Man’s Search for Meaning: Can a common life derive meaning from another man’s meaning of enduring extraordinary human catastrophe?

In reviewing the quotes I highlighted from Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the Nietsche quote “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” appears four times. It must have resonated with me, even though in my current situation I cannot claim to be bearing adversity in any true sense. Perhaps there is a gradual erosion, through the slow drip of comfort and mundanity, of those convictions that might have fueled any contributions to the world of the Arts or Science. Even so, at my age it is not entirely a revelation that one’s life has to convey meaning to oneself, in order to keep spirit and energy flowing in a positive and motivational current. It is not only to see life as worth maintaining in the highest possible manner, but to be allowed to engage in it with an almost destinal and divine nature. To be able to live life in such a way, even as one engages in a very common and unnoteworthy existence, is a paradox that becomes easier to live in, as one gets older. But what strikes the reader, from Frankl’s memoir, is that this type of meaning can be maintained when almost nothing else is. To survive in a Nazi concentration camp is one thing, but to make that survival, whether or not the individual even escapes death there, an honorable experience that gives deep meaning to one’s existence, is a knowledge worth conveying. It is a reminder to all of us, that not only is our effort to find and maintain meaning and understanding a worthy endeavor in our day to day occupations, but that a continued investigation of our lives can in itself be a rich source of meaning no matter what the circumstances.

For me, this point is made in his recount of an insight he reached while under the duress of navigating the miseries of camp life. At some point in the book Frankl observes that the intellectual person or any person that maintains a rich inner life could, as he writes, “retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.” This notion is repeated often and Frankl even tells us that when a person’s “inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things,” they tend to survive the harsh conditions better than those prisoners of a seemingly more robust physical nature. Even so, the circumstances become so dire he cannot retreat to his rich inner life and must spend all his attention on navigating through the very serious dangers of surviving a concentration camp. But then it dawns on him that investigating objectively his reactions and moment to moment decisions to the circumstances of the oppressive situation, relieves him of his inner negative suffering. We get the understanding that before this moment, in his resentment at being left to the bare task of survival, he had a tendency to perhaps question what is the point of living at all, under the duress of camp life. It is a despondency of the meaningless of life that all of us might expect to fall into under such conditions. Yet to suddenly discover meaning in the very trying circumstances themselves, is a recognition that meaning is seemingly a prerequisite to life itself. That is, that meaning can be born out of the very act of bare existing.

For most of us, and even for Frankl himself, once his internment is ended by the destruction of the Nazi state, life returns to a normality and mundanity that itself he acknowledges can cause an evasion of deep meaning for any person faced with all the chores and distractions of an average life. Near the end of the book, in his expounding of his theory of psychology and psychiatry, he rejects the established Freudian based view that a person’s psychological suffering is due to pathologies seeded in their childhood. He confirms and honors a person’s sufferings by acknowledging that real convictions for one’s own meanings in life need to be discovered and sought out. In the beginning of that process and perhaps at various times along its trajectory, although one may have some guidance from teachers or mentors, there is some real struggle, doubt, and suffering. It’s these very sufferings that spur a person onward to find deeper meaning in life. To deny that struggle is to deny a person’s search for meaning.

From my own personal experience the fear of the loss of meaning, that is, the fear that my life adds up to no more than what is described by the modern capitalist term “consumer,” has always been a shadow. That other people may find that being a discerning consumer meaning enough to satisfy their existence, does not lessen my phobia to the idea. As a matter of course, I may say that one important meaning of my life has been to accept surfing the ridge between trying to engage in a life that feels like it has destinal and divine nature, and at the same time recognizing I am still one of those average consumers. One of the more important ways for me, of living a life of meaning, is to be creative. To start with a blank canvas, a white page, a soundless musical instrument, and from there create something of beauty or interest that others may also find beautiful, intriguing, or in some way having value.

The current path of my life has been leading me more toward that of a consumer. And this has raised those fears. Frankl presents a more enlightened meaning of the consumer in his explanation of the patterns of life. I find it richly valuable the triumvirate of meaning that Frankl describes in relation to what might be termed phases or periods of a person’s life. There is the passive life of enjoyment, the creative life, and the suffering life. In all three he describes the value and importance of meaning that can be derived from each stage or passage. The creative life “realizes values in creative work.” It is a doing thing. A becoming thing that has always been a draw for me. But Frankl recognizes the value people have for life focused on the “opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature.” The friction for me has been that this trajectory toward a life of pleasures leaves less time to the creative life, and thus I find myself sometimes suffering. It can be argued my suffering is not at all similar to the suffering of a person who is being distracted from their life of inner riches by the very real need to navigate the treacherous aspects of survival. But suffering can have a deleterious effect on our moods and spirit, no matter its source.

My trajectory toward a life of more passive enjoyment is a compromise to a relationship. Relationships themselves demand to narrow our scope of what it is we are free to do, so we can align with another person enough to share a fair portion of our time in mutual pursuits. These pursuits can be, more or less, activities that both people highly value. Now it is not that a person lives solely in a world of sensual enjoyment, or alternatively in a creative workshop, at certain times of their life. It is even true that these experiences, including unaccountable suffering, in say perhaps the death of a family member or other loved one, are engaged in throughout a person’s life, even within perhaps the same year, month, week, or even day. I’m a person that requires, and am quickly satisfied with, a small portion of the passive life of enjoyment. Once I’ve had my fill I want to return to a life of creativity. I share many of the pleasures of the person I’m having the relationship with, or can see the value and discover those pleasures of which I am unfamiliar. But that other person tends to want more time enjoying those pleasures. In their current stage of life they are not driven toward the creative life as much as I. Or perhaps in this stage of the relationship mutually shared experiences tend to be of the passive enjoyment kind, and with time will mature into a more creative stage.

I feel it’s important to add that Frankl recognizes and himself experiences that intense meaning in life can most assuredly be found in a deep devotion to a loved one or toward people to which he is devoted. The examples are many, from the visa offer to the United States he turns down in order to stay with his parents, observant of the predictable course of the anti-Semitism in Nazi occupied Austria. He conveys it in his feelings for his wife, of whom he has been separated from early on in their internment, and likely realizes her inevitable demise. Be that as it may, I can sometimes recognize a resentment arise in me based on fears that because I spend so much time with my partner, I will not have the time to engage in, let alone complete, cherished creative projects.

So, it is perhaps that I need to engage with this life of pleasures, that I am sharing with a loved one, in the same objective manner that Frankl engaged with the routines of concentration camp survival. In this way, I might find I suffer less and I will not worry of the longing to be writing, reading, or engaging in some other way with my inclination to create. And I will still be able to keep alive the spirit that finds value in the creative life. For it is that the creative life is to a certain extent dependent on projects that require commitment, time, and vision. When we currently don’t have that time, the creative person can lose the cherished vision of the projects, and thus suffer. But by using Frankl’s prescription of being the objective witness, I can trust that if the creative process and projects have a true value and power of their own, then time will manifest to practice those artforms and give those projects the time that is needed. All this without creating a resentment that clouds my moment to moment experience, and especially does not taint the relationship with a loved one.

Again, I don’t want to equate the suffering of a concentration camp inmate with the supposed suffering of the would-be artist diverted from pursuing her craft. But suffering is a relative experience. Whether or not you agree many sufferings are born out of our own delusions, finding the root causes of those sufferings and thus diminishing the actual suffering, is a step toward finding meaning in life. And once free of the suffering, more options to fulfil one’s existence, i.e., to find meaning, appear where before we saw only obstacles. My point here is to show that the knowledge Frankl conveys can be applied to any condition of life. It need not await a catastrophe like the one Frankl had to endure, in order to reveal the knowledge, or mature it into a theory worthy of modeling a therapeutic style of psychiatry, and writing a bestselling memoir.

Perhaps, that is why I find it so comforting that Frankl’s vision and tendency toward the creative life is so strong, that even under the duress of possible annihilation in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he tries to keep his ideas for his manuscript written down on scraps of paper, hidden from his tormentors. Even when those are destroyed and his life is almost certainly destined for a soon pitiful end, he finds pencil and paper and tries to recreate what he lost. It’s the same comfort I get when reading that J.D. Salinger carried his work-in-progress manuscript, The Catcher in the Rye, in his backpack when storming the beaches of Normandy. In the face of such an uncertain outcome for his life he maintains a space for his creative vision. This is more than something I could have done in my younger life, when I would sometimes succumb to thoughts of giving up on my creative pursuits, because I saw no way through the current impasses and more pressing responsibilities of my life, which kept me from engaging in the activities that could further my creative visions. It really is remarkable these habits of Frankl or Salinger and their ways of valuing something of meaning in their lives, that tends to expand beyond one’s life, even though its final fruition requires them to fulfill enough time in their lives to complete the kinds of projects that helped to give their lives meaning. It is honoring and valuing the very act of creativity, in the face of the possibility that its full fruition will not be realized.

All of this tends to reveal an actual effort in finding and maintaining meaning in one’s life. Frankl demonstrates often that this meaning requires a person to actively engage in assessing the values and meanings of one’s actions within the confines of the horrors of the camp life, from the objective mind of a witness to one’s own suffering, to his decision to stay with his patients in the sick ward of a camp, instead of transferring to a camp that would ensure a better chance of survival for himself. It is undeniable that a person has to actively engage in finding and maintaining the ideas, aspirations, and activities that give their life meaning. But it is the story of the dying girl from Frankl’s memory, that is remarkable and revealing of a natural tendency for our species to find meaning, even when seemingly all hope and energy is drained from the capacity to make an effort. It is almost as if it is effortless for meaning to arise to those available to it.

Without telling the story Frankl beautifully conveys, I’ll say it is an achingly heartbreaking, yet poignantly dignified story of a dying girl he met. She was well aware of her imminent death, but was deeply comforted in a conversation of love with a chestnut tree branch that she could see out a window, a couple of blooms still alight on the branch. When Frankl asked her if it responded he conveyed her response with the line.

“She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here–I am here–I am life, eternal life.’”

It’s almost as if the meaning of life has fallen like grace on this young woman, who may not have been able to muster any effort at searching for meaning whatsoever. It is the only part of the book that had me tear up unexpectedly while reading the passage, as I stood in line to enter a grocery store.

Finally, I think it is important to add one other phenomenal attribute a man like Frankl is able to cultivate with his ability to find deep meaning in the best and worst of life. This was his power to forgive. In the afterword of the book, it is revealed Frankl went back to his practice in Vienna without harboring ill will or hate toward some of his counterparts in the field of psychiatry that he knew were anti-Semitic and in alignment with the rounding up of the Jewish population of the city during the Nazi occupation of Austria. He rejected wholeheartedly the notion that a collective guilt be leveled at the mass population of a country like Germany. I’m sure this power of forgiveness served him well to greatly reduce the kind of suffering that victims endure when harboring hate toward those who have wronged them. It is a lodging of hate most of us would understand, and some of us would understand would need dislodging, if we wanted to continue to find and maintain higher meanings in life. I find it interesting that Frankl was initially determined to publish this book anonymously. He found self promotion abhorrent and although perhaps he would have accepted putting his name to publications based solely on his psycho-therapeutic theories, I can understand his notion that his discoveries and understandings of the meanings in life, as a sufferer to the horrors of Nazi extermination and concentration camp existence, should be conveyed as universal truths that so many would have had the opportunity to discover during such a trying time in human history. The potential reader of Man’s Search for Meaning might very well be apprehensive to visit this nightmarish period in human history. Our current state of affairs has plenty of trials and sufferings to effect even the most optimistic of us. But one leaves this book with convictions that the deep meanings to one’s existence can be discovered and deeply investigated, no matter the conditions of one’s life. It is a knowledge worth receiving, whether a reiteration of a truth one already knows, or a discovery that is just beginning to dawn.

Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part VII, The Chinese Garden and Gift Shop Rapture

You might agree that most gardens of an ornamental nature are intended to give the visitor a sense that the world is a beautiful place. And under the auspices of human ministration, the chaos of wild nature is tamed and framed into a kind of heaven on earth. We could say it is an attempt at creating transcendence. For if there is any place we should expect to experience timeless transcendence, it should be in a place called heaven.

Fan Kuan (early 11th c.), Travelers Among Mountains and Streams

My ideal of a heaven, which is closely aligned with true freedom, would more closely match the chaotic, yet elegant, wild nature you might find in a Northern Song Dynasty landscape painting. But I am not at all adverse to visiting manicured gardens around one of those pavilions that sometimes appear down in the corner of one of those ink on silk scrolls. Barely visible, they are dwarfed by the dark, woolly mountains and monoliths that dominate the landscape. But transcendence should not only spread out from the wilderness to the garden, but onward to the home, the city street, the work place, and even the market place. In the words of Dogen Zenji, the 13th century Japanese monk who discovered Zen in China, and brought it back to his country, “Those who regard mundane activity as an obstacle to the Buddha-dharma, know only that there is no Buddha-dharma in the mundane life; they do not yet know that there is no mundane life in the Buddha-dharma.”

On the Huntington Garden’s map guide is a place called the Chinese Garden, that looked to be in the direction I was headed on this last afternoon of my L.A. jaunt. I had not recalled seeing such a place in previous visits so I followed the meandering waterway past a stone Buddha propped up against the real and faux rocky embankment, where falling rivulets tumble down into the creek. Up ahead at a slightly higher elevation were what looked to be ornate Chinese structures surrounded by foliage. The Chinese Garden is dominated by these pavilions with moon gates, elegant marble tiled courtyards, an iron lattice and glass teahouse, and a wide pond filled with giant carp. All around the pond are unique rock formations displayed like sculpture. They are sometimes occasioned by Taoist, Buddhist, or Confucianist sayings carved in both Chinese and English. The rock formations are like twisted tufa, something out of a fantastical fantasy landscape. They are called gongshi, scholar’s rocks, and are of limestone with natural porous erosion, giving the shape like frozen curling smoke eaten through by giant, stone digesting termites. They come from only a few regions of China famous for these formations. Once I ascended to this Asian Rivendell I wondered along the ornate bridges and gazebos surrounding the pond and gazed at the reflection of the scene on the still waters. Here and there in small alcoves were specimens of penzai, the art form the Japanese imported from China, which came to be known in the US by the Japanese name bonsai. A few banners on the edges of the garden declared new pavilions that were due to be developed. The Chinese Garden is all new since I had visited this place before, and expanding. Another reason to frequent Los Angeles more often, as I was continually discovering on this L.A. excursion.

It was late afternoon and I had yet to make plans for my last L.A. meal. Pleasantly I discovered the pavilions around the iron latticed teahouse contained a small kitchen run by authentic Latino cooks. I ordered a rice congee dish that had a bit of pork sausage and herbs artfully dabbed in the center. I took my dish to a table just under the eaves of the teahouse and sat watching the pond while I fumbled around trying to recall my chopstick eating method. It was well worth the challenge as the dish was sublime. For some reason the Chinese Garden seemed more subdued, the wanderers less chatty than the crowd at the Japanese Garden. Maybe it was getting near closing time and there were just less people. Or maybe it was my interior that became more subdued as my phone battery had died, so I was freed from the compulsion to capture images. I lingered in this garden until dusk began its opening acts. The Huntington closes at 5:00 pm and this was a couple of days past the winter solstice. Hazy skies were already starting to wash out into the grey monochromes of early evening. I made a last circle around toward the Japanese Garden to discover another bonsai exhibit with some suiseki, the Japanese take on scholar’s rocks. These were black molten looking entities that called forth the hand to touch the smooth parts of the surface. As I descended the steps from the hill of the Japanese House I was directed by attendants to make my way toward the exit as closing time was approaching. I walked through the Rose Garden and the Shakespeare Garden. I took a flashing glimpse at a couple of statues in a classical sculpture dotted u-shaped hedgerow. Scenes and gardens I do hope to revisit again for a longer duration.

As it was a couple of days before Christmas the gift shop stayed open later, and as I wandered the store glimpsing the gardening and art books and other arty merchandise, I got that feeling again I sometimes get. That feeling that everyone is focused on the objects on the shelves, but are missing the real treasure in the room. That treasure is the people themselves. I know I complained slightly, in a previous post, of the overly chatty people in the Japanese Garden, but here they seemed more hushed, as they concentrated on what was worthy of a purchase. There were certainly busy holiday purchasing noises and friends and loved ones discussing the merits of books and objects. But here I could abandon the judgment of the value of goods and become enraptured with the simple movement of the people. I guess in a way, it was my own interior that had quieted down to such a degree a space opens where what one sees is simply what one sees, without judgement attached. Looking through these eyes is the place perhaps where unconditional love lies. It is unconcerned with political views and opinions of the people one gazes at, but just enjoys the exquisite human form, no matter if old or young, handsome or peculiar, joyous or sad. The variety of dress or mannerisms becomes something truly to rejoice in, whether or not they wear it well. The faces sculpted by years of those joys and pains. The sculptor working off a template of millions of years of evolution.

This reverie I can find myself in from time to time on a fairly regular basis, has only come later in life. And I believe as a result of years of meditation practice. It has the undeniable quality of what Buddhists call suññatā. The word translates as emptiness or voidness. Not the emptiness of loss or want, but the emptiness of personal attachment to any fixed idea of oneself. Even to an attachment to anything at all. It is the direct experience of this thing that one reads about called anattā. When one starts to really see all the phenomena of life and its resultant joys and sorrows one grasps at or tries to avoid, is impermanent, and then the grasping and avoiding is realized as fruitless. Thus one sees, as Bhikkhu Bodhi comments, “Since they cannot be subjected to control, these very factors of our being are anattā: not a self, not the belongings of a self, just empty, ownerless phenomena occurring in dependence on conditions.” Contrary to what one might expect of this realization, of a hopelessness that all is beyond our control, the experience is one of a profound love. A giddiness that blossoms like a blooming lotus in time lapse photography. It is the experience of unity beyond trite new age and hippie anachronisms that ‘all is one.’ And it is a rather quiet ecstasy, that one is reluctant to bring up with anyone. You can’t express it in words, and even if you think you could, you are certain your listeners would laugh it off as a marginal bit of your character that borders on fanciful lunacy. We all might agree everyone seems to have a bit of lunacy. If they are a spiritual seeker of sorts they’ll think your putting on airs, or worse they’ll be jealous of your seeming attainment.

In my travel bag book Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac, in the voice of the novel’s protagonist Ray Smith, occasionally regresses into his Neal Cassady inspired On the Road routine and descends into Mexican border towns to get drunk, smoke reefer, and cavort with prostitutes. At one point, after too many drinks he finds himself “yelling at old mustachioed Mexican peons ‘Todas las granas de arena del desierto de Chihuahua son vacuidad!’” You might argue this is that moment in my essay. But you’re not an old campesino and I’m not stoned and drunk. It’s not the vacuity of desert sand grains that creates this space I can find myself in. I don’t want to conjure up the idea of some mysterious mystical state or some rhapsodical samadhi beyond ordinary consciousness. I would say the average human, without the least bit of meditation practice, experiences something akin to suññatā when they are visiting exquisite examples of the natural world that are on display in a National Park.

Zabriskie Point

Not a view from Towne Pass, but an equally epic Death Valley view from Zabriskie Point.

When a camping buddy and I crest the Panamint Range at Towne Pass on Highway 190 and see the vastness of Death Valley horizons,  our breath is taken away. The beauty is so stunning the little concerns of our own ego, our likes and dislikes, our desires and wanting, are irrelevant. And since likely we’re going to be there for only a few days we make the most of it, by leaving our little mind concerns back on the roads we took to get there. I have a colleague and friend who doesn’t frequent National Parks much, but has a special fondness for visiting Cannon Beach on the coast of Oregon. When she gazes out at the ocean’s horizon and the sea stacks and the conifers along the dramatic coastline, I imagine during that experience there isn’t much concern for her place in the world or what will happen to her. And these states do seem to be available to us when we are in the natural world or perhaps when traveling, finding ourselves in new exotic places where our main duty is to be fully aware of all that is around us. Judgement of the things we see and experience is restrained, because we aren’t familiar, thus we are instinctively aware we do not understand enough to make any sort of judgement. And if we did, the imprint of such judgments would obscure the next scene or experience we might have in our exotic surroundings. But these are temporary moments that wash out when the situation turns uncomfortable. And especially once we are required to return home and attend to the minutia of our everyday lives. For me though, this opening of transcendence has become available and can occur in the very midst of my mundane life. Walking home from the bus stop, on a busy street corner, walking the campus full of students hurrying off to their next class, it’s all an opportunity to see through my expectations and judgments, to things just as they are. And when I do an extraordinary contentment and joy sets in. For a person who once raged at the congestion of a populous place like L.A., during even a temporary visit, having this experience of simple blossoming love, feels rather miraculous.

This is all well and good of course, but as one of my teachers likes to remind members of our sangha the ultimate point of the practice is to free oneself from dukkha, that is, from suffering. From a general malaise at the far less than ideal circumstances of our everyday lives. From being disappointed that events never turn out to our expectations. With this practice we discover that even a thing like ‘our expectations’ is a delusion. And that is the culmination of the Four Noble Truths. Yet these stretches of transcendence, whether overwhelming and bliss inducing, or subtler, like a soft hum underneath the routines of my daily errands, have a direct correlation to my ability to let the events of my life pass as they are, and as they were. Still, when this realization of the practice becomes most important to wield, when someone flips you the finger in that L.A. traffic congestion for an assumed driving slight; when the plate of food you paid good money for is bland and tasteless; and on further to when you, your friends, your colleagues, and your neighbors are on mandatory evacuation; if your home and belongings are burned up or washed away; and when loved ones die in such catastrophes, this is when the fruit of practice becomes real manna and sustenance to get you through in the end, with less damage to your well being and a shorter duration of grief.

But here’s the thing I’ve noticed about all these wisdoms one realizes for themselves through the practice. Although solid foundational cornerstones are laid and they do not go away, still there is a seeming precariousness, a fragility to attempting to fully live in this abode of equanimity. And it is dependent on how, and how much, a person takes in of the pleasures and pains of life. We like to think of travel as a heightened form of life, where sense pleasures are to be deeply indulged. As well, the potential for uncomfortable situations, for disappointments and even pain, are themselves heightened. The tenets of the Eightfold Path are more difficult to follow on the road. The Intention of Renunciation is more easily set aside. In Dharma Bums, even as Ray Smith is learning from the rucksack wandering renunciate Japhy Ryder, who himself is somehow able to manage travel and renunciation (albeit he does complain somewhere in the last half of Dharma Bums he should “get married, soon…” and that he was “tired of battin’ around like this.”), Smith is hitting the bottle far too often in his wandering state. It is only when he gets to the fire lookout on Desolation Peak, that he’s able to dedicate his attention to Right Concentration, as well as the involuntary renunciation seclusion demands. My own experience with the indulgence that travel affords can counteract potential stretches of transcendence. Even as the novelty of new places heightens my awareness and potential enjoyment, the temptation to not be prudent, to binge on the novelty, dulls the possibility of the opening of this experience of suññatā. And as there are many pleasures to be had the danger of an overstimulated ennui setting in is strong. As well, the inevitable discomforts will arise. The thoughts in my head have the potential to begin sounding like the narrative of some Paul Therouxesque slog through third world countries on decaying public transportation. It is possible I could become a mobile curmudgeon hitting the bottle of dukkha frequently. There’s something in the pursuit of the novelties of travel, that can be the very opposite of awakening.

I had no novelties to purchase at the gift shop, as I’d filled up on gifts or stocking stuffers at the Getty, to bring to Michigan. Even more than I could stuff in my carry-on baggage. As it was, I would need to check my baggage and carry an extra sack with gift shop spillover on to the plane. I let my unconditional love rhapsody subside, as it tends to do when thoughts of moving on to the next scheduled thing on the itinerary arise. I find if I try to extend the rapture beyond its natural life, beyond its waxing and waning, then the feelings become contrived, unnatural, and tarnished with ego and grasping. I just have to let it go and trust the impression stays in the background and helps to lead me to further feelings of loving kindness and harmlessness, those Right Intentions that bend toward less suffering and more harmony within myself, and with all those around me.

By the time I made it to the parking lot and the car it was dark. I listened to Google Maps Siri direct me through the elegant homes and neighborhoods of San Marino. As I knew, according to my agreement with the car rental people, that I’d have to be up at 3 AM, drive the rental back across L.A. to the Union Station, then hop a bus to LAX, I planned to get to bed early. I passed on the hotel room TV shows and read a little of Dharma Bums. Although most of the book takes place on the West Coast, Ray goes back to North Carolina and his family home for a spell. I was headed to my family home the next day. I always have good intentions to sink into a good meditation schedule when returning to that comely house in the hush of a Michigan winter. I usually fail in this endeavor. Ray seems to thrive with his practice and makes some real progress when he visits his family home. He even impresses an “old tobacco chewing stickwhittler” that maybe the meditation thing is a worthy endeavor that the old man might take on someday. After a heated argument with his brother-in-law about the denied freedom of a chained-up dog, Ray has a genuine enlightenment experience. How deep it goes or how long it lasts is up to the reader’s interpretation. Ray beat poets his own version of the Heart Sutra, “I am emptiness, I am not different from emptiness, neither is emptiness different from me…” At some point in a dream he declares, “I am Bhikku Blank Rat!” ‘O Sariputra, Form does not differ from Emptiness, And Emptiness does not differ from Form’ goes the real Heart Sutra. I would ask, ‘O Sariputra, is Jack Kerouac an inspiration for the would be Zen Buddhist?’ In the introduction to the Dharma Bums I was reading, the author Ann Douglas quotes a remark by Alan Watts, himself a character in the book named Arthur Whane, who urbanely discusses world affairs with a Kenneth Rexroth pseudonym while bohemian girls dance naked at a party. The Watts quote was that Kerouac had “Zen flesh but no Zen bones.” Even so, Kerouac’s pseudonym Ray was probably more successful than I was going to be back in our home towns. What with the holiday drink, the giant screen TV and endless cable stations, the sumptuous meals, and the inevitable entertaining that my folks provide with visiting dinner guests each night to meet their infrequently present son, my Zen flesh would drip off any fractured Zen bones I might have. Chances for rhapsodical transcendence would be slim to non-existent. But so it goes through a lot of this life. But even the mundane non-transcendent life can have a softer, less discouraging contentment. Somehow the same effort to reveal this thing called enlightenment or awakening, also reveals a simple, kindly contentment.

I ended up with maybe 5 hours of sleep and made do with a strong cup of coffee to keep me awake to the Union Station. I parked the car in the designated garage and attempted a stairwell up to the rental booth in the station to drop the key in a box. A young homeless man was fast asleep in the stairwell. My compassion, one of the attributes of the truly enlightened, has much more to grow. Besides, I only had time for a few moments of sadness for his condition, as I found an alternative route into the train station and waited for the Flyaway. For a modest $9 the Flyaway bus took me back across the city to LAX. Most of the city stays lit all night, but I slept. The caffeine had its effect when it was needed, but now I let myself be subsumed by drowsiness and an hour of unconsciousness.

Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part VI, Huntington Gardens

Los Angeles is a thriving city and buildings and gardens in a state of neglect, as I described in my last post on the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, is only a small part of the city’s landscape. For my last afternoon in the city I took the 110, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, a few miles east into Pasadena, or San Marino to be exact, to visit the Huntington Library and Gardens. I’ve been there before, once when I was a kid, and later when I lived with my brother in Anaheim. And the thing that enchanted me the most was the Japanese Garden. There are lots of buildings at the Huntington housing rare book collections and art, but the highlight of the place are the variety of ecologically-regioned gardens laid over several acres. There are the desert gardens with seemingly every kind of agave and cacti species. There’s a subtropical garden and an Australian garden. There are gardens dedicated to camellias and roses, palms and herbs. The plants all have labels giving you their Latin derived genus and species names. IMG_4893With Carl Linnaeus’s categorizing hierarchy inspired by monarchy, this place is a monument to the plant kingdom. I was a botany student for a stretch. I can tell you why plants are categorized into families because of their characteristics, their similarities. Asteraceae, Orchidaceae, Pinaceae, Moraceae. But here so much of everything is packed in like a living botanical library, where all the books are seemingly stacked willy nilly. There may be a method to the jumble, but when you have to house a huge variety of cacti from the Colorado to the Atacama Desert in a few acres, it is going to get crowded. Aloes of southern Africa send their bright orange inflorescences high above the fleshy leaves, jockeying with the agaves and the bromeliads, which have their own impressive blooms. It gives me that out of context feeling museums often engender. It fatigues me. I came here for something more transcendent than plant identification. I was hoping to locate it in the Asian gardens. An artifice that strives for natural authenticity; these gardens are created for one to move silently through stillness and poise. On my way toward them I wandered through a jungle habitat, then below tall eucalyptus of the Australian Garden. Southern California is no stranger to this genus, the Tasmanian blue gum long since naturalized. It was a busy afternoon at the Huntington and the crowds milling about gave the impression there are quite a few visiting Los Angeles that would prefer the subtle excitement of botanical gardens, to the thrill of Universal Studios. And probably quite a few locals here. Although the entrance fee is a demanding $29 at the door for the day, if you split an annual membership with a friend or loved one you’d beat that price with only three yearly visits. I’d be signing up if I lived anywhere near there.

The man behind all this, Henry Huntington, was a railroad magnate who later developed the Pacific Electric Railway Company in the Los Angeles area, the world’s largest electric railway system in the 1920s. Whether the auto industry conspired to dismantle it or its unprofitability sealed its doom, it was eventually swept away by internal combustion consumer madness. The rail line was ultimately a means to acquire and develop real estate, to which Huntington was very successful. His name is on lots of things in this area of Southern California. There’s a Huntington Drive of course, and a beach town bares his name, and a lake up in the Sierras created as a hydroelectric project to power his once extensive trolley car system. The other thing he did, like Getty, was to build an impressive art collection. Getting in on the post-World War I European art market boom, he then moved on to American art. The institution has also amassed a huge collection of rare books and manuscripts.

But I only had an afternoon and I was there to be in the gardens. I finally found myself around the Japanese House, the wooden platforms and steps, the moon bridge, and the bonsai gallery. The illusions of the bonsais as timeless ancient trees that only nature could sculpt is well represented. There was olive, gingko, elm, cypress; the juniper lends itself well to this art form. There was even a California coast live oak. A tree that knows well the twisted, curling branches and gnarled growth that gives the viewer a sense of timeless antiquity. The form of the little specimen didn’t match what a couple of centuries in the arid foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains would do, but it was a nice inclusion of a California native. It is a marvel that the roots of these trees are maintained in moss covered dirt held within the boundaries of rather shallow rectangular or oval ceramic pots. I seem to recall seeing other bonsai exhibits with age labels for each tree. Perhaps their absence here was better, giving more the illusion of timelessness.

I came around a corner to see the Zen garden with its raked gravel around stoic stones. A line of tall ginkgoes in golden leaf coloration stood on one side of a tiled walkway, the raked gravel garden on the other. I took my shoes off and sat cross legged on a wooden bench to gaze at the patterns of the raking and the stone islands. As much as I tried to maintain a silent mind I couldn’t help but be a little bothered by the chatting all around me. It seems the beautiful stillness that the gardens imply is only superficial. Something to be seen two dimensionally, as one talks with friends and family. Four kids sat or stood around a bench next to the Zen stone garden and stared at their smartphones talking about some game they were all involved in at that moment. Maybe there were pokémons in the stones that I did not see. But the kids weren’t even holding the phones up to the space to see them. This was all just an observation on my part. Nothing I was sad about. Just a pondering of how true peace and silent contemplation that such a place would instill, is only truly accessible through the interior of the people that are there. One could provide all the trappings of heaven, but the scattered worldly concerns and trivial mundanities of the visitors would soon make the heaven irrelevant. But I sat still on the bench long enough so the ebb and flow of people passing became superfluous. For some minutes I found myself completely alone staring at the carefully pruned juniper along the border of the raked gravel. People of course have the right to chat. I’ve spent many a hike in the natural world with a friend babbling on about worldly affairs, my own and the perceived rest of it in the abstraction I think of as the world. But this garden is specifically meant to hush the babble. I guess it would take more to do that than a short visit to this island of quiet contemplation in the chaotic sea of Los Angeles, but I was visiting alone, so it was accessible.

It was in a garden like this in my early adulthood where I had an epiphany of sorts. I had recently left home with everything I owned stuffed in my hatchback. I had a daytime job prep cooking in Austin, Texas, while I played guitar in 6th Street bars on open mike nights. I tried to learn live sound engineering from a guy named Delon at a place called the 311 Club. It seemed half way through the evening shows he was angry drunk and yelling at the owner of the club, of all people. The musicians I got to know lived in various stages of un-residents, as did I. Couch surfing, car sleeping, some of them maybe had rooms somewhere. The clubs didn’t need to pay anyone to perform. The supply far outpaced the demand. The singer in one band would come down off the stage near the end of their set with a big Stetson held upside down in the palm of his hand. He continued to sing as he held it out, so the crown would get fairly stuffed. Still, for an entire band it was measly pay. And the musicians on 6th Street jockeyed for attention, elbowing each other in the desire to be noticed. The Darwinian aspect of the whole thing turned me off. There was lots of alcohol and drugs. I had a daytime job but I wanted to get away from restaurant work. Maybe it was because I was fresh to the town and only just newly off on my own, away from home, but the whole thing depressed me. It didn’t seem these people were headed in a healthy direction, whether or not they were going to have success. Maybe I hadn’t completely understood at the time that I was looking for a healthy direction, whatever that might be. And this part of me was diverting from the musician part of me. Or at least I wanted a direction that wed both the music and a more wholesome lifestyle. That wasn’t what was on offer in Austin. If it’s offered anywhere for a performer.

It was a long time ago and all the forces that moved me at the time cannot be adequately accounted for. There was a Japanese garden on a hillside across Austin’s Colorado River. A place I visited a couple of times while I was living there. One night after another sordid evening on 6th Street, I found myself in that garden after closing time. There was no fence, nothing that stopped me from taking repose there on a waxing moon night. As I sat on a wooden bench and watched the reflection of the moon on a pond dappled with water lilies, I felt a profound sense of gentleness to my situation. Even a kind of promise of potential transcendence. A limitless horizon that was not contingent on whether I was to be a hot guitar player on the scene or not. It was so long ago, but I do remember the feeling. It was only shortly after that I ditched Austin and went out west to join my older brother. A series of discoveries, as well as mishaps, would follow, but it was a pivotal moment in that part of my journey.

At the Huntington gardens there is a pond below the Japanese House. I walked down to it to gaze at the moon bridge, then followed a path along a creek. The garden is carefully constructed to give the impression of nature as the gardener. Even so, evidence of concrete pourings made to look like granite and sandstone, which might improve water cascade flow and more dramatic pond edge reflection, still remind you that this is a nature inspired scene according to a human schedule. A lumpy contrivance that does not match a wild land trail through nature’s elegant chaos. An elegance that looks to have been maintained by a much more mysterious gardener who exists in a dimension beyond our comprehending. But these gardens are like the finger pointing at the moon. They are not the moon. But if you are quiet enough, and perhaps in need of direction, they can reflect the moon and point the way.

Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part V, Southwest Museum of the American Indian

The terminus of Mulholland Drive there at the 101 freeway brought me nearer to my first planned destination of the day in the Mount Washington neighborhood. Saturday is the only day of the week the Southwest Museum of the American Indian is open. Supposedly the oldest museum in Los Angeles, built in 1914, it had fallen on hard times at the end of the 20th century. The Autry Museum of the American West purchased the collection and museum in 2003.

Most Americans have an odd relationship with Native American history. They are both fascinated and impressed by the seeming independent and egalitarian nature of these cultures, but yet want to turn away as soon as the superficial historical anachronisms are seen through, and the genocidal habits of the dominant white culture in the encounter between the two are, if not made plain, at least suspected to even the most unsophisticated understanding of this history.

Attendance at the museum had been dropping. Then there is the sometimes dubious practices in which these institutions acquire artifacts of another culture’s ancestors – a theme that repeats in this travelogue, in a previous post – and is almost unavoidable when discussing any institution that collects historical art or artifacts of any nature. I once worked with a special collections librarian who had previously worked at the Southwest. He witnessed firsthand some nebulous accounting and acquisition methods that went on there.

Whatever the reason for its financial challenges, the Autry had acquired it and was storing most of the collection elsewhere. The only attendant I saw was a security guard manning the front desk. He told me they were not sure what would happen to the building. He mentioned something about it not being earthquake retrofitted. For sure it has been declared a National Treasure with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and its location on a live oak dappled slope overlooking the lower lands of the Mt. Washington neighborhood make it a prominent and intriguing building. Designed in a Spanish and Moorish style, the Caracol Tower and vanilla white exterior give it an Andalusian fortress quality. The only exhibit, other than some murals in the lobby depicting Pueblo dances by Native American artists of the Santa Fe Indian School, was a room full of Pueblo pottery. That and a lower level of the lobby gave a history of the museum and its founding.

The museum was the brainchild of a Harvard educated eastern journalist named Charles Fletcher Lummis, who opted to travel as a ‘rucksack wanderer’ when he was offered a newspaper job in Los Angeles. Making his way by foot he gave special interest to New Mexico, when he passed through that state. Later, in an effort to recuperate from a stroke that struck him in Los Angeles and avoid enemies he made as a journalist in Santa Fe, he found himself living with the Pueblo Tiwa people of Isleta, along the Rio Grande. Through this experience he became an advocate for the preservation of Puebloan cultural ways, often clashing with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their forced assimilation policies. Eventually he ended up back in Los Angeles as the head of the L.A. Public Library for a short time, but spent most of his time raising funds and promoting the establishment of the Southwest Museum.

After reading this history I peered through glass panels of doors into curator labs and caged storage shelves. A bit of office detritus littered the rooms with the feel of a hasty evacuation of all artifacts and their accompanying scholarship. But the Pueblo pottery exhibit was a room full of treasured artifacts that made the museum well worth the visit. It was a rich collection of old pottery, as well as contemporary, with descriptions of the different styles from various Pueblos. I took my time to read it all as I viewed the simple or elaborate designs and colors. Mono tones, two tones, and multicolored bowls and canteens of utility, as well as figurines and highly decorative designs intended only for display. Stories of the skilled artisans behind the works were plentiful when they could be identified.   The pottery was mostly made by women, but sometimes painted by men. Male potters were sometimes “two-spirit” people. Men who dressed and took on the traditional roles of women. With the arrival and use of metal and modern utensils the skill slowly declined for a while before anthropologists and traders began to promote the craft again amongst the Pueblos. Mainly for tourist’s consumption the little figurines and small pieces the tourists could take home with them, became the bulk of the potter’s output. Little rain gods, a tourist trade derived invention, packed barrels at Santa Fe trader’s shops at the turn of the 20th century. As the craft evolved and changed, the artisans gained recognition. Nampeyo, Tonita and Juan Cruz Roybal, Maria and Julian Martinez, Susana Aguilar, the artist’s names and their stories gave a fuller human dimension to the artifacts. To me it was all a nice change from the ostentatious luxury arts of the Golden Kingdoms I’d viewed the night before. But this was still exquisite art made by people of modest means. The pottery was ornamented with birds of prey and other fowl, serpents, Kachina figures, and various abstract patterns in the Southwest Indian style. Despite the false reports of a Coronado expedition padre, the Pueblos were not the fabled, gold-laden, Seven Cities of Cibola. The bowls were crafted from humble clay, and plant and mineral derived tints; all of it decidedly friendlier on my eyes than flashy gold and silver loot from fabled cities.

Despite the precarious future of the museum the exhibit put me in an easy state of mind. Admittedly this wasn’t the turn away history. I walked around the grounds of the museum situated on the hillside, as it is. Indigenous themed wrought iron sculptures dotted the courtyard. Contemporary renditions of Kachina-like figures danced against a wall. A tomol manned by four paddlers strove against a current of grey oval stones. A real wooden totem pole with an upside-down figure sporting an oversized phallus supported a colorfully masked face, a bear, and a seahawk’s head with its fiercely downturned beak. The grounds were a bit unkempt in that quaint decay I often enjoy encountering on my travels. Well groomed places don’t reflect as well a more intriguing history as do places with a hint of melancholy. I think it’s part of the reason people like ancient ruins. California fan palms floated around the red tiled roof; agave and toyon grew among the palm trunks.   A ubiquitous bleached and decayed cattle skull with broken horns lay beneath the deep red ‘hollywood’ berries of a toyon. There were concrete steps that led down to a light rail station along the Arroyo Seco Parkway. But they were busted up a short way down the incline with yellow caution tape barring the way. Some gardening utensils and a water hose were haphazardly strewn across the neglected gardens.

I believe the thing that attracts me to places like this is its obvious display of impermanence. Impermanence is often felt through the melancholy filter of decay, but the idea is part of that Noble Path called Right View. The understanding that, as Bhikkhu Bodhi says, “there is only a constantly disintegrating flux which, when clung to in the desire for permanence, brings a plunge into suffering.” And it is, when truly grasped, Right Wisdom. In the sangha to which I belong we occasionally sing, accompanied by a lovely man playing a guitar, a Pali chant that goes ‘All things are impermanent. They arise and they pass away. To live in harmony with this truth, brings great happiness.’ Of course, the impermanence of an orderly garden is an easy acceptance. It is a much harder challenge to live in harmony with the impermanence of a lost home and valuables that so many were encountering back in the ashes of that fire I was fleeing. Or the loss of loved ones that the mudflow would bring only a few days hence. But if we can recognize and get accustomed to impermanence even in the mundane passings of our lives, maybe we can endure it with more equanimity when it is an unavoidable reality that hits us straight on.

There is an organization called the Friends of the Southwest Museum that have been advocating a return to the full operation of the museum by the Autry. If it happens, this quaint setting of impermanence will itself be impermanent. The garden will be revitalized and maintained, the steps repaired, the empty rooms and shelves scattered with remnants of a hasty abandonment will all be reoccupied and organized for efficient research and curation. But then again the neglect could go on until more than likely it becomes the residents of some other institution, or even less ideal corporate offices. But that’s the thing about impermanence. Everything is in a transitory state. And though this quaint vision of neglect may go on for a while here, the chance that I will see this place again while it’s in this condition is close to nil. That’s the thing about passing through. Your chance to be intimate with a place is fleeting and very temporary. It is truly an experience of impermanence.

Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part IV, Mulholland Drive Sans Dharma

The next day was Saturday. I awoke and took my time before joining the folks in the continental breakfast room. The details of the slightly stale blandness bowled over with the cheap joy of sugar and fat I ate that morning I can’t tell you. It all seems free and so on a budget is unavoidable. As I crunched my frosted corn flakes at a table in the courtyard a couple asked if they could sit at the same table. As they sat down with their breakfast the woman pulled out a map of L.A.. 

“Are you here on vacation?” I asked. 

“Yes, first time we’ve been to Los Angeles,” the man responded in a Middle Eastern accent. 

We chatted a little. They were visiting from Lebanon. 

“You’ve heard of it?” the man asked. I made some mention about Beirut being known for fine cuisine, picking it up from an Anthony Bourdain episode. I certainly knew the country’s location on the planet and a bit of its modern history in the historical context of the Middle Eastern current political climate. They frowned at the Beirut cuisine remark. There was an implication it had lost whatever renown it had for such things under the duress of stressful political times. I’m glad I hadn’t mentioned the Bourdain episode, which was infamous for eye-witnessing the trapping of the chef and professional traveler with his crew in a hotel while the Israeli army lobbed shells at Hezbollah sites in and around the city, during the 2006 Lebanon War. They told me with the current Syrian crisis their country of 4 million Lebanese was struggling under the weight of 3.5 million Syrian refugees. They weren’t too impressed with refugee acceptance and assistance amongst other countries of the region. I decided not to bring up our own administration’s ban of Syrian refugees. 

But alas they were here to escape all that. Why not Paris or Tokyo or even New York City? What is it about L.A. that draws people from the other side of the planet, escaping the effects of living next to a war-torn country? It turns out it wasn’t the L.A. business hours, as they asked me why Californians didn’t open shop until late morning. I had to admit I’d noticed that myself. But I’ve been a Californian for a long time now. It doesn’t seem to be an issue while I’m living here, but only when I come to visit. They didn’t really have the time to answer my question on what brought them to this part of the world, which I didn’t actually come straight out and ask, as they were headed for Universal Studios. I suspect that mythic Hollywood thing had a strong pull. They said their itinerary was not full for the entire week, so I tried to interest them in visiting the Getty, just a few blocks along Wilshire and then a couple of miles of side road along the 405 next to Bel Air. Just a hop, skip, and a jump by L.A. distances. I wanted them to experience some L.A. culture, along with the amusements. I don’t know much about Southern California amusement parks these days. The last time I was at Universal Studios I was 12 years old and the most exciting thing was that oversized great white shark manikin they dragged along side your tram ride. They were still splitting Cecile B. DeMille’s Red Sea, for heaven’s sake! Or for the Hebrews’ sake, that should be. I’m not sure the couple were going to take up my suggestion, but I wished them a good time and set off for my own L.A. amusements. 

It turns out I was heading up alongside the 405 myself. Mulholland Drive can be picked up in Bel Air. It’s a twisty turny camino. At points the Valley appears spread out before you, other times it’s just trees and tall shrubs behind which live supposed celebrity types in, if not mansions, very ostentatious homes. I did see a few homes of more modest means. At least modest for Bel Air, Laurel Canyon and the Hollywood Hills. At a couple of pull offs there were display boards describing natural history, really the attempt at preserving some remnant of natural history, there in that upland. 

One spot named after a couple called the Melhorns described a natural corridor between the eastern terminus of the Santa Monica Mountains, those brown green scrublands around the Hollywood sign, and the wider wilderness areas to the west above Malibu. Natural corridor is a generous word for not much more than a steep hillside and a few yards of more level ground between the Drive and someone’s swimming pool laden backyard. Maybe not that challenging for Wile E. Coyote, but more doubtful for a shy mountain lion. And yet the famous Hollywood cougar P-22 did it, and even crossed the 101. But he’s a lone bachelor. I’m not sure the Hollywood Hills residents walking the trails of Griffith Park with their pets would be too keen on maintaining a thriving apex predator population in the heart of La La Land. Another pull off was dedicated to a once local resident, a Barbara A. Fine, who put in probably quite an effort to save from development a small gorge that bent down to the San Fernando below. A later map inspection revealed a series of canyon parks that ran together on the north side of the ridge just above the CBS Studios. Maybe these nature preservationists are the real heroes of the Hollywood Hills.  

I did see quite a few bicyclists riding along Mulholland. The ridge the Drive traverses is not a uniform elevation. The ride would be a real workout. An endurance test if you decided to take it from where it starts just off the 101 before Woodland Hills all the way to its completion at Cahuenga Pass, at yet another section of the 101 called the Hollywood Freeway. Now that would be an adventure. And a challenge. Perhaps a risky one in sections, with lots of hidden bends, blind spots, and zero shoulders. Not sure I’ll ever do it but it is worth imagining. 

I stopped at the Universal City Overlook and peered down at the studios or theme park or whatever amalgam of the two Universal Studios has become. They were certainly smart to give Disneyland a run for its money. They even encroached into Disney’s Orlando territory. But now Disney owns a good chunk of Hollywood production these days. Their studios were somewhere within my gaze. I could see some bit of baby blue, the façade of some sort of ride. There was the form of a darkish castle, like the alter ego of the Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom artifice. What it was I was seeing I really couldn’t tell you. Beyond all that, the white hangar size buildings of the Warner Brothers Studios lay like a frosting layer. It then becomes the grid of Burbank up against the brown Verdugo Mountains, creased with a few grey-green ravines. It’s not that I look down my nose at such forms of entertainment. Maybe I am slightly guilty of that, but I try to look past my urbane bias. I have a colleague and friend with two Master’s degrees who delights in frequenting Disneyland, with or without a visiting kid relative or friend’s child in tow. She assures me it has a special quality that gives her joy. There are a series of theme parks in Mexico, along what is called the Maya Riviera, for which I have a fondness. Of course, I’ll have arguments for why I think they’re better than the rollercoaster strewn mayhem of Magic Mountain or Cedar Point, that park on the shores of Lake Erie I do remember was a thrill to my Midwestern childhood. Those arguments will be something about cultural sophistication and a reflection of the country’s heritage, as well as a highlighting of the natural world that is found in the region. But it’s all opinion. I have another colleague, a Mexican American, who thinks those Quintana Roo theme parks are too commercial. There are archaeologists and anthropologists who frown on the misrepresentation in those parks, as well as the damage they do to the archaeological sights they are built around. Perhaps I need to revisit an American theme park. See if Disney’s California Adventure Land really does portray the Golden State in a nuanced and intriguing way. I have a feeling somehow, I’ll be let down. Or maybe I’ll just have to bring a kid, some nephew or something, and we’ll descend from this road and see what better things are in store, beyond the animatronic shark. I’ll have fun because the kid will be having fun. At least, that is how it’s supposed to work.

I got back on the Drive and just past Runyon Park started to see glimpses of the L.A. side of the ridge. I arrived at another overlook named after a Jerome C. Daniel. Another conservationist of these celebrity speckled hills. The work of these people really were the Hollywood Hills heroes I enjoyed that day, affording the public views and protecting the landscape from complete development saturation of every acre of high value real estate. Whatever you might think of William Mulholland and his underhanded water rights acquisitions, or that one catastrophic dam design and inspection mishap that ended his career, you might agree this road turned out to be just the right offering to the people of Los Angeles that he envisioned it would be. 

I walked down below the stone constructed view point full of people taking selfies with the Hollywood sign or the L.A. skyline in the backdrop. I made my own smartphone memory with a slow video panoramic of the Hollywood Hills, the sign, Griffith Park Observatory, the tall buildings of downtown, and eventually the rest of the L.A. basin curving around Santa Monica Bay with the hump of the Palo Verdes upland and a mirage of a distant Santa Catalina out at sea. It was a hazy overcast day and it lent a slight solemnity to the movie picture. With a little iMovie filtering and Buck Owens’ Act Naturally for a satirical soundtrack I thought it turned out to be a passable minute long vid for social media. But Instagram suppressed my posting with warnings that I most likely did not have copyright permissions to use this recording. Hollywood has been vigorous of late developing ways to protect its intellectual property on the Internets. I was a little let down. The very tune was recorded in that Capital Records building meant to look like stacked 45s in a jukebox, which passes mid minute through my panoramic.

There’s a certain irony in attempting to be sardonic to a scene or city landscape you partly believe to be purely mythic. Often mythical on the delusional side. This was only a couple of months after the Harvey Weinstein story broke. Star studded careers were starting to fall like Buster Keaton movie set props. Its reputation as a seedy, perverted, Roman emperor like court atmosphere has been invigorated, as of late.  The irony is, there I was stopping to gaze at it, as if I myself was secretly attracted to that vague shadow of mystery that such places hold behind their myths. After all, I spent a good portion of my adolescence consuming what came out of Hollywood. 

Anyway, I wanted to indulge in my own little creative commentary to an industry that greatly fuels L.A.s engine. Although I am a fan of the free culture movement or even a copyright abolitionist when my idealism gets the better of me, Instagram and the lawyers representing the entertainment business dampened my creative spirit enough to reconsider the posting. Maybe I’d compose a fingerpicking melody or two I could lay down behind my panoramic short. It wouldn’t be as good as the Buck Owens’ musical satire of Hollywood dreams. But maybe it is perfectly lawful in other alternative realities of my mind that Buck’s estate and the family of the original composer of the song, still make some income off that diddy. Not that I could have generated income with my posting. But go ask Mickey Mouse about such laws and you will get a strong vote for their maintenance and even coverage into realms void of commerce. After getting the raw footage and a good view of the Hollywood Bowl venue just beneath the lookout, I got back in my car and descended to the Hollywood Freeway.

Postscript – Above, I embedded the intended video after all. 

Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part III, Tesoros of the Pre-Columbian World, Only in the Metropolis

Eventually it came time for my appointment with the specialist. Specialist? This is a story about you on vacation, right? Well, yes. But perhaps I should give the initial reason for this L.A. excursion in the first place. As I mentioned before, I used to dislike, even abhor L.A.. The traffic was always my excuse but I also felt the city was less than picturesque. The urban sprawl reminded me of the unfettered expansion of the human race, to the detriment of the natural world. Or at least I felt that way. I would get claustrophobic and let the congestion and busyness clog my head and thoughts. I wouldn’t have admitted or even understood that a lot of the congestion and busyness was all in my head. The kind of understanding that comes from a few years of meditation, that Path of the Eightfold that is Right Concentration. Back then I would have had zero meditation experience. The only glimpses of Buddhist thought gleaned through an evening hour show on KPFK of old recordings of Alan Watts. A Brit relocated to the West Coast, in the 1950s and 60s he was an expounder of eastern philosophy who disguised himself as a Zen Buddhist, but was more a kind of Taoist court jester. After my escape further north to Santa Barbara I was able to explore and ingest some of the teachings from various advocates, and take on more the actual practice.  

Now it wasn’t the fire lookout at Desolation Peak that Japhy hooked up for Ray Smith in Dharma Bums, the novel I had with me on this L.A. excursion. A seclusion that enabled Ray to take a weak zazen with dogs in the North Carolina woods, to the guffaws of his family, and mature it on a mountain top on the edge of the Canadian border. But for me, compared to L.A., Santa Barbara was just the right kind of ‘little seaside hamlet,’ as my brother called it on a visit up from his Orange County life, to enable me to see more clearly what it is I should be doing or heading toward in life. That is, to use what Bhikkhu Bodhi, the author of that other book I was carrying, calls “wise consideration.” To see that the seeds of suffering are sown in the mind first, before they are visibly manifest. I made a switch from the manic desperation of restaurant work to the plodding shelving of bookstore work. I had lots of open wilderness with which to retreat and start to notice that the cacophony was just as much in my head, as it was out and about on the streets and places of business of the town. Meanwhile, I had no inclination whatsoever to venture down into the behemoth that was L.A./Orange County. The idea of planning a few days in the city would have been a seedling I quickly squashed with deep L.A. fear and loathing. But as I’ve mentioned before, that would have been a while back. My head is in a different place these days. And more recently I’ve been seeing a health specialist with an office in Santa Monica. I’ve been going once a month for the last few months, and while I’m down in the city I take in a sight or two and get a mouthful of L.A. cuisine. The city has grown on me. There’s plenty of interesting culture spread out amongst the sprawl. Another specialist appointment and a scheduled flight out of LAX, combined with a needed respite from a burning Santa Barbara County, funneled me toward taking the few days for this jaunt through the City of Angels.  

The Getty Center, Santa Monica, and Santa Monica Bay beyond

My specialist visit a few blocks from the Comfort Inn was routine and uneventful, so I had the late afternoon to carry on with whatever I could fit in of the town. There was an exhibit at the Getty Center, just up the 405 a little north of Santa Monica, which in its own way was another draw to hit L.A. up before the end of the coming month, when a particular exhibit would head off to the Met in New York. It was titled Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas. I’m writing a novel with some tangential theme of New World gold running through the plot. I had gotten word of the exhibit’s existence from a colleague and going on adventures with the excuse of research is always a nice draw. The Getty Center grounds is a unique space to be in with its Italian travertine stone, water sculptures, gardens, unique architecture and naturally lit lobbies. The Center’s history is itself the stuff of luxury arts.

The Lansdowne Hercules, circa AD 125, Roman.

With the fortune he made from the oil industry J. Paul Getty, the man infamous for initially denying a ransom payment for his kidnapped grandson, began collecting Roman statues from aristocratic Brits. These aristocrats, during the height of the British Empire, would set them up in their parlors to impress their friends and acquaintances that they should be associated with the power and influence of the Roman and Greek elites.

The Getty Villa

Eventually, long past he was declared the richest man in the world, he opened a museum in Malibu, which later became a replica of a first century Roman villa, built on a bluff in Pacific Palisades. Now years later, after his death and its consequential huge endowment, making the institution one of the richest museum trusts in the world, a complex of buildings had been built on a ridge in Brentwood, overlooking the L.A. Basin. 

The exhibit was a fantastical collection of pieces from Latin America from 1200 BCE to the beginning of the Spanish colonial period, and stretching from southern Peru to Mexico. It was a trove of art treasures fashioned from gold, silver, jade, turquoise, and sea shells, as well as other elements of the natural world. There was Moche jewelry and Wari textiles of Peru, stirrup-spout vessels and ceramic figurines from Trujillo, golden animal figures from Colombia, Olmec jade repurposed by the Maya, the Aztecs themselves repurposing Mayan pieces. If there was an advanced civilization in Latin America going back 3.2 millennium it was represented here. And where ever you have civilization you have elites and royalty. The average Chavinian would not have been snorting psychotropic plant powder from elaborate feline-imaged snuff spoons carved of bone. The exotic bird feathered tabard would have been placed over the shoulders of a Nasca lord. The rare Aztec gold works not destroyed by the conquistadors, consisting of diminutive bell pendants and ornaments uncovered in recent excavations of the Templo Mayor, would have likely been crafted in workshops of Moctezuma’s palace at Tenochtitlan. Later, I was able to read the exhibition catalog, titled the same as the exhibit. It provided rich histories to the pieces and cultures that produced them. 

Detail of a Nasca tabard made of Amazonian bird feathers, circa A.D. 500-750

To argue whether this all represents greed might be an unnecessary elaboration. We don’t know if there were ascetic monks, at least I have not read of any evidence of such things in my perusal of Latin American pre-Columbian history. There may have been some, but most urban priests of these cultures would have likely been elites wearing shiny gold body ornaments that clinked, and jade necklaces that rattled, the sounds and sights dazzling the masses as these priests and lords performed their rituals upon the altars and pyramids of the cultural centers. It sounds like priests of most cultures, at least when it comes to the decorative dress during rituals and services. No patch robe monks here. Not that Buddhists monks were innocent of acquiring riches and comforts over time. The Buddhist temples and monasteries of Asia attest to the wealth attracting power that assumptions of holiness bestow on those assumed to be holy. But this museum, itself founded by a power player, opted to exhibit the finest that pre-Colombian artists, in the employment of the royal houses, could produce from the most valuable natural material the vassal regions had to offer.

Maya bar pendant with glyphs and figure, A.D. 690-725. Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.

In a way, it represents perfectly what the metropolis holds near its core. Los Angeles is the second largest city in the country. Big cities attract power players. In fact, we could say they are funded by power players. The wealth they represent is the wealth achieved through lobha, a Pali word Bhikkhu Bodhi defines as “self-centered desire: the desire for pleasure and possessions,…the urge to bolster the sense of ego with power, status, and prestige.” Is the viewer, the wanderer amongst the display cases of a metropolitan museum, guilty of partaking of this lobha? It’s a question a Buddhist might ask themselves. Do cities make those attempting some level of renunciation slightly guilty, tarnished, lessened somehow? The temptations certainly are there to kick around vows that have been taken. The canon of tales from the Bible’s Prodigal Son to Johnny Cash’s Don’t Take Your Guns to Town, attest to the dangerous folly such places can induce. Bhikkhu Bodhi belongs to a sect of Buddhism that tends to hold those vows seriously. Right Action includes “abstaining from taking what is not given.” There are many layers to what is considered unwise action that breaks this vow, including fraudulence and deceitfulness. What was on display in these cases came to this exhibit through many different means. In many cases, they were originally, long ago, the result of grave robbery. You might say that is a bit of unfortunate history that does not devaluate the exhibit’s legitimacy. Fair enough. A majority of the objects in the exhibit were on loan from Latin American institutions. But a good portion were held in private collections of US citizens and institutions, like the Rockefeller Collection, Harvard’s Peabody Museum, and the whimsical sounding Dumbarton Oaks. Not to say that entire collections are illegitimately owned, but we know the manner in which valuable artifacts of these types tend to flow from the nations of their origin, to richer nations. Or whether everyone of an origin nation is in full agreement with the legitimacy of an archaeological dig carried on by a foreign institution. Even the Getty is in dispute with the Italian and Greek governments over their Roman and Greek antiquities at the Villa. A recent criminal indictment forced a curator’s resignation. But I hadn’t ingratiated my way into the presence of an English duke in his Roman statue strewn parlor. I paid a nominal $15 bucks for parking, actually $10 for arriving after 3 pm, to indulge in what only the wealthy could have seen 250 years ago. Should a citizen of very modest means not enjoy the spoils of her parent nation? Whether Krishna would allow the common man Arjuna’s province, when it comes to cultural experience, I cannot say. I think Jean Paul Getty decided so with the death purse of a modern Krishna. Other than the parking, and the gas to get there, the Center’s admission is free.

Ceramic figures from Moche culture of Peru, circa A.D. 525-550

But such treasures on display to a wealthy nation’s public may do another thing that to some degree counteracts the ethical ambiguity of some if its pieces’ proprietorship. We can recognize and respect the aesthetic and artistic genius of these ancient indigenous American cultures. The exhibit itself was part of a Los Angeles wide effort among its museums and collections to recognize the values and achievements of Latin American regions and people, both historically and contemporarily, especially wise in a city with a majority Latino population.  

Figurine from the Wari culture of Peru, A.D. 600-1000. Made of spondylus shell and stone and metal inlay.

After a while, the solid precious metal pieces were less attracting. More intriguing to me were the Moche gold ear lobes with shell and turquoise inlay in the shape of some winged Olympian-like runner with the face and beak of an owl. There was the whimsical figure made of metal and shell inlay sitting atop a spondylus shell like some pre-fall Humpty Dumpty wearing a colorful tunic, all crafted by a first millennium Wari artisan. The elegant craftsmanship and imagination of these artisans and their cultures were reflected in a variety of mediums from elegantly shaped Moche ceramic figures of mythic animals, to intricately carved limestone reliefs of exquisitely dressed and bedecked Maya queens. Even 16th century Europeans appreciated the elegance of the works that survived the dull belligerence of conquistador handling or ignorance, and somehow found their way to the cultural centers of the Old World.

Moche ear ornament from the tomb of the Lord of Sipán, circa A.D. 640-680

It is a curious phenomenon that a greed so intense, even Cortez described it as a disease of the heart, would be so blind as to completely destroy the human element of the very objects it coveted. But of course, the Spanish were only interested in one substance, of which some of the objects were made. Near the end of the exhibit was an ingot of gold, the product of Spanish crucibles. It had all the elegance of a squared off lump of dough. The ingot was unearthed from the sediment of Mexico City and a possible candidate for the hundreds of thousands in pesos of gold bullion that became death yokes, dragging down Spaniards to drown in Lake Texcoco as they fell from the causeways of Tenotchtitlan, in the flight and fight of La Noche Triste. The wicked energy that greed has, the element the Pali canon points to as a significant source of suffering, can even lead to early, ignoble death. The Aztecs were astonished at what the Spaniards valued, these bearded men who dismissed those things of obvious beauty and craftsmanship. Textiles and jadeite carvings were completely ignored. Although the gold, this ‘excrement of the Sun,’ could be hammered or casted into many a mythic nagual, the Aztecs, like the rest of the Latin American cultures, valued more the earth colors of the raw material they used to craft their luxury arts. The jadeite, malachite, quartz, and turquoise represented the blues of water and the greens of plants, the true sources of sustenance and life. Seashells were the “daughters of the sea, the origin of all waters.” Spaniards would strip out the gold embellishing and fastening feather headdresses made of quetzal, roseate spoonbill, and fiery hummingbird, tossing the plumage to the dirt. The physical and cultural destruction was fantastical.  But in Buddhist understanding there is a kilesa, the Pali word for these roots of suffering, that is just as destructive. The reason this exhibit mostly contains artifacts on loan from Latin American collections, and were recovered from excavations of temples and tombs, is that almost all surviving pieces that arrived in the Old World during La Conquista, and were valued by more enlightened Europeans, were eventually destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. Aversion, the kilesa on the opposite pole to greed, dominated the emotions of those who saw only idolatry and evil in the works of art they did not understand. This aversion, dosa to the students of the Buddha, is expressed through dis-qualities Bhikkhu Bodhi likens as “rejection, irritation, condemnation, hatred, enmity, anger, and violence.” What is even the more curious phenomenon is that both these twin towers of dukkha, have in the end the same destructive result on the living treasures of a unique and rich culture. Of course, these are the extremes of these kilesas, but even small helpings are destructive of our day to day happiness and peace of mind. 

Codex Zouche-Nuttall, Mixtec from Oaxaca, Mexico, A.D. 1350-1450
Mask of the Red Queen of Palenque, Maya, A.D. 672, Chiapas, Mexico


Three and a half hours wasn’t enough and I had to quickly glance at Aztec codices and regretted not having more time to gaze at the Mask of the Red Queen of Palenque. A mosaic masterpiece of jadeite and other stone inlays, crowned with a greenstone and shell headdress. The exhibit itself was strategically arranged with a gift boutique at the end, instead of relegating Pre-Colombian tomb booty look-alikes to the museum’s gift shop, with all the other souvenirs. There was still the matter of finding a Christmas gift for my mom. This was that season that is supposed to represent giving, but has a certain whiff of greed, through the prism of rampant consumerism. I had a friend from Mexico City once. He told me at the time, Mexicans weren’t into overzealous gift giving. He invited me to go with him to that metropolis for las Posadas. The stretch of days in December with family, friends, and celebration, where no one is turned away for lack of money or vacancy. Anyhow, I had been dazzled by the riches of the exhibit and succumbed to purchasing a shawl vaguely reminiscent of ancient textiles I’d just seen. Whether it becomes a pointless bit of drapery in my parent’s house was less concerning than the freedom from the pressure of obligatory gift selecting I had now achieved. Did I walk away with an idea or two to inspire my novel? I can’t say for sure. These things don’t necessarily work in such a linear way. One never knows what has been experienced in the flesh, that will later feed and clarify your imagination.

If I was an ancient Maya I would have taken the contrail from a rocket launched at Vandenberg as a good omen. As I walked to the tram and stepped down the travertine steps it lit up the evening sky above the Pacific in the form of a ghostly white stallion’s head, neck and mane. It was like a giant milky mother of pearl inlay you only get in a few places on occasion, like here in the skies of this part of Southern California.  

That night I decided a more modest meal would do, so I walked down a couple of blocks from the Comfort Inn and found a fairly simple looking place that offered standard American fare. Something maybe a half notch up from a Denny’s. Coogie’s Café Santa Monica had a special about 10 dollars cheaper than my entrée the night before. A handful of older people populated a mostly empty diner. Although the salmon and rice were cooked to just the right consistency it lacked flavor. The peas in the split pea soup seemed to have been done al dente. I’m not sure if that is a culinary thing but I like my split pea soup to be rather less crunchy. I felt myself longing for the gourmet sensations of the night before. The waiter, in his thick Hispanic accent, was gracious, even warm and friendly, inquiring where I would be spending Christmas and with whom. In the end, due to his Right Speech, I had to leave the full 20% tip. It wasn’t his fault the food was bland. He just brought it to me. But perhaps that is ultimately the thing about the Buddhist Intention of Renunciation while on vacation. It’s not that we should avoid extravagant meals, but that we should respectfully, even gratefully, accept the dining choice we’ve made and what has been brought to us. Sending an overdone steak back to the kitchen is not a problem, but we should do it with a smile. And we should make the most of what has been provided. But being a food critic is probably not something I should pursue. Foodies and renunciation are two concepts that are hard to reconcile.   

That was it. I had exhausted my day. Suffice it to say I’m reaching this thing they call middle age. I have little interest in the nightlife of a city. I know L.A. is supposed to be a town of bar and club fun, and maybe there is somewhere in the sea of happening places such a place that fits just right for a rather detached, mild-mannered man, adverse to over excitement. But the work and inevitable initial failed attempts to find such a place in this vast sprawl of a city, is beyond my capacity to enjoy. So I caught a little more Antique Road Show and the tail end of this holiday season’s running of the Wizard of Oz, on the room TV, before going to sleep.

As I drifted off to my own land of Oz I recalled a cultural anthropologist explaining a theory that the Wizard of Oz, the original novel, was really an allegory of the 1896 William Jennings Bryan presidential campaign. Bimetalism, the addition of silver to the gold standard to pump needed cash into the economy, was the front and center issue of his campaign. Dorothy’s family represented the mortgaged Midwest farmer. The Tinman was the proletariat without the heart to support their brethren, the indebted farmer. The Lion was the political elite without the courage to assist the farmers. The Scarecrow was of course another representation of the farmers, apparently without the brains to avoid the situation to which they found themselves. The Wicked Witches of the East and West were the bankers and developers of the coasts who were, according to the author, the real perpetrators of the financial crash that brought on the Panic of 1893, the catalyst for the farmer’s dire situation. I couldn’t tell you what everything represented in the story. And probably the film producers had no inclinations to these original metaphors, if they were in fact originally intended by the author, when they built their Kansas and Oz in Culver City studios, just a few blocks south and then up Venice Boulevard, from where I was sleeping at the Comfort Inn in Santa Monica. But I had a question about how the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West fit in with the allegory. 250px-wicked_witch2 Why would the application of water be a bad thing to financial wheeler dealers of the West Coast? The lack of water is the real fear that would melt any developer’s vision of a West Coast empire. Los Angeles exists by the grace of acquired water rights. And that is thanks to one of its modern visionaries and developers William Mulholland. As I lay on the hotel bed I lost control over my thoughts meandering through story metaphors of late 19th and early 20th century economic and political times, and they mingled with my plans for the next day. Mulholland? I did note earlier while perusing the L.A. travel guide a mention of Mulholland Drive. I had intentions of visiting sites east of Griffith Park and that road took me in the direction. The guide touted views of the city, which were mostly of San Fernando Valley I later discovered, and the chance to drive amongst the homes of Hollywood’s power players. The latter was to my mind mostly a meaningless idea, but the guide meant to lend a vague shadow of mystery to traversing the road. With my morning plans anchored to a stretch of pavement I gave myself permission to descend into the dark unconsciousness of sleep.  

Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part II, Less Dharma, More Santa Monica Art Galleries

I woke up fairly late on my second day in L.A., feeling a bit ornery. Maybe it was the residue on my gut of the amontillado from the night before.  I ate some of the continental breakfast in the small dining area crammed with vacationers. It looked like an international crowd, spoke like one, but mostly English anyway, if accented. L.A. is an international city, so perhaps they were Americans with origins in other places. I glanced around as I pretended to mostly watch the big screen with the CNN heads talking and the volume muted. Sugary instant oatmeal and an unripe banana was my fare. Hey, it’s included in the price and it somehow calmed my ornery gut. Once I got myself collected and reviewed the L.A. travel guide, I found something interesting close by to which I could walk.  

The business areas of Santa Monica I walked through are full of new buildings with modern architecture, and some repurposed stuff. My destination was a set of train depot warehouses called Bergamot Station, repurposed as an art gallery village. The Metro Expo Line still stops there, with people as its cargo. There was a café and a playhouse in amongst the old wooden and tin roofed ex-warehouses. I got there around 10:30 but few galleries were open. It had all the commotion of a ghost town. ‘Come on!’, I thought. ‘This is just a few days before Christmas. Don’t you want to sell me some art?’ I peeked inside a couple of the open ones and saw mostly contemporary art. I have mixed feelings about contemporary art. I could tell just by looking through the plate glass doors of galleries that the canvases displayed strange shapes and abstractions I would not understand. I’m sure I didn’t look like anyone that would or could spend money on such things. Still I’d feel the clumsy critic by walking in and walking out, after staring at a couple of pieces and scratching my head. Maybe if I wasn’t the only one there I’d have ventured in, saw, and slipped out unnoticed. Where are all the Angelenos at 10:30 AM on a Friday? Working? They’re certainly not working in galleries. Of course, I’m not completely unappreciative of contemporary art. All art was once contemporary art. And these days contemporary art tends to be what an unsophisticated viewer like me calls modern art. Modern pieces or surreal stuff can sometimes intrigue me. I recall a history of photography class I took a couple of years ago. It fired up an interest for me in unconventional images. The machine aesthetics of Paul Strand, the macro grace of a bell pepper by Edwin Westin, or the political commentary of the Dadaists’ collages could not have been conveyed using previously conventional subjects. The disturbing masks of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s family and friends or the animal carcasses and doll parts of Frederick Sommer leave a space of suggestive mystery in the mind, that can be deeply intriguing. I’m not sure I’d hang any of it on my wall, but you never know. The more we learn and are exposed to, the more our tastes can change.  

To that end, I wandered into a place called the Lois Lambert Gallery & Gallery of Functional Art. On the walls hung a series of photos of hand grenades decorated in various motifs by Canadian artist David Krovblit. There was the Faberge egg grenade, a Ming dynasty vase grenade, and a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can grenade. It started to veer into Adbuster-type themes with a decaying Rothmans King Size grenade, the Federal Express logo grenade just read FedUp Express, the Shell Oil grenade omitted the S to read Hell over the scallop shell, McDeath was written over the Golden Arches. I have no idea whether these were objects created and then photographed, or if they were heavily enhanced by Photoshop. Probably the latter.

It seems Mr. Krovblit spent years as a commercial photographer making a comfortable living with the tricks of the advertising trade. And now as an artist he was conveying his true feelings for the indiscriminate marketing mentality to which he had aligned his previous life. You can derive whatever social or political statements strike you from the use of a hand grenade as a canvas, but perhaps the photographer was working out a bit of karma. Enticing people to consume things they don’t need with images designed to generate desire and craving, could be easily defined as the opposite of Right Speech. Art is sometimes created in an attempt to make amends. The song Amazing Grace was written by a repentant one-time slave trader.

I wandered the little gift shop of the gallery. A blend of craft bordering on outsider art and a few items of kitsch. I needed to pick up something for my Mom’s Christmas gift. Something small but worthy that would fit in my suitcase. Balloon dog shaped bookends and ceramic rats holding light bulbs wasn’t going to do it, so I left there empty handed. A sign in the window reminded me another reason why contemporary art can be worthy, if perhaps only functional to one party. It read ‘Buy art by living artists. The dead don’t need the money.’  

I did find an open gallery with art I think of as more traditional. William A. Karges Fine Art gallery had the landscapes, a la the Hudson River School type, that I think of when someone mentions art. Grandiose views of nature in the tradition of Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Edwin Church. Coincidentally, the latter artist’s work I would see later in the week at an exhibit in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Of course, these landscapes at the Karges gallery often depicted contemporary scenes. There was a Santa Monica at twilight viewed from Pacific Palisades, like a torn but sparkling sequined fabric laid over a stretch of vegetable coastline. It wasn’t quite the dramatic glow of Church’s fiery volcano Cotopaxi or his 19th century Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, that I would see later at the DIA exhibit, but the romance was there.

La Niña by Dennis Doheny

I saw an oil painting depicting the lovely town of my current residents, from a view point, where the foothills join the Santa Ynez Mountains, looking down on the town, the Mesa, and the Channel Islands out at sea. It was from a decidedly wetter period in that region’s history, as the grass and chaparral conveyed various lush shades of moss green that you see much less often these days. I gleaned later these two pieces were from an oil painter named Dennis Doheny. La Niña, the painting of the Santa Barbara scene, could have likely been painted a hike up from Mr. Doheny’s place, where he lives in the same such town. They had that romantic view of the world that, whatever else kind of art comes into style, will never lose a certain audience.  

Although I enjoyed the paintings, spying a price reignited a short flare up of the imposter syndrome. ‘Well, I’m just enjoying a walk through your rooms of wonder, gentle art dealer,’ I thought. I smiled at the lady who looked up from her work. She returned the smile and gave me no further attention. My price range is basically what my mom sends me of her work and an occasional scrappy but somehow lovable piece left over in a house or room I once rented. Maybe someday my schemes and plans will come to fruition, my ship will arrive in this bay, then I’ll cash in. Then again, that attitude is not in line with the Intention of Renunciation, this Path of the Eightfold that has descended even into my vacation mode. Instead, I’ll keep watch for Southern California landscapes of Doheny’s kind when they appear live before my eyes. Then I will release them from the desire to cling, as I move on to the next glimpse of grace, even here in L.A., between the freeways in and among the urban sprawl of this unconventionally wondrous city.  

Exhausting the few galleries open, or ones I was brave enough to venture into, I headed back toward the Comfort Inn. I enjoyed the trendy and upscale urban sprawl of Santa Monica with the new buildings shining jet set and old buildings, like the tin roofed galleries, renewed. I passed a sign in front of a long building with modern art dappled landscaping along its sides. The sign read “AWESOMENESS.” I had to investigate. It felt like the campus of some Google-like enterprise. A wooden decked courtyard had several plush padded Adirondack-type chairs with wooden tables. There were glass panels on many sides of the building, so I could see into these spaces where people worked. All I saw was hanging basket pod chairs and kitchen and dining facilities. Only a few people milled about like some Gattaca race of workers enjoying office amenities several notches above my home comforts. The place was called the Pen Factory, which it once was. Now through a renewal it housed what looked to be the ideal of where an elite millennial might want to work. Or even a generation or two beyond that. It turns out Awesomeness is a production company producing television shows for tween and teen girls. We are in L.A., after all. 

I found my way back to the Comfort Inn and suited up to take my proverbial dip. Although it was December the heated pool and the sun’s rays, at least a fair patch of it coming in above the three-story motel and other buildings, made the low 60°F weather tolerable against my naked skin. After a few laps to work up a sweat I floated on my back in the few feet of sunlight. I might have been the only pool guest that day. The lone figure in the pool would have been a good subject for an Edward Hopper painting. I’m not much for hot tubs, and fancy services I do not need, but a pool is worth the indulgence. It was not quite awesome, and awesomeness is not a word of my generation, but I was contented enough.

Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing – Part I, Trains, Pampas, and Automobiles

I boarded the Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner at the Santa Barbara Train Station. It was headed down the coast to LA’s Union Station, or at least that’s as far as I was going, on Southern California rails. The hills along the track, the foothills further beyond, and the mountains above them, were scarred from the very recent Thomas Fire. Blackened palm trees along the tracks were disconcerting, like hell hath engulfed paradise. It was touch and go for the week before, with being on the edge of mandatory evacuation and an on again-off again voluntary evac. Finally, I was able to safely leave my car in my driveway without worry of its incineration, along with my place of residence and all my most precious or important valuables going up in flames. The fire was now well past containment at a safe level to ward off concern.

So, with the lapping waves of the Pacific on one side, ash grey hills and half burnt palms on the other, I relaxed and read the intro to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Noble Eightfold Path. Why did I bring a book detailing the technical aspects of a religion that brings up suffering as one of its first tenets, on an excursion to L.A.? Well this was the beginning of a further trip back to my parents for the holidays, so in the quietude of a Michigan December this book works. Also, it is a petite, thin little volume that packs well, even if it packs a wallop in Buddhist exposition. Besides that, the ubiquitous L.A. travel guide was in the suitcase somewhere. And there was something else less demanding that one can cling to amongst the chaos of airplanes and airport terminals. A lot of people read mystery novels and Clive Cussler push-pass-the-limits-of-credibility adventures. I had Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums on my Kindle. Oh crap! More books about Buddhism you might ask? That first word sounds suspiciously Buddhist. But not really. The Buddhism in that book is a rather adolescent understanding of the concepts. It turns out to be an irreverent little romp through the late 1950s beatnik culture in and around San Francisco, Berkeley, and Marin County. They are all discovering Buddhism, along with jazz, drugs, poetry, yabyum sex (what I feel is a misinterpretation of tantric union) and miscellaneous taboos and lifestyles outside of the norm of the 1950s. There is a bit of mountain hiking and nature writing, through the spaghetti of Kerouacian poetic riffing. A small helping of sexism garnishes Kerouac’s vision, peering out from his Catholic upbringing into things risqué. A girl named Princess seems to be the target of the yabyum, passed between the poets. We only get one favorable female character in the second half, the Marin county homesteader’s wife Christine; still her most important contribution to the story is making good food out of poverty. But as I say, not too demanding, and a fun spot-the-real-people-behind-the-beatnik-characters game. Alvah Goldbook and Japhy Ryder thin pseudonyms for Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Oddly enough the book starts out with a train ride from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, in the exact opposite direction that I’m headed. Albeit I paid for my train ticket while Ray Smith, the protagonist of the story, rides the rails, avoiding the yard bulls on the lookout for hobos. Los Angeles doesn’t get much play in the book. It appears as a heavy smogged, weep inducing, hot, air stinking, regular hell, to paraphrase Kerouac. He does meet an honorable hobo Dharma bum in the rail yards of L.A., who provides some unrevealed wisdom from the Digha Nikaya, and a health tip or two. It’s that eclectic improvisation of spirituality Ray and his buddies were experimenting with, that Bhikkhu Bodhi argues against in his introduction to The Noble Eightfold Path. It’s measured, but firm advice.

I decided to quit at the end of Bodhi’s intro, after wrestling with the noise of anxious business class types on cell phones. One conducted the management of a film production company from his seat, the other worried about catching a flight. She apparently was not accustomed to the ubiquitous delays of Amtrak. We sat at a crossing in Carpinteria for about an hour while the police took affidavits from the conductors for an accident that, if not caused by the train, was likely inspired by it. I took a pass on Bums, and after eating a salad of leafy greens dosed with condiments in the commissary car, I stuck in some earbuds and dozed to the sounds of ambient music.

It wasn’t until we were pulling into the “horrible fog wire-fence country of Industrial LA,” that I awoke to the environs around Union Station. Finding the auto rental desks at the station was a bit of a challenge. People wearing Amtrak badges couldn’t direct me to the right spot. I finally located it and they hooked me up with a Ford Tackfinder or a Hyundai Accident. I can’t say I pay much attention to these things. It was a car twelve years fresher than my Toyota, so it seemed like a dream with all its bells and whistles. I told Google Maps Siri where I needed to be, then I just manned the wheel.

Google Maps Siri, sigh…how I welcome thee. I must say, it may be many things, where my mind has arrived at these days, the luxuries of the rental car, a certain maturity ripened by a meditation practice, or just an older age surrender, but I warm to L.A. now. I used to loathe it. In my late twenties I spent a block of years in Orange County, not quite but pretty damn close to the traffic congestion and urban sprawl of Los Angeles, seemingly part and parcel of the same metropolis. I seethed and boiled every time I got on the freeway. I certainly didn’t feel free. From what I recall even just going a few blocks was a relentless gauntlet of bumper to bumper traffic and a cacophony of sights and sounds. Everyone and their uncle advertising something to you. A barrage of reminders that above all else, you are a consumer “imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume,” as Japhy Ryder puts it. But now here I was, just a temporary visitor. And Google Maps Siri would be doing most of the navigating. She told me when congestion was ahead, so I didn’t get uptight when the vein of red stopped up and pooled around me. “You’re still on the quickest route,” she assured. Okay great, I couldn’t do anything else about it anyway. I stuck to turning the steering wheel, followed her instructions if I needed to get in another lane, and gazed up at the downtown skyscrapers. It was evening and they blazed like monolithic Christmas trees. I put in a CD of Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois on pedal steel guitar and it all started to feel like a decidedly cleaner version of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner Los Angeles. I wasn’t flying but I just as well could be. It felt enough like it in the new rental car.

I flew like that all across L.A. and before I knew it Siri delivered me to my Santa Monica motel. It was just a plain Comfort Inn on Santa Monica Boulevard. The reviews on the Internet were kind. It was all short notice, what with an attempt to escape the high particulate levels of smoky Santa Barbara air and a departure time from LAX in a few days that would prevent an Airbus ride. I thought it was ironic at the time that I was escaping to L.A. to avoid bad air quality where I lived. The car I own has its own issues that prevented a long-term parking at LAX. Of course, this is the kind of place most people stay when they are visiting L.A.. The first thing that might have popped in my head when I was young and someone told me they were going to L.A., would have been images of spotting movie stars while poolside at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. If that’s all just delusional imagery that starts the L.A. vacation pricing, the poolside bit is something I try to arrange, sans the movie stars. The review did mention a heated pool. I have a thing for pools. If I’m going to stay at a motel at L.A. prices, at least at some point, I’d like to splash around in a concrete lined hole of chlorinated water. And December in L.A. does require a little heating.

After checking into my lackluster but clean ground floor room without a view, I found a restaurant in walking distance. I was looking for something that had some sort of unique L.A. flair. Not that I know much about what constitutes L.A. flair. I wanted something other than an Applebee’s-type experience. I don’t go to L.A. often. I found myself in an upscale joint called Malbec Argentinean Cuisine on Wilshire. At least it was fancier to what I’m accustomed. I hadn’t properly reviewed the menu before getting seated at a tall table in the cocktail section facing the bar. By the time I sat down and was handed the menu, I looked at the prices with a gulp. But alas I couldn’t walk out now. I tend to carry out what I imply I’m game for, when I’m on the road. I ordered the $25 entree of the day from the suave young waiter and sipped a dark red. Maybe it was a Malbec, a grape variety of Argentina. I didn’t take note at the time. It had a real bitey tannin quality. The kind of thing you might expect from Argentina. Alcoholic grape juice even a gaucho out on the Pampas would be willing to drink. I faced a large screen TV running a food channel with the sound turned down; someone demonstrating how to cook fine cuisine. It’s a funny thing when I go out for fine cuisine. Maybe it happens only when I dine alone, but I tend to come down with a case of the imposter syndrome. Like I’m pretending to be a discerning fine diner. Like I do this on a regular basis and know what reds to order with lamb. Or why arugula salad is much preferred over iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing. There’s a scene in Dharma Bums where Ray Smith, Japhy Ryder, and another hiking buddy come out of the high Sierras looking all rugged and unwashed. After some resistance on the part of Japhy, Ray convinces him they can enjoy a meal at a fine diner with “dim cocktail-lounge light,” and happy families dining.  Japhy protests “I’m just an old bhikku and I got nothin’ to do with all this high standard of living, goddammit, I’ve been a poor guy all my life and I can’t get used to some things.” If that’s not the imposter syndrome it seems a kind of lower-class syndrome, as much as it is a self-denial syndrome. Ray considers it Japhy’s Achilles Heel. Japhy is concerned about what is proper etiquette when Ray grabs some glasses of port and brings it over to their stools at the counter. Perhaps it becomes the imposter syndrome when you suppress a lower-class syndrome and act like you deserve and can afford to live like this, at least until the credit card bill comes a month later.

But what of a self-denial syndrome? There’s a part of the Eightfold Path, specifically a facet of Right Intention called the Intention of Renunciation, that could certainly develop into a case of self-denial syndrome. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the Intention of Renunciation as a “turning away from craving and its drive for gratification, becoming the key to happiness, to freedom from the hold of attachment.” Is fine dining “seeking happiness by pursuing the objects in which they imagine they will find fulfillment”? If you’re a practicing Buddhist the pursuit of pleasures is held suspect. Even as you linger on in the contrails of “the way of the world is the way of desire.” Life is dukkha. We have a limited capacity to indulge, which so very easily entrap us in a pursuit of diminishing returns. It’s the First Noble Truth and a facet of Right View. If we are led around by the promise of the attainment of our desires we’ll be let down by the lackluster results of our pursuits. That is if we ever even get results at all. ‘Oh, just enjoy your meal,’ you might exclaim. ‘You’re on vacation!’ But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I ponder this aspect of travel. If you’ve been practicing Buddhism for a while, the truth of its realizations overshadows doubt. And you can’t put aside its tenets even while you are on vacation. A few years back I spent a week in Portland, Oregon. It’s a city of culinary adventures. When you’re not dining on novel and/or exquisite meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, your sipping Stumptown coffee drinks and local brews and ciders. I grabbed some marijuana products sold legally across the border in Washington State, while hiking a trail in the Columbia River Gorge. It helped me maintain an appetite for the barrage of meals. At least until I got tired of the subtle but annoying ever-present paranoia, and gave the rest of the bud away to a young vagabond couple at Waterfront Park with a sign that read ‘We except donations, anything green.’ I liked the city, but I got weary of the constant culinary adventures and sights. As if I really was on a gerbil wheel of sensual pursuits. Next time I visit the region I’ll probably spend most of the time hiking in the Gorge, and one day sampling the offerings of Portland eateries. Gorge hiking is perhaps another kind of sensual pursuit. But it feels less indulgent.

Gary Snyder, the real persona behind Japhy Ryder in Dharma Bums, lived in friends’ shacks doing odd jobs and translating the poems of Han Shan, a 9th century Chinese poet and recluse with Buddhist and Taoist inclinations, who lived in a cave in the Tientai Mountains. Snyder sat zazen daily and was about to travel to Japan to commit a year or more to Zen study in a monastery. He would have been well aware of the Intention of Renunciation. Even if he was less adept at it when it came to his intimate relations with women.

Alas I am not a ‘rucksack wanderer’, as Japhy called himself. Even Ray got Japhy to chill out and enjoy “the baked potatoes and porkchops and salad and hot buns and blueberry pie,” in the fancy diner after their wilderness experience. Imposter syndrome or not the lamb shank at Malbec fell of the bone like butter and the cream cheddar polenta had the taste and consistency of a grainy custard. Let’s ignore the fact someone killed the animal for me to eat. One of the other aspects of Right Intention is Harmlessness. At some point holding the Eightfold Path to the letter is too daunting for a lay practitioner. Especially one on the road. If my gut could handle all the starch and fiber of a vegetarian diet, I’d be happy to align myself more accurately with the Intention of Harmlessness. But even the bhikkhu with his empty bowl held out accepts and eats whatever kind of food is given to him. Maybe that’s a little the Middle Way of travel. Be modest with your appetites but open to whatever lands in your bowl. Besides, I wasn’t likely to find a vegetarian entrée in an Argentinean style restaurant. Gauchos didn’t muster up stray soybeans on the Pampas. The meal was so good it made the cheaper Chili’s-type fare I opted for the next night a significant let down. Come to think of it, it wasn’t even that much cheaper. If you’re going to dine out, and you rarely do it, don’t be too concerned about the budget and keep the Intention of Renunciation in check, so your friends aren’t calling you “an old anarchist scared of society,” as Ray put it, teasing Japhy. I decided to extend the imposter act and continued with a pursuit of diminishing returns. I ordered a digestif. That a sweet liqueur after dinner is going to improve digestion is doubtful, but it is what fine diners do, I guess. I gave away my imposter identity as I pointed to the drink I wanted on the dessert menu and carefully read out the long name in my best I-know-how-to-pronounce-Spanish-words voice.

“I’ll have thee Jerez de la Frontera Amontillado.

“Oh, the amontillado,” the waiter casually responded. “Yea sure, but I’ll have to check the bar. I’m not completely sure we have that on the shelf.”

He came back smiling, holding a glass of it, to confirm they had it for this special connoisseur. While I sipped it, I turned away from the food network on the screen and split my attention between a man demonstrating a spoon balancing trick to his lady companion a couple of tables over, and a bartender testing drink samples on a couple of bored waiters leaning against the bar. I don’t usually drink sherry. As a matter of fact, I don’t drink much at all. The amontillado was sweeter than I remember sherry tasting.

It was Poe, as one of his sadly malevolent alter egos, who entombs a frenemy after leading him deep into some catacombs with the promise of “a pipe” of this stuff. The victim was already good and tipsy, dressed in his Carnival costume, when he was tempted with the sampling of an amontillado. It was his self-identification as a connoisseur that did him in. The protagonist dangles a potential search for the opinion of another man named Luchresi, on the quality of the liqueur, over his victim’s assumed expertise. “He is an ignoramus,” replies the victim Fortunado. I’m neither a Fortunado nor a Luchresi, so I couldn’t tell you the quality of my syrupy concoction. I would only endure a slight financial setback for the evening’s extravagance, not an entombment.

I finally signed the credit card receipt with a wince at the total, then headed out into the cool L.A. winter night. I walked down a mostly empty Wilshire against a chilly wind looking for an ATM. I remember maybe a decade and a half ago walking a rather trendy and bustling Wilshire Avenue with a friend. Maybe that is still going on somewhere along this street, perhaps in Beverly Hills, near that Four Seasons. I soon returned to my viewless but comfortable hotel corner room. I watched a little Antique Roadshow and fell asleep.

White Mountain Series : Part II, The Ancient Trees


Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains, Inyo County, California

It’s a long hot drive through the Mojave desert and the Owens Valley in summer, in a truck cab, without air conditioning. The anticipation of higher altitude cool air kept us fairly focused on finding that turn off of Highway 395. A few years back I tried to drive up Highway 168 with my brother to the ancient trees, but it was November and the snow increasingly hampered our way the higher we climbed. Eventually we had to stop the car and hike. But even that was a lost cause, as we came with in a mile of the visitor center to the ancient forest and had to abandoned our attempt trying to walk through snow drifts up to our thighs. But now these years later it was summer, and I was going to have the chance to visit these trees that a botany professor had enraptured about, so many years back in college.


Road to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of California in November

Fairly soon after we started to drive up out of the Owens Valley, we entered the Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands. Just about anyone who has headed toward the American West, into the Rockies and beyond, has experienced these woodlands. It’s those wonderful scraggly and rather sparse conifer forests that cling to the red rock cliffs of northern New Mexico. So sparse botanists and ecologists don’t even call them forests, but woodlands. Junipers stare down into the depths of the Grand Canyon and pinyon pines grow on the slopes of just about every Nevada mountain range. It’s what you pass through if you’ve ever been on the Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, headed toward the Raton Pass. As we drove, the silver grey of the pinyon trees spotted the landscape until they finally dominated. IMG_2151_edited-1

It is amazing to learn of the sustenance indigenous people derived from this environment. Although the Owens Valley Paiute made good use of the valley floor, and it is fairly comfortable even in the winter, it seems the pinyon trees higher up the slopes often provided an abundant crop of pinenuts, that was too good to pass up. Certain years the harvest was plentiful enough that they would build winter camps above 6000 feet (1828 meters), so they could gather and be near the nut caches they accumulated. Archaeologists have found evidence of many pinyon camps in the White Mountains. They were often located near ravines, like the one we were driving up, that were dammed to catch melting snow for water needs. The camps were littered with projectile points, manos, metates, and obsidian knives and scrapers. There were roasting hearths and firepits for roasting the green cones of the pinyon. They would have lived in a wogadoni, mountain houses covered in pine boughs and bark slabs. Although other Great Basin tribes had some tough times during the year, the Owens Valley Paiute seemed to have lived fairly well. They traded the nuts they harvested, along with salt they gathered in the dry lake beds of the valley, with the Monache of the Sierra Mountains to the west. In fact, anthropologists have been revising somewhat the earlier notion that hunter/gatherer groups struggled for existence. It’s more likely they lived through long periods of relative comfort and a kind of affluence.

My friend and I drove to just about 8600 feet (2621 meters) and set up our tents at Grandview Campground. I think it is quite possibly the only campground in the White Mountains. Before the sun set we climbed a ridge and tried to find this grand view. The campground itself was plenty scenic, but it was down in a wide ravine with no actual site affording a grand view. That is, as far as we could tell.

It was turning to late afternoon and I was getting hungry. The Paiute skill of preparing and roasting in hot ash pandora moth caterpillars, harvested from the local jeffrey pine trees, has long been forgotten. So we prepared our trucked in fare, after setting up camp. As we ate, we watched what looked like rain clouds drift overhead.

IMG_2064_edited-2Although the annual precipitation of this area is only around 12 inches a year, thunderstorms in summer do break out in these mountains. My friend deliberated over setting up the rain guard on his tent. He wanted to avoid blocking off the view of the stars through the screen roof, if it was at all possible. He sometimes wrestles with his new tent. The previous time we went camping together he had just bought that tent. We had camped at a rocky site above Death Valley with its own spectacular grand view. He had been wrestling with what seemed an inordinate amount of time trying to pitch the tent. I eventually came over and realized the tent was still on the picnic table and he was apparently trying to pitch the rain guard. At the time I suppressed any urge to laugh. I didn’t want to anger him. You never know the frustration level of a man inadvertently playing twister with a convoluted piece of canvas, that was never meant to be poled and staked. As it was, when I told him, he had a good laugh. He’s become more adept at raising it, but its assembly still requires decisions.

As the dusk turned to night the sky became clear. It seems the heat from the mountains helps to form clouds from the southern tropical air flowing north. And with the diurnal effect of the cooling earth the clouds are dispersed. And all just in time for the glory of the heavens to stage a fantastic planetarium show. My friend had read somewhere that the White Mountains afforded a reliable grand view of the star studded night sky. Maybe that’s where the campground got its name. In fact these are the ideal conditions for stargazing. Not far from the campground is a radio telescope observatory. CARMA, which stands for Combined Array of Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy, is run by a handful of universities producing high-resolution astronomical images. It turns out at this elevation, in the dry air, they can avoid some distortion from atmospheric water vapor. So even the professionals are here, taking advantage of the stellar light.


CARMA (Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy) in the White Mountains of California [Photo taken from Wikipedia site on the astronomical instrument]

As the ground became invisible in the darkness the sky blazed with star light. You needn’t crook your neck staring straight up. Even in the sky directly above the horizon, constellations were emerging above the crags of the eastern Sierras. To the west a triangle of stars gave the illusion they were flying in formation. Orion was just above the horizon further to the south. Venus burned brightly and I located at least three red tinged stars in my search for the planet Mars. It’s hard to imagine that we’re seeing thousands of years into the past. I laid back on the picnic table to stargaze as my friend wandered into the road for a more open sky. Maybe I dozed off a little. When I opened my eyes again a rather bright object floated through the sky at a fair rate.

After I wondered a bit at what it was, whilst enjoying its beauty, my friend said, “Do you see that?”

“Yea, I think ahh…Isn’t that a satellite?”

“Nah, it’s too big. Satellites mostly follow the track of the Milky Way.”

“It’s flying as fast as a plane but I don’t see any flashing lights.”

“Yeah, I don’t hear any jets.”

We were silent for a little listening for the distant echo of jets.

“What the hell is that?”

As we talked it had already reached it’s zenith and was silently and swiftly headed toward the horizon.

“It’s a UFO to us,” I said.

We wondered a little more as we watched an array of night sky phenomena. Shooting stars streaked the sky and a few satellites followed that Milky Way path. Occasionally lightning flashed in the distance. By the time I hit the sleeping bag Orion was high in the sky. Some kind of nice inversion layer keeps the night air in those mountains warm, the heavy cold air sinking down into the Owens Valley. So I slept fairly comfy and solid that night.

It wasn’t until a couple of days after we got back from that trip that I identified the flying object through a Google search. Just around that time in the early evening the International Space Station orbits over North America. The unblinking light is the reflection of the sun off the solar panels. Apparently it was still bathed in the rays of the sun, while it floated over our dark terrain. It’s only when you take the time to journey to such places that you see these things you never anticipated. This dry, clear atmosphere and the alpine landscape has many wonders to discover.


Bristlecone Pine still alive with photosynthesizing needles

The next morning we got up early and headed for higher altitude and the first grove of bristlecone pines. These groves are the major attraction that brings most visitors to these mountains. Bristlecone pines are not only some of the oldest individual trees on earth, but their age and tolerance to the harsh climate of this alpine region give them the most other worldly, ancient and tortured beauty of any trees you could encounter. Botanists use the term krummholz, German for twisted wood, to describe the stunted, bent growth of trees that endure alpine and subalpine conditions. There is something truly enchanting to walk amongst trees that display in their countenance more years than the Roman Coliseum, adding growth rings when Socrates was wily ridiculing Athenian politicians and were saplings even before Abraham walked out of Sumeria to find his own god in the Levant.


Bristlecone pines growing in nutrient poor dolomite soils

The terrain above 10,000 feet (3048 meters) changes as the pinyon pines give way to a subalpine scene of sagebrush broken by patches of sparse pine. The sagebrush and its brethren shadscale, rabbitbrush and Mormon tea grow in the darker sandstone and granitic soils. But the limber and bristlecone pines make do with the nutrient poor, but bright, white, dolomite earth. In fact, they prefer it. The white dolomite doesn’t absorb as much solar energy, and although the difference might be slight, the dolomite regions aren’t as dry, and that makes all the difference to the pine seedlings. And it’s all visible to the naked eye. Because the vegetation is thin, you can see both types of soils and the plant life they support from just about anywhere you stand.

Soon we reached the Schulman grove, the large stand of bristlecone pines first made famous when Edmund Schulman and his colleagues, studying tree ring growth, discovered a tree over 4,600 years old. Even the needles of these trees live a good 45 years. We parked at the grove’s parking lot where there was a trailer standing in as a visitor center. There was no one about so we decided to visit the center after our hike. The trail soon took us around a bend with the dolomite sided canyons reflecting bright under the morning’s sunrays. From a distance, the bristlecone trees looked straight and tall on the other side of the canyon, as they might tend to do in wetter climates, but on our side in amongst the trees themselves, we could see we were walking through a ghostly forest. There were plenty of trees clothed fully in pine needles, but here and there were skeletons of crooked, stunted trees that had sprouted under stars no longer visible to us. IMG_2086As we came along a ridge it was scattered with dead trees in all there agonizingly twisted glory.

It’s the resin that makes the texture of old wood so beautiful. And the resin is the result of fungal infection. IMG_2094_edited-1Resin is like our blood clotting, blocking the potential invaders from getting to the cambium and the sugars of the phloem that feed the roots and the tree’s growth. We stopped to get what I call texture shots. Macro images of caramel colored wood, like petrified pulled and stretched salt water taffy.

My friend and I are often chattering away on trail hikes in the mountains above the town where I live. But here we fell into a silence as we walked through this other worldly landscape. After a good hour and a half on the trail, hiking through a couple of different plant communities, we eventually came upon what is called the Methuselah Grove.


It was here Dr. Schulman discovered the 4,846 year old bristlecone pine tree, which was subsequently named after the Old Testament character who lived 969 years. That tree is the real Methuselah. Reportedly still alive, the tree is unidentified to save it from vandalism. Because there is, undoubtedly, some Dick out there who wants the world to know in a couple hundred years from now, that he loves Jane. Anyway, the grove is abundant with the ancient, twisted specimens to marvel over. There was no need to know which tree is the tree.

IMG_2114_edited-1     IMG_2119_edited-1     IMG_2115_edited-1

The varieties of shapes the branches and trunks are contorted into, are beyond the wildest dreams of all the animators Tim Burton could bring together. Here even the dead ones are partially reanimated in this demanding environment. The roots of a live tree will graft onto the roots of a dead tree and claim its soil’s water and nutrients. It is what botanists call ‘hydraulic redistribution’. Dr. Frankenstein would be impressed. Life is long here for these trees, but death does eventually come. But even in death its bones are utilized before they become fertilizer.

As we wound are way out of the grove we stopped for a power bar break against a younger, taller tree. I noticed some peculiar holes in the lower trunk. They were too big to be the result of bark beetle larvae, which bore into the tree to feed on the sugar rich phloem. And they were perfectly round holes, most likely from a dendrochronologist’s borer bit. It reminded me of a story I had heard in a botany class of a premature death, undue to the lifecycle of the ecology. Back in 1964 a graduate student was doing research on an ice age of the last few thousand years in the Snake Range of Nevada, in the vicinity of a mountain top called Wheeler Peak, an area that has now become part of Great Basin National Park. He was drilling into a tree there, using a technique dendrochronologists incorporate to pull out core samples from tree trunks without killing them, to count the rings for scientific data. He twice broke his borer’s bit in the tree. Frustrated, he decided, with the forest service’s permission, to cut down the tree for an easy ring count. The results of the felled tree was the discovery of the oldest tree on record at that time, 4,862 years. Since then, older trees have been discovered, still the unfortunate geographer Donald R. Currey is now mostly famous for killing what came to be known as Prometheus.

After the approximately three hour hike, with plenty of stopping and gawking at the wonders around us, we found ourselves back at the trailer, which was standing in as a visitor center. By now the small space was crowded with people about to go on the hike. We met Francis, a volunteer who told me she had abandoned some ordinary life in populated California. She got a teacher’s license so she could live in Bishop, down in the Owens Valley, and then spend every available gap between obligations of responsibility, exploring the Eastern Sierras and the Inyo ranges to the east. She was now retired, so her obligation to herself was to enjoy the natural beauty of her surroundings. As of now, I’m sure the new visitor center is complete and Francis and her colleagues aren’t crammed in a trailer. Francis suspected arson was the cause of the razing of the previous visitor center and even the identity of the arsonist. It harked to some Timothy Treadwell ‘Grizzly Man’-like dispute you find between government agencies and fiercely independent individuals out on the edges of the wilderness. There was no dispute with us though, as we headed back to the car. We agreed that hike was one of the more fascinating natural history experiences and wilderness areas we had ever encountered. Preserving it and managing a visitor center for the public to experience the region is, to my mind, one of the more important services of government agencies.

Like a Clark’s nutcracker gathering seeds, we cached our memories of this wonderous place, and left it to providence that they would sprout later more inspiration, wonder and a deep fondness for even the most rugged and harshest, but beautiful landscapes of our planet. We had plenty of day left, so we headed toward another ancient grove some fourteen miles down the spine of the White Mountain range, seeking more wisdom of patient fortitude and perseverance from these age-old entities.


White Mountain Road toward the Patriarch Grove and White Mountain Peak

Speaking in Jaguar Tongue

Jaguar relief at Chichén Itzá

One of the boys, Israel, kept up the lesson with “otra, otra” after each new word or phrase; two or three words would not be enough. These jaguar muchachos were keen on not letting me escape until my head had a few of their words dancing around in it. The city of Valladolid was bathed in a fiery deep orange as the Sun neared the horizon. In a Maya creation story, accounted in the Popul Vuh, the Sun is personified as Hunapu, one of the Hero Twins who relive their story through the cycle of the day. When evening comes Hunapu and his brother Xbalanque, the planet Venus, descend into the Underworld for a series of ballgames against the Gods. Through their skill and a little cunning deception they are able to defeat the Gods of Xibalbá and rise again victorious each morning.DSC01768 Earlier, I had spent the day at Chichén Itzá wandering around in a fantastical daze marveling at the complexity and artistry of the Itzá civilization. The Gods of tropical heat had been victorious over me, draining me of most of my energy on the Great Ball Court of Chichén Itzá. This night while the Hero Twins battled their opponents, I would be sound asleep. But I still had some energy left to venture around the central plaza of Valladolid in the early evening. DSC01772  DSC01766

My hotel, El Mesón del Margués, was right on the plaza and I thought I’d get a few photographs of the Cathedral of San Gervasio in the setting sun light, before finding a place to eat.DSC01972 There were perhaps five or six boys sitting up against the wrought iron fence surrounding the plaza. They were all wearing school uniforms, green pants and white polo-type shirts against their lustrous brown skin.

DSC01974As I slyly tried to snap a few photos of them they saw me and starting waving, calling their best English greeting, “’ello, ‘ello.” They must have picked me out for an American, or at least an English speaker. They came over to me, as if expressing an interest in learning some English.

¿De dónde viene usted?”, one of them asked.

“United, ah….Estados Unidos,” I replied.

Cómo se dice ‘De dónde viene’ en inglés,” another one asked me.

I said, “Se dice ‘Where are you from?”.

They repeated the phrase with a little awkward pronunciation.

I got a little excited and said, “Yo puedo enseñar un poco de inglés y pueden enseñarme español.” I was hoping for a little trade in language lessons.

They shrugged, with a couple of non-committal “”.

Then one of them stepped up, I later got his name as Israel, and said, “Bish sha k’aba.”

“Ah…what? ¿Cómo?

What he had said did not sound like Spanish to me.

Bish sha k’aba,” he repeated.

Another boy whose name was Sergio said, “Eso es ‘¿Cómo se llama?’ en nuestro idioma.”

Now I knew ‘¿Cómo se llama?’ – ‘What is your name?’

Israel spoke Spanish again, “Queremos enseñarle nuestro idioma.” He said they wanted to teach me ‘our language’. To these young Maya boys ‘our language’ certainly wasn’t Spanish.

I was constantly being reminded on my trip that the Maya of the Yucatán speak and even read and write their very much alive Mayan language. The Maya of the Northern Yucatán speak Yucatec Maya, the most widely spoken dialect, of approximately a million speakers. At many of the cultural sites descriptions are written in Spanish, English and Maya. DSC00835 - Version 2I remember my conversation with a travel guide couple I’d met in the village of Santa Elena, near the Maya site of Uxmal. They were scouting out new itineraries for their clients. While talking to them I marveled at the fact that they provided tours in English, French and Spanish. I expressed my regret that I had not learned Spanish earlier in my life and that I had a lot of catching up to do practicing my Spanish with the people of the Yucatán. Helene, the French wife of the couple, told me if I really wanted to impress and secure the kindness of the local people, I should concentrate on learning and trying to speak a few words of Maya.

So here in Valladolid I finally found some worthy tutors. The words started coming fast and luckily I had my journal on hand, which I’d planned to write in a little, while having my dinner. With my pen I started scribbling down the words they gave me, checking for proper spelling.

a person – u tu’

two people – ka tu’u

boy – paal

girl – chu paal

sun – k’in

water – ja

house – naaj

rain – kash ja

The young men emphasized the glottal stops more vigorously than I had heard others use it. The glottal stop is indicated by the diacritic apostrophe after a letter or syllable. It’s the kind of sound an English speaker makes when saying ‘uh oh’ or the the word ‘button’, as in but’ton. The double vowels are pronounced as long vowels. Sounding the rain god ‘Chaac’ is to draw out the ‘a’ with an ‘ahh’.  Soon we moved on from single words to phrases of greeting.

Buenos días – Ma lo k’im

Hello – Bish ya ni kech

And longer phrases.

Where are you from – Tu sha taa

How much does it cost – Ba uush

Let’s go to see the pyramid – Koo’osh ile e pirámide

That last word being Spanish for pyramid, as they told me they did not know of a word in Mayan for pyramid. I suppose the Maya had individual names for their temples in pyramid form, and if they had a general word for these structures the boys did not tell me.

It was starting to get a bit exhausting for me, what with the double translation from Maya to Spanish, and then to English. My head was getting plenty full and so I announced, “¡Tengo hambre muchachos!” ‘I’m hungry, boys’. Before I could assemble the rest of the words in Spanish for the phrase ‘I’ve got to find a restaurant and get something to eat.’, the boys were already translating my first statement.

I’m hungry – Wi jeen

At some point I finally got it through to them that I was famished and needed to find a place to eat. As we parted ways they expressed their happiness in meeting me and that I was ‘muy amable’. I waved goodbye and headed across the plaza.

I wasn’t able to catch the Cathedral of San Gervasio in a golden glow, mainly because it is the only cathedral in the Yucatán without the honor of facing west. A cathedral on the plaza was originally built in 1570, but that one was destroyed after ‘ungodly things occurred on its alter’, as one description I read stated. Due to struggles and violence between the Maya and the Spanish the original was leveled and the current ‘chastised’ one was built in 1702 facing north. After nightfall and my dinner, I returned to find it lit up beautifully with a crescent moon hovering between its bell towers. DSC01998

Valladolid was once a Spanish, and later, Mexican city of white incursion, into a region predominately populated by the Maya. During the Caste Wars of the mid 19th century the city fell for a period to the Maya, as they fought bitterly against the white and mestizo population after three centuries of oppression and the privatization of communal lands. Even as the white citizens fled for the safety of Mérida and Izamal in the west, the Maya would not occupy the town they conquered, for it represented the hated Yucatecos. When it was finally recaptured with little resistance it was found abandoned with no sign of Maya occupation. But now it is a city of Mayans and I felt no trace of animosity toward others that colored centuries of the past. I felt the most welcome in Valladolid, as compared to the big city of Mérida. DSC02112

It may have also been due to the length of time I stayed. It was the end of my trip and I had planned also to stay in an ecolodge near the ruins of Ek Balam. I was tired of packing up and resettling after each couple of days so I decided to skip the lodge at Ek Balam and stay in the town for my last four days. With that length of time I got to know better the hotel staff and the town. The bartender, a joven with a fair grasp of English introduced me to X’tabentún, the local liqueur. It is a very sweet liquor distilled from honey and the flowers of the morning glory plant called x’tabentún. It is reminiscent of the ancient honey-fermented Maya drink called balche. Some even suggest more potent parts of the morning glory plant were used in that ancient brew. The kind of ingredients that produce actual visions of the gods. Then there was the parking attendant who described to me the rituals he and his children perform in the milpa to the rain god Chaac. Each child had his own small shrine to the god somewhere in the corn field, or at least that’s what I understood as I strained to understand his explanation in Spanish. DSC02100

After my explorations around the town and its environs, including swimming in several cenotes (sinkholes and underground caverns filled with water), visiting the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena and taking a day trip to the ruins of Cobá, I woke up on the morning of my departure and had breakfast in the courtyard of the restaurant of my hotel. The head waiter Medardo engaged me in a little Spanish lesson. During the conversation I brought up my Mayan language tutorial with the boys in the plaza. He proudly declared he too was Mayan. As I went to leave I gave him a farewell I’d learned from the Mayan boys.

Tu la k’eng.

Medardo put his hand on his heart and gave me a warm smile. I’d like to think I scored a little extra warmth in a language that has continued on since the days of epic ballgames and jaguar kings.

A few references because you know I don’t just know this stuff off the top of my head.

The Ancient Maya by Robert J. Sharer with Loa P. Traxler
Stanford University Press, 2006, 6th Edition

The Caste War of the Yucatán by Nelson A. Reed
Stanford University Press, 2001, Rev. Edition

And Cracking the Maya Code is a great PBS Nova video on the history of deciphering the original written script of the Mayan language. This is condensed from a longer film titled Breaking the Maya Code. A fascinating film which I can highly recommend.