Friday, February 25, 2011

The Monster from the Black Lagoon...

Well, here we go again....on a dizzying cable-car ride up the mountain of gas prices.  Libya gets dicey....the per barrel price starts getting revved-up...and we're off and running.  But, have you noticed that Libya provides only less than 2% of the world's oil, and most of her oil fields are being protected by the Libyan military, which has already defected from the control of apparent lunatic Muammar al-Gaddafi?  And, despite the fact that none of that oil comes to the U.S. it is still all the excuse needed to fuel a speculative frenzy...the only losers of which are US.  Nevermind that the barrels that are being 'sold' at higher daily prices will not reach the refineries and eventually our gas pumps for months....the rule is: "Rabbit up...Tortoise down."   It must be a considerable source of delight to the oil companies that the gas already sitting in the tanks of refineries and gas-stations all over the country shoots up in value instantly as it keeps pace with the per-barrel price on the world markets.

The big question that is lurking in the back of most peoples' minds--well, not Charlie Sheen's maybe--is how far will it go this time?  Where will it finally stabilize?  And, on which one of these periodic run-ups will it just keep right on going?  The talking heads are saying that $4/gal. is a given by summer....just in time to fleece all the vacationers, eh....and, depending on how the wildly unstable political balance in the Middle-East shakes down...or sheikhs down?....we might see the oil supply shrink well below world demand.  If the worst fears of radical Islamic proliferation are realized in the region, withholding oil is a wonderful way for them to make us 'feel the pain' of Jihad.  In fact, it could easily be the longest and most powerful lever they have to use against us, the 'infidels'.

So, what did we learn the last time around on this little merry-go-round? When gas blew past the $4/gal. mark in '08, people did finally decide to drive a lot less, and the sales of gas-guzzlers plummeted.....briefly.  But, the oil industry may have realized that they had reached the point of diminishing returns in which more expensive gas was not going to make them as much profit as slightly less expensive product would....if they couldn't sell it at the same volume levels. So, I am guessing they were feeling their way to a price range at which people would still buy and drive gas-guzzlers, go on driving vacations, basically ignore the pain, and carry on as usual.  That would be a kind of 'sweet spot' pricing for them.  I have a feeling that the pharmaceutical companies set their prices in a similar fashion, looking for the point above which people will go without....but, because many simply cannot, and because it is insurance companies who pick-up the tab in many cases.....passing it along to their insurees eventually, of course--- they can be more aggressive in setting that breaking point of 'pain vs. profit'.  I don't believe for a minute that any question of 'doing the right thing' or a sense of conscience plays a role in either industry.  Nah.

If this delicate balancing act, however, is upset and spins out of control on one of these forays....all bets are off.  Try to imagine how the U.S. and the world's economy--they are essentially one and the same at this point--would function if oil just keeps on spiraling upwards towards utterly exotic prices.  Some projections estimate that prices north of $400/bbl. are possible in such an eventuality.  Much has been written about the concept of 'peak oil'.  Many experts on the petroleum industry believe that we have already passed the point beyond which world-wide production will never again be fully sufficient to meet the ever growing demands.  The inevitable result of this is that oil and all attendant products--fuels, fertilizers, plastics, chemicals of all kinds...essentially, the weight-bearing pillars of our entire lifestyle--will just continue to go up in price as supply falls ever shorter of meeting the balooning demand.  There is nothing but a train-wreck at the end of these tracks...but, although we--at least most of us--know this, we just keep right on hanging out the window of the locomotive, squinting into the wind and steaming on down the line.

Some imagine that science will come up with ingenious solutions, miraculous advances in the energy field that will yank our fat from the fire just in the nick of time.  Ah, yes, TECHNOLOGY will save us all.  Seriously?  Do you really believe that fanciful thought is worth hanging your hat on?  Hell, the whizz-bang scientists can't even figure out what to do with nuclear waste...and they have been working on it for about a half-century.  So, what IS the answer then?  Well, there are a host of people out there with alternative scenarios that they have been working on and making them into realistic, achievable and even appealing ways of living. All of them involve accepting the fact that life with oil that is exotically dear will not closely resemble the life of Reilly that we have been so completely addicted to and taking for granted. NOTE: this does not mean that such alternatives involve either draconian austerity, or are odious in their day to day ambiance.  They are just not the energy saturated and luxury dependent life-style of today.  There IS another way of living; most just cannot or will not allow themselves to imagine that it could become critically necessary.....or that this could happen in a painfully short period of time.  The less time there is to adapt to such a dramatic scenario the more likely it would be that the process would be a painful and chaotic one. 

If you look at this society through a wide-angle lens, taking the long view, from the vantage-point of the Fool on the Hill, human nature seems to be saying that we'll keep right on hurtling down those polished steel rails, like Casey Jones....until we actually see the headlight of the train we're going to hit.  In the ballad of Casey Jones, he remained at the controls of his locomotive, trying to stop the train in time....while his brakeman, Webb, jumped.  Neither alternative seems all that appealing really.  It would be a lot less painful to just pull onto a siding.  But, for that to happen, there would have to be a massive epiphany, dwarfing even the one that swept communism out of Russia in 1989....and, as I look around me these days, what I see is a society that is so steeped in selfishness, self-interest on every level....that--try as I might--I just cannot seem to imagine that happening.

I hope I am wrong.  But, when we finally see that other will be way too late. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why is Beauty so hard to define?

On Beauty is formally defined as:  "the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest)." 

Wait just a cotton-pickin' minute.  That tells me NOTHING.  It says there is this 'quality', and it tells me how people tend to respond to it, and goes on to give me some broad-brush hints as to the vehicles that seem to transmit beauty....but, really, it says not a peep about what this apparently mysterious 'quality' is.  If you google 'true beauty' you get thousands of hits telling you everything from where to get your hair done....not much use to those of us who don't have some vague allusions to properties of the soul and 'inner beauty'.  Nobody seems willing to take a stab at nailing down this ubiquitous yet ill-defined 'je ne sais quoi'.  

Perhaps that is the result of living in a basically secular culture that isolates all the qualities we perceive as being 'spiritual' into a separate compartment and generally lumps them together under the umbrella of 'religion'.  But, for those of us who feel moved by Spirit, and yet do not feel drawn by any particular religion....Beauty--yes, with a capital 'B'-- is one of the only experiences in our lives that seems to be promising something more than just daily living as a chore, fraught with demands, laden with mundanity and boredom.  It also doesn't help that we live in a material-centric culture in which beauty--with a small 'b'--has been hijacked to sell, uh, well, damn near everything....hardly can think of a product or service that it has NOT been used to hawk. The boundaries of good taste, any sense of respect or propriety need not apply.  If putting a glossy woman in sexy clothes together with  fill in the blank, can sell it, then so be it. 

We live our entire lives so thoroughly marinated in a shallow hologram of beauty, that the real deal seems like some distant and hazy dream.  Every so often, most, but not all people, have a pure experience of Beauty, and it touches them to their core, if they allow it to do so.  Such an experience can even be so powerful as to be a life-changing moment for a person.  But, most of us are so bombarded with sleek, sleazy, and plastic representations of beauty that we have become numb....too numb perhaps to recognize the value and Truth of the real quality when it does appear, often only fleetingly.

Genuine Beauty (I hesitate to use the expression 'True Beauty', lest it sound too much like 'the impressive clergyman' in Princess Bride, "....Twoo Wov") is not only 'real', and hidden in plain sight, it also has a deeper meaning that it carries.  For the mystic, it is palpable proof of a Divine Being, a Higher Power, the Beloved, a Creator, the One.  Beauty has an almost astonishing ability to by-pass the discursive mind....aka 'the chatterbox', or 'yadda, yadda'....which carries on an incessant and inane discussion of our perceived reality.  This 'crazy monkey' aspect of our being--referred to by some mystics as 'mind-mesh'--is full of judgment, opinions as to acceptability or subjective quality, and is almost never content to simply observe and accept 'what is'. It pretty much steps all over everything we experience....and the results are grossly more problematic than they are beneficial.

Beauty--in a normal person--goes straight to the Heart and carries a powerful emotional impact as it does so. This is an instantaneous recognition and acceptance that needs no processing ....KAPOW!!!! It happens just that fast, and with enough power to bring tears to our eyes and an expansive feeling to our chest.  The 'why' and the 'wherefore' of this process will NEVER be understood by science....simply because it is not something that the intellect has the tools to understand.  Beauty lies in the province of the awakened Heart....not the intellect.  For the same reason that western hard science still doesn't fully accept things like homeopathy, accupuncture, the placebo effect, and pranha, chi, ki or the entire idea of a Life will not and cannot accept that Beauty is a form of energy.  And it most certainly will never accept that this energy has its origins in The Force. 

Perhaps you've noted that I have thus far avoided using the 'G-word'.  Ayuh.  That is because the term 'God' has been so twisted, purloined, misapplied and generally loaded down with religious baggage, that it no longer carries a universally understood meaning.  People who follow different religious paths have this tendency to make it their own, and, sadly, to feel that while they have an avenue leading directly to God, most others do not, and are even condemned forever because they just can't accept the only 'right' path.....their own, of course.  Most of the problems that humanity is struggling with in these times stem from this form of myopia. 

Beauty, however, is a common language that is able to transcend all boundaries real and imposed.  It speaks fluently to any person whose Heart is open to it...and the message is always the same: "This is the feeling of Love".   It is so pleasing, so comforting, so consoling, that it serves as a call to embrace what is behind it.  And, above any and all religions, that feeling, that calling is to become a person who seeks, supports and tries their best to foster Love in the world around them, in their dealings with others, in their approach to the planet we inhabit, in their tolerance for all other beings...of any species or kingdom.

This is the origin of the expression: "Beauty is Truth".   And, whether it be an artist who eschews it because he or she cannot get down out of their intellect long enough to serve it....or a religious zealot who claims to serve a God who would have him/her kill all others who do not believe as they do.....any person who embraces the vices of isolation, elitism, exclusivity and false just flying in the face of the one single Truth that conveys its Essence in the blink of an eye...beyond all doubt, without any reservation: Beauty.

photo by: Samuel J. Sayen

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sun Setting on Family Farm

This painting is only a slight exaggeration of the light that was falling on this farm.  I took the reference photos in December, near the winter solstice, and the sun was just barely above the western horizon.  Because of it's low angle in the sky, its rays were sweeping, raking, virtually streaming across this classic Maine farmstead, which is also the embodiement of: 'big house, little house, back house, barn", the continuous architecture that is so common here and evidence of Yankee pragmatism too.

An academic wrote a book on this style of architecture and posited that it was evidence of the brutal winters and farmers not wanting to go outside to get to the barn. But, he's from away, and I have lived here for more of my life than not, and my sense is that it represents the simple truth that when you need more space and want to add-on to existing structures, building three walls is cheaper and more efficient than building four.  If it really was a matter of not wanting to go outside to get to the barn, you would see this style of farm all over Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern Michigan, the Dakotas and on out west.  But, you do not.

There is a small and intentional irony in the title, of course. The sun really is setting on family farms all over the country.   It has become so hard to make a living, competing with the giant agri-business operations, that most small farms have gone the way of the passenger pigeon.  The vast majority of farms that I point my camera at, are no longer actively farming.  One might say, "Well, if they cannot compete, that's just how it goes."  And, I would respond, "We are losing much more than just small farming as a means of food production. We are watching an entire way of life disappear, and the bed-rock values that it embodies are disappearing in many parts of the country too."

People don't want to work that hard for a meager living. They want a degree and a job that pays a salary that allows them to accumulate the 'things' of a middle-class lifestyle.  So be it.  But, as I look around at our society, I cannot help wonder if the more difficult and less luxurious ways of yesteryear weren't something that was giving us a more honest and clear-eyed perspective on the true meaning of life.  I see little evidence that those souls who have become surfeited with material 'stuff' are happier just because of this.  In fact, I have met many, many people who have all anybody might wish for, and they are not happy....far from it. The people I meet who do seem to have discovered how to be deeply satisfied with their lives, seem almost unanimously to be those people who are unimpressed with ownership, and are committed to following a path of discovery and service.

That's just what I have been seeing for about the last fifty years, folks.