vedanta Society's Hollywood Hills center. This reading by Isherwood of the Katha … [Read more...]

Theory of Miracles

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disposable Plastic At a party at the Edendale Grill in Silverlake shortly before Christmas I learned about the five vortexes of disposable plastic, vast as continents and indestructible, that swirl continuously in the world’s oceans. I was talking to a woman named Sara Bayles who, in the hope of drawing attention to the problem, collects plastic trash choked up by the sea each day on Santa Monica beach. The image of the vortexes seemed to echo, dreamlike, the armada of environmental alarms that have circulated below the surface of my emotional life since childhood. And yet, at the Edendale, I noticed that something had shifted. Confronted with new evidence of environmental degradation the familiar … [Read more...]

The 1008 Names of Vishnu

2009 was a year for auspicious beginnings and none more impressive than the installation and blessing of the new Patanjali murti at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles. It was an honor to be apart of this ceremony and particularly fun to see the community come together, re-up on some old friendships and eat some very tasy cake. — NC This post is in honor of Sri BKS Iyengar's 91st birthday, December 14, 1918. Patanjali Puja at IYILA The date, Sunday July 12, 2009 and hour, 5:30am had been chosen according to Indian astrology as most auspicious for the sanctification of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles and installation of its new Patanjali statue. Indeed, the stars did align for IYILA on that morning. Not only was … [Read more...]

Raging Waters

Sons of Sam We spent the first Friday in September with our nine year old daughter and three of her friends at Raging Waters Amusement Park in San Dimas, California. Rushing down the steep, uterine canals of rides with names like Freefall, Speed Slide and High Extreme we slam into the unborn moment alongside a menagerie of modern American types out of a Simpson’s episode. Gangly, pimpled high school kids laugh and flirt with each other among heavily inked biker dads and tattooed Latinos with big bellies and long black braids as FM radio pumps loud out of hidden speakers everywhere.  Taking the rides was a total gas but I also enjoyed standing at the bottom and watching the ecstatic, luminous faces of people stepping up out of the … [Read more...]

The Bacchae and Catharsis

Listening to Jill Bolte-Taylor - Part 2 When Jill Bolte-Taylor was thrown into right-brain mode by the artery exploding in her left brain, she described her new state as a timeless, Nirvanic present. With her left brain shutting down, she felt intimately connected to the ever-shifting field of experience, like a wave moving through a body of water. In her former left-brain mode, Bolte-Taylor described feeling separate from all else and continuous in time - like a particle traversing a solitary path from past into future. Those as intrigued as I am by modern science might foresee the wild, speculative leap I'm about to make - the right-left division of our brains reflects the basic split at the foundation of the material world between … [Read more...]

Catharsis and the Brain

Listening to Jill Bolte-Taylor – Part 1 Suddenly everyone is talking about Jill Bolte-Taylor. Bolte-Taylor is the brain scientist who observed her own stroke in real time as it happened, and then recovered sufficiently in order to make her insights public. Taking a shower one day in 1996 a blood vessel exploded in the left half of her brain. Language swiftly departed, along with basic cognition. She was barely able to reach the phone to call for help. Years later, linguistic abilities restored, she wrote a book about the experience, My Stroke of Insight. It’s a fascinating read, but the most direct way to get a sense of Jill Bolte-Taylor is to check out her TED talk. According to Bolte-Taylor the two lobes of our brain are … [Read more...]