Monday, October 27, 2014

Why do we waste so much time surfing the internet?

I like to consider myself a pretty productive, focused person.  I teach college, run an art gallery, organize and do things.  But there is one area of my life that flies in the face of all this productivity, and deeply disturbs me.  It is the phenomenon of mindless internet surfing. 

I will check my facebook, click on a link, which leads to another link, and another, and another, all clamoring for my attention.  Often these links lead to things that have no practical use or benefit to my life.  If I look at my search history, it's a strange wormhole.  How did I get from Richard Dawkins, to a link about turtles, to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Batman, to a Johnny Depp interview, to minor Marvel villains' wikipedia pages?  And what stops me?  What pulls me out of the wormhole?  Usually, it is some physical need, like being hungry, or having to go to the bathroom.  Other times, it is a generalized anxiety, a kind of existential dread--what the fuck am I doing with my life?  Get me out of this wormhole!

How did I get here?

This phenomenon has puzzled me for a while now.  Today, I read an article which provided some answers.  In an article entitled "Seeking," journalist Emily Yoffe explains some of the neurochemical science underpinning our endless internet searching.  And, to be clear, I'm not talking about research.  I'm talking about all the bullshit we click on instead of research and real learning.  Yoffe cites the decades-long research by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who has spent his career mapping the emotional systems of the brain.  He discovered one of our most powerful emotional motivators, which he calls "seeking."  This is what gets us out of bed in the morning, and compels us to engage with the world.  For most animals, this seeking impulse and its neurochemical reward of dopamine is tied to basic survival.  But for modern humans (with our more evolved brains), it is also connected to abstract ideas.

The "seeking" impulse in our brains, and its reward of dopamine (a feel-good neurochemical) is what compels us to keep searching online.  We are like rats pressing the "pleasure" button over and over, in a cycle of desire and reward fulfilled by the endless novelty of the internet.  Unfortunately, the kind of seeking that most of us engage in does not aid our survival.  On the contrary, as writer Nicholas Carr suggests in his article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"..."our constant internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing (like a book).  Like lab rats, we keep hitting 'enter' to get our next fix."


The "seeking" impulse in our brains, and the neurochemistry behind it, works like a drug, which can easily lock us in an unproductive and endless loop.  Yoffe explains: "Actually all our electronic communication devices--e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter--are feeding the same drive as our searches.  Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting.  Novelty is one.  Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding somethinig unexpected or by the anticipation of something new.  If the rewards come unexpectedly--as e-mail, texts, updates do--we get even more carried away..."

Psychologist Kent Berrige, who studies how the brain experiences pleasure, compares the "ding" or vibration of a smart phone to the "reward cue" experienced by rats in experiments, who push buttons which give them a neurological charge.  Some rats will push this button repeatedly until they pass out, ignoring basic survival functions.  Yoffe ends her article with an insight from scientist Temple Grandin, who compares our clicking to cats chasing an endlessly moving laser pointer.  "Mindless chasing makes an animal less likely to meet its real needs because it short-circuits intelligent behavior."

I don't own a smart phone, for precisely the reasons Yoffe describes.  I see how these devices, under the guise of "social connection," actually alienate people and make us, frankly, dumber.  Now I've got some science to back up my decision, and some intellectual incentive to consciously choose NOT to fall into the mindless rat-hole of what I call "Internet coma."  I'll stick with books and real humans, and a very conscious use of the internet.  The internet is an amazing, revolutionary tool, but not as it's currently being used by most Americans.  For hope regarding the usefulness of the internet, I must look to other coutries, like Tunisia and Egypt, in which people used sites like Twitter to actually topple regimes.  We've got a long way to go, baby, before we realize the true potential of the internet.  In the meantime, I'll be more conscious of how I spend my precious time on this planet, lest I become another mindless, pleasure-seeking rat.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Zechariah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The Prophet Zechariah by Michelangelo (1512) from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

The prophet Zechariah was a contemporary of the prophet Haggai.  He prophesied between 520-518 B.C.E. from Jerusalem, when Israel was a vassal state of the Persian Empire under Emperor Darius “the Great.”  Under Darius, many Jews living in exile in Babylon and Persia were allowed to return to their homeland.  Darius’ imperial policy allowed for localized control of provinces, and a certain respect for different cultures and religions.  Thus, for example, the Jews were allowed to re-build their temple and continue their worship practices.  This was good politics for Darius, and was seen as a divine blessing by the Jews.  Into this period of rebuilding stepped the prophet Zechariah, whose visions and messages were deeply tied to the social, political, and religious concerns of the Jews in early 6th century B.C.E Jerusalem.

Relief of Darius the Great from the ancient city of Persepolis

The first half of Zechariah is a series of visions similar to the visions experienced by Ezekiel and Daniel, which are meant to give symbolic commentary on the spiritual life of the Jewish community.  During most of the visions, Zechariah is accompanied by an angel, who offers (often cryptic) explanations. The first vision is is of four horsemen.  The angel says they are messengers from God to patrol the whole earth, and are heralds of a new era of peace for Jerusalem.

"The Four Horsemen" by Gustave Dore 

The second vision is of four horns and four blacksmiths.  These are meant to symbolize the great nation who defeated and scattered Israel, specifically Babylon.

The third vision is of a man with a measuring line, measuring Jerusalem.  The angel explains that this means that the holy city will be re-built and re-populated.  It is a hopeful vision.

The fourth vision is of the high priest Josuha and Satan (which means “the accuser”).  This is only the third time Satan is mentioned in the Bible so far.  Unlike the demon we picture today, this Satan is a member of a heavenly court, like a divine lawyer.  Joshua the priest is dressed in flithy clothes.  An angel takes off his dirty clothes and places clean, priestly garments on him.  Josuha is now prepared to be a spiritual leader of the new community of returned exiles.

The fifth vision is of a lamp stand with a bowl on top of it, and seven more lamps on the bowl (quite a balancing act!)  This is a reference to the temple, which had lamp stands and bowls as an important part of its architecture.  It is meant to indicate that God will again dwell in the temple when it is rebuilt.

The Golden Lampstand Makes a Menorah.

The sixth vision is of a flying scroll.  This is meant to symbolize the fact that the laws of Moses will again take effect.  The spiritual life of the community will resume as it had existed before.

The seventh vision is of a woman (probably a Babylonian diety) in a basket.  This idol is silenced and carried away back to Babylon.  This is meant to symbolize the fact that idolatry will not exist in the new Jerusalem.  People will only worship Yahweh.

The Woman in the Basket

The eighth and final vision is of the four horsemen, this time riding four chariots.  These are meant to emphasize that God has power over the whole world, even the powerful Persian empire.

After the visions, the prophet reminds the people of the true meaning of all this religion stuff: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”

"Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor..."

The second half of Zechariah contains a series of oracles, another common prophetic device.  Oracles are pronouncements to the people about how to act, and about what they can expect in the future.  The word “oracle” can also be translated “burden,” which I find a fitting description of the prophet’s mission.  Prophets often experienced suffering and solitude on account of the “burden” of their messages, which were often a mix of comfort and tragedy.

The first oracle begins with a hopeful message that God will return to dwell in Jerusalem, and that it will be re-populated and prosper again.  Even children will play in the streets.  The people are encouraged to take courage and not be afraid, and to begin the process of rebuilding.  God will bless them.  The people will be joyful.  Foreigners will come from all around to Jerusalem, the holy city, and will seek the Lord.

The second oracle is less hopeful for foreign nations.  Like many prophets before him, Zechariah gives pretty intense judgements against those who oppressed Israel, places like Tyre, Sidon, Damascus, Aram, Philistia, etc.  Things will not bode well for these “foreigners.”  In these cases, I feel like the nationalism of the writer creeps into an otherwise lovely text.

After judgment is rendered on foreign nations, a king will take the throne of Israel once again, who will inaugurate an era of peace.  New Testament writers interpreted some of these passages to refer to Jesus.  Zechariah contains this famous passage of the humble king entering Jerusalem on a donkey:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey…
and he shall command peace to the nations…”

Gospel writers Matthew and John quoted this passage in reference to Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem, just before he was crucified.  The fact that Jesus was crucified and that He did not inaugurate an era of peace on earth (at least not politically), seemed to indicate to many Jews that Jesus was not, in fact, the messiah.  Christians interpreted things differently, of course.

"Jesus Enters Jerusalem and the Crowds Welcome Him" by Pietro Lorenzetti (1320)

If I was grading the book of Zechariah, as I grade hundreds of college English essays, I would probably make one comment between chapters 10 and 11: “Create a smoother transition.”  There is a radically abrupt shift in tone and content between these two chapters.  Chapter 10 ends on a note of hope and peace.  Chapter 11 begins with terrifying imagery of fire, destruction, lions, and slaughter: “Thus says the Lord my God: Be a shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter…For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of the earth, says the Lord.”  If I was grading Zechariah, I would also make these comments: “Feels off topic” and “I’m unclear about your thesis.”  Chapter 11 is a confusing anomaly, and I don’t understand it.

The prophecy of Zechariah ends with a full-blown end-of-days apocalypse.  There will be a massive world war in Jerusalem (why does Jerusalem always suffer so much?).  Foreign nations will siege Jerusalem, plunder houses and rape women.  But then God himself will fight for his people and will win, and reign over the whole world.  I’m fairly certain that the writer of the New Testament book of Revelation was inspired by the book of Zechariah.

As I near the end of the “prophetic” books of the Bible, I must say I’m impressed by their literary intensity and creativity.  They contain psychedelic imagery, poetry, verbal smack downs, cryptic oracles, and full-blown end-of-days apocalyptic scenes.  Regardless of your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), these ancient writings are gems of world literature, and well worth reading.

"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by Sharlene Linskog-Osorio


Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Cinema of India at Hibbleton Gallery

For over a year now, my friend Steve Elkins and I have been hosting weekly film screenings at Hibbleton Gallery.  We've explored a huge variety of cultures, countries, directors, and ideas, all expressed through the media of film, and we've no plans of stopping.  For the next two months, Steve and I will be presenting "An Introduction to the Cinema of India." For the first month, we will be showing films by outsiders about India.  For the second month, we'll be showing films made by Indians, with the focus being non-Bollywood cinema from the 19th century to present day.  All screenings happen at 7:30pm on Wednesday evenings, and are FREE.  Here's what we have coming up...

On Wednesday, October 22, we'll be watching SHIPBREAKERS (2004), a documentary about Alang, India, where the world's largest ships are run into the shore and torn apart by 35,000 men with little more than their bare hands. Where at least one worker (or sometimes hundreds at a time) dies a day from explosions, falling steel, asbestos, malaria, or plummeting into the ocean. Where even the Red Cross (which set up a clinic here) cannot find doctors or nurses willing to go. Where most of the US Navy's ships are sent to die, to deliberately avoid the laws of the Environmental Protection Agency at home which "provides an opportunity for the Department of Defense to maximize the return to the U.S. Treasury" (according to a written statement by the Navy).



We will also watch part of Louis Malle's documentary PHANTOM INDIA, "ON THE FRINGES OF INDIAN SOCIETY," in which director Louis Malle tracks down the closest living examples of ancient humanity left on the planet (including the Bondo tribe of Orissa and the Toda in the mountains of Tamil Nadu) whose languages have nothing to do with other Indian languages, who have never waged war or made laws, living instead in an egalitarian society without leaders that is vegetarian despite never taking up agriculture. Malle also examines why Christianity never made much progress in India, despite the fact the Church dates its history in India back to the visit of the apostle Thomas in 52 AD, and why India is the only country in the world that has never persecuted its Jewish population.




On Wednesday, October 29, we'll watch two films by Werner Herzog about India.  First,  "JAG MANDIR" (1991), a "documentary" about the Maharaja of Udaipur whose palace is sinking into the river, spurring him to gather thousands of local artists, magicians, snake charmers, craftsmen, and contortionists to present their work in a giant procession before their culture dies out.  




Then we'll watch the astonishing "WHEEL OF TIME" (2003), which documents the life threatening pilgrimage Buddhist monks have been making for thousands of years, bowing their way across 3,000 miles of the Himalayas on their stomachs to the tree where the buddha was enlightened in Bodhgaya, India, to better understand the nature of the human mind. The pilgrimage culminates in the creation of an enormous mandala out of colored sand which is promptly destroyed upon completion to reflect the impermanence of all things and the importance of non-attachment to even our most profound accomplishments. Completely transcending the boundaries of Buddhist beliefs, this film is one the most moving depictions of the power of selfless human devotion ever made.




On Wednesday, November 5th, we'll watch "GANDHI" (1982), Richard Attenborough's dramatization of the life of Mohandas Gandhi, who overthrew the world's largest empire through the practice of non-violence. Starring Ben Kingsley.




On Wednesday, November 12, Steve Elkins will give a presentation on the birth of Indian cinema which started with the first timelapse film ever made, the silent films of the D. G. PHALKE (known as the father of Indian Cinema), early adaptations of Hindu classics such as the RAMAYANA and MAHABHARATA, Vishnupant Govind Damle's 1936 Marathi classic "SANT TUKARAM" (about Bhakti Hinduism), Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram's "PADOSI" (1941), about Hindu-Muslim relations in pre-independence India), Mahboob Khan's "HUMAYUN" (1945), and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's documentary "CELLULOID MAN" (2012) which explores the life and work of the one man who single-handedly preserved India's cinema heritage, archivist P. K. Nair, founder of the National Film Archive of India and guardian of Indian cinema.  



D. G. PHALKE (the father of Indian Cinema)
On Wednesday, November 19, we'll explore THE FILMS OF SATYAJIT RAY.  The great auteur of Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray, changed the course of Indian cinema and brought it to the world stage. A proponent of Jawaharlal Nehru's modernization of India, who also fought to preserve the rich heritage of India's countless traditional micro-cultures, Ray's work poetically captures the dual impetus to cling to the past and hurtle into an unknown future while struggling to understand what it meant to be a new entity called "India" after independence in 1947. After presenting excerpts from Ray's films "PATHER PANCHALI" (1955), "DEVI" (1960, about a man who believes his daughter-in-law is an incarnation of the goddess Durga), the psychedelic fairy tale "GOOPY GYNE BAGHA BYNE" (1969), and "THE CHESS PLAYERS" (1977), we will watch a full screening of "THE MUSIC ROOM" (1958), about an aging zamindar who gathers the last great artists of traditional Indian music into his crumbling Bengal palace across the river from the newly designated East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to embrace of a way of life about to disappear forever. Truly one of the great masterpieces of world cinema, and an excellent introduction to the artforms of Lucknow thumri, Muslim khyal, and kathak dance.


The great auteur of Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray, changed the course of Indian cinema and brought it to the world stage.

On Wednesday, November 26, we'll explore FILMMAKERS OF POST-INDEPENDENCE INDIA, focusing on Ritwik Ghatak's "THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR" (1960) and "A RIVER CALLED TITAS" (1973), Mrinal Sen's "BHUVAN SHOME" (1969), Mani Kaul's "OUR DAILY BREAD" (1970), Girish Kasaravalli's "THE RITUAL" (1977), and Adoor Gopalakrishnan's "RAT TRAP" (1981).



"The Cloud-Capped Star" (1960)

On Monday, December 1, we'll explore IMPORTANT WOMEN OF INDIAN CINEMA.  We will watch excerpts from APARNA SEN's 1989 film "SATI" (about a mute girl in an Indian village who marries a tree to avoid having to commit sati, the tradition of burning widows alive on their husband's funeral pyre), and an overview of films by MIRA NAIR (SALAAM BOMBAY, KAMA SUTRA, MONSOON WEDDING).




On Wednesday, December 3, we'll finish the series by exploring THE FILMS OF ANAND PATWARDHAN: "RAM KE NAAM" (IN THE NAME OF GOD, 1991), a documentary about the deadly riots that erupted across India after thousands of Hindu fundamentalists made the 1990 "rath yatra" (chariot journey) from Somnath in Gujarat to destroy the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, which is believed to be built over the sacred birthplace of the Hindu God Lord Ram. The film is the second part of a trilogy of documentaries by India's most notorious social justice documentarian, Anand Patwardhan, examining the integration of Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim fundamentalism into India's political parties. In addition to an overview of Patwardhan's films documenting political upheaval in India from the 1970s to the present, curator Steve Elkins will give a presentation on the work of ARUNDHATI ROY, who is effectively the Noam Chomsky of India, including a screening of her legendary "Come September" speech and readings from her book "THE ALGEBRA OF INFINITE JUSTICE" (2001).




Friday, October 17, 2014

Fathers and Sons

When I tell people, “My dad was a pastor,” I get a variety of responses.  But let me tell you the kind of pastor my dad was.  He seldom preached.  That wasn’t his deal.  He did things like visit sick people in the hospital.  He listened to people’s problems.  He took shit from mean people.  Sometimes he taught a group of adults, but his teaching mostly consisted of interactive discussions.

He wrote.  A lot.  He still does.  And my mom, the pastor’s wife, would cook meals for families that needed help—a sick parent, people who were grieving.  My dad was a guy who most people in our very large church actually knew, and felt comfortable talking with.

My dad was not the kind of pastor that liberals (like me) make fun of or hate.  He was the kind of pastor that liberals don’t know what to make of: compassionate, humble, intelligent, honest about his flaws, creative.  He didn’t fit any stereotype.  He still doesn’t.  That’s the kind of pastor my dad was, and the kind of person he still is.

For the past several years, whenever I log onto my computer, before doing all my creative shenanigans, before writing every blog post, I type this password: chaimpotok.  Chaim Potok was a Jewish novelist who wrote, mostly, about fathers and sons and religion.  His novel, The Chosen, is one that both my dad and I have read, and like.  The Promise is good too.  My Name is Asher Lev made me want to be an artist.

These are books about deeply religious fathers and sons who have profound disagreements about religion and its role in modern life.  For a long time, I thought I chose “chaimpotok” as a password because no one would guess it.  But now, after typing it literally thousands of times, day after day, I think I also chose it because he is an author whose books capture something of the way I feel about my father—love, respect, and occasional profound disagreement.

But like Reuven and his father the Zionist (from The Chosen), Danny and his father the Hasidic orthodox rabbi (from The Promise), Asher and his father (from My Name is Asher Lev), like all Chaim Potok’s fathers and sons, I am deeply connected to my father, and though we travel our different paths in life, we are much more alike than we often admit.  


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Haggai: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

Many of the final books of the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament), the so-called “minor prophets,” are very short, and Haggai is no exception.  It’s only two chapters long.  Unlike most of the prophets, Haggai is written in prose, instead of poetry.  Also, Haggai is very specific about dates.  His prophecy begins “In the second year of Darius (of Persia), in the sixth month, on the fist day of the month.”  By our calendar, that is August 29, 520 B.C.E.

Under King Darius of Persia, some Jews had been allowed to return to Israel and begin rebuilding their lives and community there, under a Persian-appointed governor named Zerubbabel, and a high priest named Joshua.  In the early years of the returned community, life was hard.  Jerusalem, including the temple, had been pretty much destroyed.

During this time of struggle, a lot of people were looking to their own self-interest, rebuilding their own houses and individual lives.  They were struggling with a nation in ruins, and not faring well as individuals.  Haggai acknowledges this: “Consider how you have fared.  You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”  In other words, life was hard.

Haggai’s solution is to bring the people together as a community, and the most powerful symbol of community in ancient Israel was the temple.  So, Haggai encourages the people to re-build the temple.  Unlike with other prophets, the people actually listen to the prophet, and commence building the temple.

This re-building of the temple gives the people hope for the future, and God promises blessing.  I find the book of Haggai to contain a profound truth about human survival in times of struggle: as individuals, we can’t make it.  We need community.  We need other people.  If our philosophy is “every man for himself,” the situation seems bleak, lonely, and hopeless.  But if people work together, even struggle together, there are relationships formed, and shared purpose, and hope for not just survival, but flourishing.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Anti-Club Playlist 10/10/14

On Fridays, I DJ at Mulberry St. Ristorante (aka The Anti-Club) with my friend Phil, and sometimes other friends.  Here's what we played last Friday, with album art.  Click the song title to listen to it...













“Schluesselkind” by Dominique






































“Bother” by PM to You


“Espionage” by The Shitty Limits




“Ocean Death” by Baths


See you next week at The Anti-Club!