Thursday, September 29, 2011

We can make our minds so like still water

Transcendental Tide Pool
Acadia National Park 9/25/11        Jean Stimmell ©2011

We can make our minds so like still water
 that beings gather about us,
that they may see, it may be,
their own images, and so live for
a moment with a clearer,
perhaps even with a fiercer life 
because of our quiet.
– William Butler Yeats 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be experienced – Rilke

Looking across the bay from Schoodic Point toward Cadillac Mtn. 9/24/11
Jean Stimmell ©2011
Delight is a secret.  And the secret is this: to grow quiet and listen; to stop thinking, stop moving, almost to stop breathing; to create inner stillness in which, like mice in a deserted house, capacities and awarenesses too wayward and to fugitive for everyday use may delicately emerge. 

Oh, welcome them home! For these are the long lost children of the human mind. Give them close and loving attention, for they are weakened by centuries of neglect. 

In return they will open your eyes to a new world within the known world, they will take your hand, as children do, and bring you where life is always nascent, day always dawning.*

*  from the The Savage and Beautiful Country by Alan McGlashan

Check out my blog entry, 7/26/13, which also uses Rilke's quote as a jumping off point: it is called The Bewitchment of our Intelligence by Language.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The ecstasy of Influence: Stuffed animals & texual poaching

My first stuffed toy
In 2007 Jonathan Lethem published a pro-plagiarism, plagiarized essay in Harper's titled, The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.⁠1 It's a lengthy defense and history of how ideas in literature have been shared, riffed, culled, reused, recycled, swiped, stolen, quoted, lifted, duplicated, gifted, appropriated, mimicked, and pirated for as long as literature has existed. 
Lethem reminds us of how gift economies, open-source cultures, and public commons have been vital for the creation of new works, with themes from older works forming the basis for new ones… 
He eloquently rails against copyright law as a threat to the lifeblood of creativity. From Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons to Muddy Waters's blues tunes, he showcases the rich fruits of shared culture. 
Under the spell of The Ecstasy of Influence, everything I have written so far is not out of my head but copied from “It’s Not Plagiarism In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing” by Kenneth Goldsmith.
Certainly, it is good writing but that's not the point that Goldsmith – and, by extension, Lethem –are trying to make. The point is: Lethem's fine writing did not come out of his head either!
The punchline? Nearly every word and idea was borrowed from somewhere else—either appropriated in its entirety or rewritten by Lethem. His essay is an example of "patchwriting," a way of weaving together various shards of other people's words into a tonally cohesive whole.⁠2 
Goldsmith goes on to explain the method behind their madness: 
With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.
Goldsmith quotes prominent literary critic Majorie Perloff who has recently begun using the term "unoriginal genius" to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated…
She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.
Of course, that’s what active readers have always done. And that's the way it should be! The actual, literal quote from a person's writing isn't – in and of itself – what is important; it's how it is used by the audience.
Active reading is an impertinent raid on the literary preserve. Readers are like nomads, poaching their way across fields they do not own—artists are no more able to control the imaginations of their audiences than the culture industry is able to control second uses of its artifacts. 
In the children's classic The Velveteen Rabbit, the old Skin Horse offers the Rabbit a lecture on the practice of textual poaching. 
The value of a new toy lies not it its material qualities (not “having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle”), the Skin Horse explains, but rather in how the toy is used. 
“Real isn't how you are made. . . . It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” 
The Rabbit is fearful, recognizing that consumer goods don't become “real” without being actively reworked: “Does it hurt?” 
Reassuring him, the Skin Horse says: “It doesn't happen all at once. . . . You become. It takes a long time. . . . Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” 
Seen from the perspective of the toymaker, the Velveteen Rabbit's loose joints and missing eyes represent vandalism, signs of misuse and rough treatment; for others, these are marks of its loving use.
1 Harper’s Magazine, February 2007.
2  “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing..” by Kenneth Goldsmith published in the Chronicle Review, 9/11/11

“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume..."

Suncook River, Pittsfield NH: 9/15/11                   J. Stimmell ©2011

“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; 
when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, 
but translated into a better language..."
This transcendent truth comes from John Donne’s Meditation 17 in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and  blows the socks off our modern conceit about the existence of individual selves and solitary genius. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Postmodern and Paradoxical: A Meditation on Mushrooms

 Eminem's mushroom lyrics:
"I never meant to give you mushrooms girl 
I never meant to bring you to my world"
I took this photograph yesterday– 
contemplating how difficult it is
to be a postmodernist
in the age of modernity 
while ruminating on passages 
from Joshua Cooper Ramo's book:

"There is nothing more horrible than to walk that fault line between new and old, seeing what the future holds, screaming about it in your art or your writing, and finding only mute incomprehension or dismissal in your audience." (p. 117)

"The lesson of [Gertrude] Stein's time, the lesson that the artists and intellectuals around her saw so clearly, was that just as the twentieth century demanded new ways of representation in physics, in painting, and in writing, it laid a similar demand on statesmanship and economics. But the intellectual and spiritual leap this required was, for the greatest men of the age, simply too much. Passing our eyes back on that history, we can only wonder how they missed it.  And, if were honest, we have to ask ourselves what we are missing about our own time." (p. 117)

I had a vision:
I had a strong sense as I snapped the shutter 
that the rain water pooled in the mushroom 
was all of us–the human race–
huddled in Mother Earth's embrace.

How will we survive and thrive
in the coming new age?

Again, from Ramo's book

"German sociologist Ulrich Beck has called what we're living in Risikogesellschaft, or "risk society," where we all share risks, where the richest Palm Beach socialite shares health or financial risks with the poorest of the planet's inhabitants. Indeed, what modernity manufactures better than anything else, Beck says, is new and incalculable risks that we all share and partake in, even if we're not aware of them." (p. 130)

No exit
Like it or not
We are all in this together
trapped in the mushroom. 

"There are moments, and this is one of them, when we are not spectators to history but participants...What do you do now? Stay? Run? What kind of spiritual hero are you.? 

Wendell Berry says this is 
when the Real Work begins:

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings."
Ramo says the answers are
Postmodern & Paradoxical
  (notes from pp. 261-2)
"It is also possible that each of us, any of us, can unleash powerful and permanent change. Some of this change will be simple...But far more of the change will be difficult. It will involve tremendous sacrifice. At times it will involve profound discomfort..."
"It requires the psychological shift from being certain about our future to being uncertain, a transformation that is as stressful as it is productive.....

At the times we are most scared we'll need to replace the habit of striking back with new efforts to connect to the world instead of alienating it and isolating ourselves." 

In a nutshell, Ramo advocates embracing change as the new normal and facing it head-on with courage, empathy, resiliency, effects-based strategizing, contextual thinking, and mashups** (which is literally putting two unrelated items together forcibly to form a new unity).
Above all
we must remember
what Niels Bohl said
in later life:

"Conformity to old ideas is lethal;
it is rebellion that is going to change the planet."  
** "If the Cubist revolution demanded that we look at one thing from multiple perspectives, mashup logic demands that we look at the world as multiple objects mixed in multiple – unpredictable – ways to create totally new objects or situations. Earl Gray, an American environmental scientist, calls this the "the new math..."(Ramo: p. 126)

Friday, September 9, 2011


Highland Beef Cow: Deerfield Fair, 2005.   J. Stimmell©2011
     In a recent piece in the Concord Monitor, Tim O’Shea describes his two-week trial eating only vegan food. The single explanation he gave for his experiment was that some people turn to veganism to impress their girlfriends, making no mention of possible health, environmental, or moral benefits.

I understand that his objective was to write a funny, tongue-in-check piece but the overall tone struck my ear as harsh, confirming the negative stereotype many people already have about vegetarianism and veganism.

As a consequence, I fear, he will scare people away from experimenting with a more plant-based diet, especially men who still subscribe to the old adage, “real men don’t eat quiche.”

To start with, it is necessary to challenge the whole premise of Tim’s article: two weeks is an absurdly short time to successfully change one’s entire diet.  In fact, it’s impossible.

Nutritionists have shown that children needed to try a new food item 10 to 15 times before they begin to like it. And that’s just a single food item, not a whole new diet.

And if the person eating the new food has a predetermined negative attitude like our reluctant vegan, it will be even longer – in my case, for instance: it took over 60 years.

I grew up in the ultimate meat-eating family: we loved meat of all kinds, all the time. We even harvested a lot of our own: hunting and fish and raising pigs and chickens.

I continued this tradition as an adult. After returning from Vietnam, like so many sixties people, I joined the back-to-the-land movement, raising my own meat and loving to eat it, just as much as ever.

I was an addict to meat and other things as well, like chain-smoking Winston cigarettes. But slowly over time, as opposed to a mad dash, I made changes. I owe most of it to the women in my life who patiently showed me a better way.

By the 1980s, prodded by public health warnings and my own guilt at how my behavior negatively affected the whole environment, including that of my loved ones, I was forced to admit that my lifestyle was wildly out-of-step with my conscience. 

But that was not enough for me to quit. I was still too much of an addict.

Nevertheless, around the edges I continued to make changes: by the 1990s I was giving up soda and white bread, starting to eat brown rice and whole wheat bread, and switching from french fries to leafy greens.

Some things take time and don’t happen in just two weeks.  In 2002, after quitting smoking hundreds of times but failing, I finally succeeded. It was the hardest thing I ever did: it literally took over a year for my head to clear.

Only then, did I realize how addicted I had been – and as it turned out, still was.

I still ate meat and loved it as much as ever but continued to cut back for health and environmental reasons. I tried to buy only locally grown, humanely raised meat. But, honestly, I was prone to cheat.

And so things stood, until I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, in December of 2009.

His writing, like a powerful flood, swept away the remaining walls of my denial unearthing vivid memories and feelings with a common theme around the guilt I felt over how much I had killed, and, often, how badly.

For the first time I viscerally felt the spasms of unnecessary suffering I caused as a young hunter from unclean kills I made. In Vietnam, I remembered the bloated bodies floating down the Mekong River like dead fish, feeling their pain and that of their families, all the time knowing they were all killed in my name.

I remembered slaughtering my first pig but only wounding her when the .22 rifle misfired, causing her to careen around the pen, blinded by blood, terrifying my other pig who joined her in emitting haunting screams that were eerily human…I remembered too much.

I remembered so much that I have not eaten a single piece of meat or fish since finishing his book. It only took 65 years.  But when the time came, it was easy.

Granted, it takes time and effort to train your taste buds to change, but when you do, a plant-based diet is not just as satisfying and tasty as a meat based diet, it is more so. After all, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains come in an endless variety, each with their unique flavor and texture, and when you combine them with various spices and sauces, they can be served in an almost infinite number of ways.

Sure I still occasionally have a craving for meat, just like I still do for cigarettes.  But I’m not going back. It’s a blessing nowadays to wake up in the morning and be able to take a deep breath without coughing. More important, I have swapped a few of my addictions for a healthier body and a clearer conscience, adding an extra spring to my step and a certain lightness to my being.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Old Dysfunctional Myths and Positive Alternative Realities

Sunrise through Seaweed: Cathedral of the Future  J.Stimmell ©2011
Part II: Myths to Live by 
Published by the Concord Monitor 8/27/11

Every stage of human history needs myths to live by, but they outlive their usefulness over time and become dysfunctional.  We see this in NH, a rich state, which is shunning our needy, stiffing our hospitals, shuttering our state parks and taxing working families at 3 times the rate as it does the well-to-do. And we see this in Washington D.C. where a cult of “no” is causing gridlock and paralysis.
This dysfunctional pattern extends on to the global scene where none of the world leaders in politics or in business anticipated the economic meltdown in 2008. Even now, three years later, no one has created a plan of recovery. Worse yet, world leaders have been unable to come up with a plan for addressing climate change which the scientific community warns, “poses the greatest threat to our species in history.”
As I wrote in my last piece for the Concord Monitor, we are running out of time and may be facing the prospect of our own extinction. But hope will always exist as long as we have visionaries like Jeremy Rifkin. He challenges our old, ingrained assumptions about reality while suggesting a promising, new paradigm for our future in his recent book:The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis
Rifkin starts by examining how our underlying societal assumptions change over time. With the dawning of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the old religious worldview dominated by the church began to breakdown to be replaced by our modern worldview: a secular paradigm where the individual is all-powerful, the measure of all things.
This modern worldview of “me” is now so entrenched within our psyche that it has become a fact of life like the air we breathe. It has become our unquestioned reality: defining each of us as an independent actor, separate from others, self-centered and materialistic, each of us responsible for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in pursuit of the American dream.
At this deep level of unspoken assumptions, Democrats are no different than Republicans: each of us is acting out our part in a Darwinian competition rewarding consumerism and regulated by the hidden hand of the marketplace, our new god who determines who will rise and who will fall.
Like it or not, with no alternative in sight, we find ourselves immersed in this sink or swim world of work where our highest responsibility is making more money so we can spend more, living beyond our means while exploiting the natural world to the point of imminent collapse.
Even Paul Farrell, mainstream financial commentator for MarketWatch agrees, writing in a recent column that we are in “massive denial of global catastrophe dead ahead.” He sees a “systemic collapse of the global economy and capitalism” which will be replaced by the only solution that will work: a sustainable, no-growth economy.
But what steps do we take to break through our denial?
Rifkin says the key ingredient necessary to move forward is to understand the significance of new scientific breakthroughs which challenge our most basic assumptions about the nature of reality. On the one hand, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists have turned old Darwinian truisms on their heads, determining beyond doubt that cooperation, not competition is the real “master architect of evolution.” They now agree that at every level of complexity, individual creatures join forces and collaborate.
At the same time, biologists and cognitive scientists have discovered the existence of mirror neurons–also called empathy neurons– perhaps the most exciting neurological breakthrough of the last twenty years. Mirror neurons allow humans and other animals to feel and experience another’s situation as if it were one’s own. Empathy is central to what it is to be human and what, in the long run, has allowed us to survive as a species.
The inescapable conclusion of these scientific discoveries is that humans are “exquisitely social creatures.” Rifkin then outlines a plan to “harness our empathic sensibility to establish a new global ethic that recognizes and acts to harmonize the many relationships that make up the life-sustaining forces of the planet.”
In essence, under Rifkin’s new paradigm: Empathy becomes the invisible hand, the driving force that guides and unites the world – not the hidden hand of the market place.
Rifkin is not just talking the talk, he is walking the walk: As an advisor to the European Union, he is the principle architect of the Third Industrial Revolution economic sustainability plan which has been formally endorsed by the European Parliament and is now being implemented in 27 member-states.
Jeremy Rifkin has a captivating video, encapsulating his vision, on UTube: He offers an inspirational alternative to  the politics-as-usual stalemate between Republicans and Democrats.
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