Internationally Known

I have a great roommate. She’s from Brazil–or at least her family is. She grew up primarily in Mozambique. Her parents are missionaries, and so she moved often growing up. So far we have found that we both once liked Nsync, and that she and her friends liked the Spice Girls.  Early on, she made a rice and (black?) bean dish that I don’t remember the name of, but it was really good. It apparently is what the poor college students live off of in Brazil. However, I don’t know if I’m culturally insensitive, but when I think of my roommate, I don’t immediately think of her as Brazilian or a missionary’s daughter. In fact, I just tend to be jealous that she can cook things like rice. From scratch.*

California State University, Chico offers a course called International Forum. Recently they hosted a panel of international students, and American students who had studied abroad. There were quite a range of countries represented: from France, the UK, and Italy to Costa Rica, New Zealand and Japan. As well as the Czech Republic, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. There were quite a few students on the panel; they had to keep adding chairs.

The discussion was organized around the stereotyped American around the world. Most of it wasn’t a surprise. The government isn’t popular (it isn’t here either), there tends to be an ignorance of geography and other cultures (not all that inaccurate) and we eat junk food (so unfortunately true). There were plenty of surprises though. For instance, places like McDonalds (sort of) and KFC apparently serve real food in other countries. Several students expressed surprise at what kinds of food we are willing to eat. Well, often they technically serve real food here, but it’s actually pretty good food abroad. Hmmm…

(I should mention the student who’d come from Czech was sympathetic to the cost of real food–as sodas tend to be cheaper than bottled water, etc. Although it usually isn’t necessary here to buy water, the parallel with food is true.)

Also, flip flops are frowned upon, except as something to wear around the house. The student who’d travelled to Italy mentioned that wearing flip flops outside tended to draw attention and whispers and children pointing. I completely agree. I don’t wear flip flops–although I will confess to owning a pair to wear at a pool or in a shower, should it prove necessary. So far, it hasn’t. I’m something, apparently, of a shoe elitist.

Finally, what took me mostly by surprise, although it shouldn’t have, is that the US has a reputation for having guns on every person. This is most likely because the NRA tends to get lots of media attention, but still, it’s far easier in the US than many other countries to get ahold of a gun-type weapon. Unless you’re me.

Anyway.

Most of the international students pointed out that in their countries guns are either not allowed at all, except in cases of hunting, or even then have very strict standards for keeping a weapon. Now this really didn’t occur to me because I don’t have any contact with guns. I have only once seen a gun in person (that I can actually recall) and that was my uncle’s rifle (?–I don’t know what it was, actually, just that it was long). My dad technically has a gun apparently…I’ve never actually seen it, and keep forgetting to ask. But hunting was a major pastime where I grew up, even if not so much in my family. People tended not to use them on each other, but they were there. So guns just aren’t a part of my consciousness, so I never even thought about how other countries might allow/disallow them.

I always wanted to do some kind of foreign exchange program, but could never afford it and was always too shy. My best friend in high school did go to Germany for a year, and I still have all her letters to me, though unfortunately the message she left me where she sang “Happy Birthday” in German was lost.  I have been to Canada though. Technically. It was Sunday and nearly everything was closed and it was rainy so we stopped at an A&W and a gas station for souvenirs. Well, it does make for an amusing anecdote.

*I can make big dumplings though. And mash potatoes with a fork.

Sacred Profanity

All religions have a sacred place. But a sacred place isn’t necessarily a religious or spiritual place. Sacred is not incompatible with secular concepts. Many consider Jerusalem to be a sacred place. Others find sites like Gettysburg, or even Yellowstone National Park, sacred.

In Buddha or Bust, Perry Garfinkel relates the story of his travels to Bodh Gaya, one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism. It is where, one could very simplistically say—and I will—the Buddha became the Buddha. Siddhartha Guatama struggled with his spirituality, first trying to attain it through deprivation, nearly starving himself. When he realized that he was none the happier for it, he changed tactics. After recovering, he decided to meditate: “he simply notes [his thoughts] without judgment as the focus of this minute attention rises and then, inevitably, fades away.” Kind of a “don’t sweat the small stuff” realization.

After he realizes this, he finds a nice tree and sits under a tree, vowing not to leave until enlightenment. Under the tree, he confronts M­āra, in the Vedic mythology, a god of love…thought the name means death. M­āra tempts him, with the traditional temptations of power, lust and fear. Siddhartha calls upon the earth to testify—which it does. This is not the end of his journey though. To become the Buddha, he continues with his meditation and gains knowledge of his past lives, the “superhuman divine eye” and the Four Noble Truths,” pillars on which he builds the dharma. And then he hangs out at the tree for another several weeks—understandably a bit overwhelmed. The area is known as the Vajrasana.

I didn’t mean to talk quite so much about Buddhist history. But without knowing the history, it’s hard to determine why people consider a site sacred. Especially one from another tradition. But knowing that history, it is clear why Buddhists see Bodh Gaya as such a sacred place.

Like most sacred sites today, though, Bodh Gaya has caught the attention of Tourists. And the place has been overrun. Not just by the tourists, but by those taking advantage of the tourists. As Garfinkel puts it, it’s more of a “spiritual three-ring circus” than simply a spiritual epicenter. There is simply no way, as he discovered, to recreate the Buddha’s experience. And ironically, the attention may have begun to harm the sacred site: the Bodhi Tree had been infested by the mealybug—possibly relating to the activities of the devout.

Garfinkel does not actually say that he sees Bodh Gaya’s “three-ring circus” as a bad thing. When writing of the plans the Indian tourism department has for bypass roads, Garfinkel points out that “Bodh Gaya will have less traffic, less noise and less air pollution—and less character—than when…I was there.” Generally, for the US and journalists, character is considered a virtue. He also points out that people look for distractions from Enlightenment. That’s why the Buddha is so revered. If it was easy, anyone could do it.

Garfinkel calls it “the sense of peace that nonetheless manages to transcend even the chaos here.”

All the while Garfinkel discusses his visit with the tour, he points out how superior he feels to the others with him. He knows how to ignore the beggars, and to rise above the surrounding poverty. He isn’t naïve like that poor rich woman from, and is perfectly aware of social injustices as a fact of life—even when she cannot. Then, when he is in the Mahakala caves, he finds himself confessing to one instance in which he was particularly obnoxious to another traveler. He confesses, and then realizes that he can let the incident go. He doesn’t have to feel guilty, or even superior, any longer.

But in the caves, he’s already pointed out, it still feels to him as though they must be the same as 2,500 years ago. But in letting go of that instance, he also let go of his own expectations. “Bodh Gaya is no place for intellectual nitpicking.”

Because Bodh Gaya wouldn’t be a tourist destination if no one believed in the Buddha and his teachings. People come to the site to connect with their history…or at least the history of their beliefs. They find their own meaning there, not dependant on the outside conditions. If Buddha found his enlightenment there, then not everyone else needs to. He went to teach others his principles so that they could find enlightenment in their own place.

Bodh Gaya is sacred because the believers make it so. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Little plastic Buddhas? Well people only like marble because it’s expensive. Let’s not be elitist.

*Another post from my class blog.  I’m not as happy with this one, but not quite ready to edit it. I need to think some more about it.  I’d appreciate feedback though.

Baby Boomer Buddha

My parents are of the baby boomer generation. Unfortunately, they were not “anti-establishment Beatniks…anti-war peaceniks…antinuke activists who saw the world coming unhinged by assignations, nuclear proliferation and military buildup,” as Perry Garfinkel describes in his book, Buddha or Bust.(1) So when Garfinkel paralleled the Axial Age to his generation of rebels, I raised my eyebrows a bit, ’cause I didn’t follow. It seemed a bit presumptuous to appropriate the head of an ancient religion—even if he did point that out stretch himself.

But even as I geared my arguments for dismissing the relevance of the comparison (and even as I still disagree with the use of the term “baby boomer” for what I see as an entirely different phenomenon) there may well be a useful implication of that observation.

Right or wrong, however, when I think of the baby boomers, I think of their image now, which is only the reference point I have. What I remember hearing of the baby boomers is their discontent, yes, but usually in the context of dissatisfaction. Materialism. Entitlement. Other such, rather less positive, terms.

The “baby boomer” generation was so named because couples fresh after World War II found themselves with far too much disposable income, and lavished most of it on their families. The kids produced in this era found themselves embarrassed by parents spending too much and making themselves foolish in the rush of keeping up with the Joneses.(2)

That kind of situation is where Siddhartha (the Buddha) is supposed to have come from.

So could Buddha be described as the world’s first baby boomer? He was the stereotypical pampered prince, never even allowed outside the palace walls. Unlike the Disney movies, though, he didn’t get out until he was nearly thirty and already married with children. At any rate, he did eventually find his way out of the palace walls—and despite all precautions, was presented with the reality of human suffering. He realized that one day he would grow old, even die. So he became an ascetic. After six years he realized, it really didn’t help. In a move of such profound common sense that it had to be formalized into religion, the Buddha realized happiness might be better found along a “middle way”.(3)

I think this says more about Garfinkel’s philosophy than about Buddha’s—as a baby boomer himself, that particular feeling of disillusionment would be most resonant with him. If anything, I find it irritating only that Garfinkel discounts how often such disillusionment comes to different generations…the Industrial Revolution was hard on people.

But whether the Buddha could be counted as a baby boomer? Maybe that’s not the most important question. Garfinkel seems to use him as a role model—implicitly at least—for the baby boomers who have not yet found a middle path. Like himself. Some people spend years jumping from quick fix to quick fix, and never find the stillness to really have a middle path of their own. Calling Buddha a baby boomer might make him relatable to those people…especially the ones who dismiss Buddhism as just more new age-y claptrap from their misguided youth.

1. Or should I say, there is no evidence for it. You could argue my mom went to Humboldt…but I’m going to Chico, and frankly, I stay home most nights. Also, she’s (mostly) Norwegian. We’re just generally boring people, even if we do chose “exciting” colleges.

2. I made that up as a reason. Kids are always embarrassed by their parents, aren’t they? And the philosophy of generations tends to follow a rather pendulum-like swing of reaction.

3. In no way is this intended to be disparaging. If anything is a misnomer, “common sense” is. It’s not common, nor is it often simply a “sense.” It takes a lot of work, and the Buddha seems to have been a skilled practitioner. Believer or not, that’s admirable work.

But I Like Google…

My first full day of classes, I stayed late to hear a lecture on Web 2.00 and some of its controversies. Web 2.00 is given the beginning date of 2003, when the web became more interactive. Before that, users of the internet were passive consumers of the information presented. After 2003, sites like Amazon began to rely more on features like customer reviews, and sites like Wikipedia gained major popularity. The internet was suddenly more than just a repository for quick-access information; it was a game of participation, where anyone could play. Or that is the idea that I got from the talk.

With the Web 2.00 boom, as it were, and as popular the wiki pages and social network sites like Facebook have become, there is little consensus on what effect it will ultimately have on life and culture as we understand it today. Some see it as a panacea: Web 2.00 will foster communication and environmental awareness and ultimately world peace. Others see Web 2.00 as a juggernaut intent on the destruction of the foundation of our culture. Or theirs anyway.

The rest, and most likely the majority, fall somewhere between these two extremes. What the internet has become is changing the way people interact with the world, and how they expect to interact with information. This could be bad and it could be good, but without research and objectivity, it is difficult to tell. We are still in the midst of this revolution, and it is probable that we will not know until far in the future what effect this has had on us.

During the lecture, we saw one detractor named Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur on a clip from an interview on the Colbert Report. His concerns, as others’, center primarily on the lack of control over what is released by Web 2.00. With this new web, it is not just the educated and the trained who can offer information. It is designed for everyone, whatever level of competence, to put up whatever may cross their minds. Colbert accused him of being elitist and relegating the bloggers and nearly everyone else not classified as elitist to pig farmers. His response: “What’s wrong with that?”

Well, he makes quite a few other points related to this primary viewpoint. And so I’d like to address my thoughts on Web 2.00 primarily in response to Keen’s interview, and the other points made during the lecture. I hate to subordinate the lecture, but Keen was a fascinating study, and it’s hard to try not to respond only directly to him, especially as I could see how some of his points would make sense, and to a certain extent, that I even could agreed with.

Take, for example, his “what’s wrong with that?” Much as I hate to say it, there are plenty of people who just don’t think, posting on the World Wide Web. Sometimes it feels like there should be some kind of gatekeeper keeping all this…junk…away from my sight. Because it hurts to read it. It hurts.

But then there will be a lot you, the élite, miss. Simply because someone has been educated, they do not necessarily have taste or discrimination. There were likely many people, over many generations, who could have had great things to say, and never gotten the chance. And people who were not from the cult of Dead White Males. Jane Austen for example, though now dead, and probably white, was still a woman. But for not having ever lived far from home, or experienced what most would call adventure, she still managed to make a profound study of the people who lived around her, and the society in which she was born. Her sister burned many of her letters after her death. She must have had much more to say that we will never hear.

Keen does seem to be supporting, if implicitly, the Dead White Male English literature canon. They have traditionally been the ones who were themselves the gatekeepers, and so they let their friends through. Many of their friends have since fallen from fame, and have been replaced by others we, or newer gatekeepers—I myself am not yet one, if I will ever be—have found to be far more interesting and talented. Just because something has survived for a long time doesn’t mean it should have.

While the stories of women and pretty much any nationality other than European may not have survived, we did get Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which I remember reading for an early English survey class. I really wasn’t a fan. Frankly, to me it read as though it were a fan fiction. If you haven’t heard the term before, it is the name of works fans write using the characters and/or the situations of previously published works. Some can be good and others…not so much. This is where I would appreciate someone gate keeping, although often the groups themselves (known as fandoms) will often do so—just not what you might like to read. At any rate, that’s how it felt to read Le Morte d’Arthur. Compared to the Canterbury Tales, which admittedly, is probably not fair, Malory’s work simply doesn’t come off well. I should note here, though, that it has been several years since I last read it, and my opinion, should I read it now, may be entirely different. However mypoint is actually that the age, or “canon-ity,” of a work does not greatness make.

Another issue that Keen takes exception to in the Web 2.00 world is the way it puts artists out of work. But this argument doesn’t really work for me either. For a long time, creating art was just another form of workmanship. When the Greeks and Romans created statues, the Greek artisans rarely signed their names. Then the Romans copied them. It was another trade. Then came the Renaissance (after the Dark Ages), and though the artists signed their names now, it was still a trade. The most famous and in-demand, such as Rubens, had whole workshops, where their only brushwork on a painting might be the signature. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, art wasn’t a craft that could be mechanized, and the idea of the “starving artist” really came into being. So here Keen might have a point…but the digital revolution is at least one social revolution too late to blame for stealing from the artists. Online theft does occur, but by opening access does more for artists than trying to break into exclusive galleries without contacts.

I apologize for the rapid and confused lecture on art though. Still, for covering several thousand years in a paragraph, it could be worse.

A major objection to the beginning of Web 2.00 was how individuals could suddenly make their own history, and rewrite others. This practice is most especially expressed in Wikipedia, another site Andrew Keen, I think it would be safe to say, despises. But though user-edited content can be problematic (take, for instance Senator Kennedy’s seizure misinformation) the problem is usually caught fairly soon. In the senator’s case, a few hours. A print encyclopedia does not have that same flexibility. An example I like, though it’s not current, comes from a book I’m reading called The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski. The pencil was not always a stick of graphite surrounded by wood. Originally it meant a small, thin brush. But it’s difficult to trace the true history of the pencil because it is so often not discussed. Though the idea of the “lead” pencil as envisioned today began likely sometime in the early 1700’s or even far earlier,the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1771, “which claimed in its subtitle to be a ‘dictionary of the arts and sciences,’ could still totally ignore the black-lead instrument in its definition of ‘pencil.’” And after quoting the pencil section, the reader learns that the Encyclopaedia Britannica didn’t even have an entry for “pen”.

Though there are many other issues I could discuss here; in fact, there are many that I really wished to, the problem that Keen and others have is that culture changes, and it is always difficult to see the coming change and not know what the final outcome will be. There have always been the “conservatives” who simply don’t trust the next generation with the works they’ve created.

“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”

Well, Plato, in two thousand years they get blogs. And the man in your position will write blogs about how he talks about how terrible blogs are in his book.

Sorry, Keen, I was trying to be fair. But when I saw how many blog posts you have on Amazon, I did snort a bit with amusement. But I do appreciate your dedication to such a “loathsome” medium*.

*He wrote that here. It’s at the end.

Disrespecting Icarus

I do not remember when I first learned the story of Icarus. I do remember exactly what I thought of him, which was, essentially, that he was an idiot.

No, there really wasn’t any sympathy involved. Rather, I empathized most with his father, who had to watch his son fall to his death. I never quite understood why someone would not be willing to follow simple directions that would have allowed him, in this case, the joys of flying without the whole falling part. They do say it’s not the fall that kills you—but you still end up dead.

Which goes to show, I suppose, that I’d have to identify myself with Hestia…goddess of the home and hearth. Well, I’m about as forgettable as she, although should someone write a Homeric hymn to me, I wouldn’t warrant even five lines*. But then again, I try to avoid walking in front of buses, and my family has always done well longevity-wise.  Still, though I spend much of my time at home, that doesn’t mean I actually look forward to tending the hearth.

Of course, I’ve been taking the application of the archetypes of the Greek myths rather literally. A metaphor will break with you stretch it too far.

I would be far more adventurous if it weren’t so expensive. But I have had a few chances to spread my wings, as it were, with travel. Only once though, “internationally.” And almost always I had to rely on family. My only venture past the US border came when I visited my grandparents in Roseau, Minn. It’s a very tiny town, only a few miles of the border. So one cloudy, blustery day, my brother and I convinced my mom to drive us up to Canada. Unfortunately, it was closed.

Well, actually, we did get in. But it was Sunday, and though we drove through two good-sized towns, nothing was open—excepting an A&W Root Beer restaurant where we stopped for lunch. The only place we could find to get “souvenirs” was a gas station minimart. I got a little crystal-covered cat-bangle watch.

One of my main reasons for being such a homebody, I admit, is because I tend to recognize the similarities of a place and people before the differences. I really have to work to understand—or even to realize—why people wouldn’t get along. For instance, that day in Canada, though everything was closed, and we only drove through, I didn’t see that many differences. Well, they did use the Canadian dollar, which I couldn’t convert, and all the speed signs were in kilometers per hour, which I couldn’t convert either. I’ve never been good with math.

But there were a lot of big box stores, even if they were different from the common ones in California—which they are in the Midwest and eastern US anyway. But just because the names are different, the places really aren’t.

Growing up I spent most of my free time (and not-so-free time) reading. I still read too much, or at least checking out too many books from the library. I’ve never decided what my favorite genre was. I love all the different fictions, really. And most kinds of non-fiction: biographies, histories, sciences, etc. Really, I can’t think of anything I don’t like to read. But this is where the Icarus-Hestia myth comparison just doesn’t work for me. For instance, though staying home reading is probably very “Hestia,” what I read gives me a way to explore parts of the world I will never experience (like Victorian England), and then a new way to interpret the world when I am adventuresome.

So, yes, though I still don’t respect Icarus’ decision to be stupid, I never mind learning more about…well…anything!

*Yes, I wikied it. That is a verb by now, yes?

Bleh

So for my mulit-cultural lit class this semester, I have to write a blog a week. And I suspect that this blog will only suffer from it. It doesn’t help that I’ve really lost interesting in writing at all. Fortunately though, homework is a different matter. Maybe by the end of the year I’ll feel like continuing.

As I write those posts, I’ll probably be moving them over here. But so far I have two, and I don’t feel like moving them yet. So we’ll see.