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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Almost Everything Has Been Forgotten

The map you see here is a circa 1739 rendering of the Antarctic region by an esteemed French geographer, cartographer, and architect Philippe Bauche. There is some debate about this map, because it seems to represent the physical landforms that exist under the ice at the South Pole... and this, 83 years before Antarctica's existence was a certainty. (It's generally agreed that the first confirmed sighting of the continent was in 1820 during a Russian expedition helmed by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev.)

I first came across this map in my recent readings about alternative theories of consciousness, which in this day and age of the hyperlink almost inevitably lead to so-called "fringe" theories of aliens, close encounters, Aleister Crowley, and the Bavarian Illuminati, just to mention the leading edge of the fringy onslaught. Some claim that infrared photography and sonic explorations reveal that the actual bedrock landforms under the Antarctic ice are remarkably close to what Bauche shows on his map.

Others have pointed out that if one actually reads the marginalia of this map you'll understand what's really there: a speculative rendering by Bauche based on the testimony of sailors and fishermen and whalers and so forth... kind of like making a map of the entire Rocky Mountain chain after talking to someone who drove through southern New Mexico and someone else who rafted on a river in Idaho. At this point, the intense arguing begins about just how "remarkably accurate" (or not) Bauche's rendering of the supposed "land under the ice" really is. A few who claim adherence to the weirder theories about this map then suggest that Bouche (or his predecessors in cartography) were privy to some sort of imaging technology that was... wait for it... orbital. In other words... Ancient Astronauts. 

In a previous post I mentioned (hopefully without putting too much needling worry into your heads) that I'd been depressed lately. For a white male American, there's plenty to be depressed about - just as a starting point I could bring up the existential guilt about how our lifestyles have virtually killed any long-term chances of the survival of the human race, but I won't - but in my case it's a textbook manifestation of mid-life crisis: the realization that someday I'm gonna be dead. 

This is not a fear; I fear pain, not death. It's more of a sadness that I won't be around to see whatever neat stuff comes along after I'm gone. (I'm continually astonished when I remember that my late wife never saw the "Lord Of The Rings" movies, for instance.) And of course, since I'm an artist this brings up something even deeper: someday nobody will be around who remembers me; taken far enough, not even my works themselves will survive. Which (finally) brings me to my point:

Almost everything has been forgotten.

Scientists state that the Universe is somewhat more than thirteen billion years old, and the Earth itself is between 3.8 and 4.6 billion years old. (The Christian creationists have left the building...) Genetic studies suggest that the DNA of modern humans and Neanderthals diverged about 500,000 years ago, and anatomically modern humans appear in the fossil record of Africa about 195,000 years ago. Do you realize how recent that was, compared with the supposed "lifetime" of the Earth, much less the Universe?

Most people don't really understand the number billion. "One Billion" means "a thousand millions." Let me illustrate it for you: a million dollars is a stack of one-hundred-dollar bills about three feet tall. A billion dollars is a stack of one-hundred-dollar bills more than twice as tall as the empire state building.

So... compare 3.8 billion years with 122 years and 164 days, which is the longest recorded human life span (Ms. Jeanne Louise Calment, France).

What the hell might have happened in all that time? Tell me again why you don't believe in Atlantis and Lemuria?

My recently invigorated skeptical agnosticism is healthier than ever. I'll add that I don't believe in Atlantis and Lemuria either... my own "reality tunnel" is becoming ever more suspicious of "belief" of any kind. But the possibilities seem endless to me... think of the length of time we're talking about! And think about this: even before the Earth existed, the Universe had already existed for ten billion years! Don't talk to me about how travel between galaxies would take too long... ten billion years is a long damn time! How wonderful!

We're constantly revising our knowledge of what came before us. Charles C. Mann elucidates some remarkable new discoveries in his book 1491: New Revelations Of The Americas Before Columbus that suggest (for instance) that proto-Mayan urban civilizations on the west coast of South America may pre-date Sumer and Ur. (Holy crap!) But whether this is "true" or not isn't even my point... 1491 was only 521 years ago! That's nothing! Who says there weren't Ancient Astronauts?!

I'm an artist, and to a (hopefully small) degree I'm probably bi-polar... so I know that someday sooner or later I'll get really depressed again. Maybe I can use that to fuel some great art. But at the moment, I'm okay, and here's why: almost everything has been forgotten, and that's the way it is. I suppose it's a drag that someday nobody will ever again hear one of my songs, read one of my blogs, or look at one of my paintings. From another point of view, all the bullshit we have to put up with - taxes, indigestion, grumpy kids who don't want to do their homework, bodies that don't look the way we want 'em to, not having enough of those stacks of hundred-dollar-bills - means absolutely nothing.

This is not a cynical excuse to do nothing, since "nothing matters anyway." It is freeing, and puts all our joys and miseries in a context that we can not only understand, but cope with. It allows us to do good things and create great works with the specific knowledge that they won't last, which in my reality tunnel means I'll appreciate those works a lot more knowing they're transitory. And it allows us to say with a completely clear conscience, "As long as I'm not causing harm, who cares what I do?" It also makes it a lot more fun to debate the possibilities of Ancient Astronauts, close encounters, Aleister Crowley, and the Bavarian Illuminati.

"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law; love under law, love under will."

And as my really smart wife says, "Someday the sun will explode and the entire earth will vanish as if it had never been here; we should eat out more often."

Monday, April 16, 2012

To Believe Or Not To Believe?

Any of you who've ever read this blog know that I am of no particular religious persuasion. I was raised in a couple of mid-sized Methodist Churches in the south, and what "religious instruction" I got was pretty mild and liberal. Still, it was too much for me, and from my late-high-school years on I flirted with a variety of alternatives to (what was then) mainstream American Christianity, until I found myself professing atheistic "non-beliefs."

I have recently opted to profess something different: I live and behave as an atheist. I simply cannot believe that there's any deity out there in the cosmos that would care one way or the other what I do in my tiny little life, or send me to "hell" if I'm "bad" or take me into "heaven" if I'm "good," much less stop its work making sure the gears turn and the joints are lubricated and whatever else it takes to keep the universe spinning, just to send me a winning lottery ticket. Despite this, I am more open than I've been in years to the possibility that there's probably more - lots more - about the cosmos than we'll ever know, and in that vast unknown there might be something that would seem to us to be a deity of some sort or another. I'm certainly not prepared to claim that I know what's going on out there. So I'm a skeptical agnostic, I suppose.

I recently had a half-discussion with an old friend over a cup of tea... I say "half-discussion" because we not only didn't come to any conclusions, but actually made a conscious decision not to pursue the debate to the bitter end. We are friends, after all. My friend is of a deeply-felt religious persuasion (never mind what faith), and our congenial debate was over the scope of Article I of the Bill Of Rights. Here it is in its entirety:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

My friend is cranky over his perception that "society" is eroding his "right" to worship as he sees fit, in the form of "prayers" or "invocations" or what-have-you before his local city council meetings and football games. The essence of his argument (and I hope he can forgive me for paraphrasing something he's so passionate - and informed - about) is that the phrase "...respecting an establishment of religion..." means that our government will not create a state religion. He thinks that's the beginning and the end of it.

As for the public (meaning state-funded, county-funded, city-funded, etc.) display of religious faith, he doesn't think that the Constitution has anything to do with it, and these types of displays are perfectly legal, even when tax dollars pay for them. He sees them as an expression of free speech by the majority, and since free speech is equally protected in the same article, well... there you go. He also believes that "activist judges" (again I paraphrase) have enacted changes in the law that are not the original intent of the Constitution, and are in fact contradicted by it - by definition, unconstitutional.

My friend thinks that commentary written by historians over the years is inevitably biased, and on this point I happen to agree with him. At the remove of over 200 years, it seems risky to assume we know what the founding fathers were talking about, even when we have their original writings to ponder. That doesn't change the fact that Thomas Jefferson wrote: "The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods, or no God."

That's why Article I of the Bill Of Rights exists.

Many folks of deeply-held religious belief tear their hair and gnash their teeth (sometimes to the brink of inciting outright armed rebellion... no joke!) when their tax dollars fund something they don't like, such as abortion. I can understand their moral outrage, even when I vigorously disagree with them. I have no doubt they love their country (something they don't always grant to me, I might add) and yet their government is forcibly taking their money and using it for something that is morally repugnant to them.

That's the way I feel when my country, my state, my county, or my city use my money to fund any public religious display, and I don't really care whether the majority "wants" it or not.

Such a display, prayer, invocation, nativity-scene-on-the-courthouse-lawn, or whatever doesn't hurt me outright, but I can think of a lot of things I'd rather have my tax dollars used for. I'll even admit that for me, it doesn't even seem like much of a moral issue... until I think about using that money to fund shelters for abused children. Or a detox center for alcoholics. Or a music program in the local schools. That's when I get a little cranky myself.

I'll even go so far as to admit the possibility that my friend - when examining the letter of the law - might be right. I'm not enough of a constitutional scholar to really know (which might be the point after all). But it doesn't seem to me that interpreting Article I as either allowing or not allowing Our Lady Of Guadalupe statuettes (for example) on the courthouse lawn has much to do with the spirit of the law.

There are members of the "Christian Right" in America that openly profess their desire to replace the existing government of the United States with a Christian government. There are atheists that openly decry every single public influence of religion and militantly argue for its eradication. I might agree with one side more than the other, but I find them all equally shrill and obnoxious to listen to.

If my neighbor decides to erect a fifty-foot cross in his yard, that's his right. I might not like it, but I often encounter broccoli, reality television, and light jazz, all of which I don't like either but I survive somehow. As difficult and cantankerous as they can be, there just doesn't seem to be all that many serious problems between actual people.

It's when politicians get in the way that the real trouble starts.

But we are only human, and the sum total of our experience - including our religion - will inevitably affect our worldview, and our behavior. That religion has entered into politics isn't odd in the least... it has been doing so for thousands of years. Even the caesars took it upon themselves to arbitrate which of the Gods of Rome's conquered lands would be taken into the Latinate pantheon - and it seemed to change with each change of caesar!

There is no denying that religion (or the lack thereof) is jamming the accelerator of our global engines these days. There's plenty of raised voices right here in America - witness Rick Santorum's run for the Republican presidential nomination, for one example out of many... then there's Islamic fundamentalism... there's furors over alleged sexual misdeeds by Catholic priests... there's the exile of the Dalai Lama, and on and on and on, all over the world. I challenge anybody out there to get into a conversation with a religious fundamentalist of any stripe that doesn't turn political within minutes... I suspect it can't be done. I'm amazed anybody is surprised by this.

Solutions? Well, they're gonna be hard to come by, but I'll say this: I'll let every single Christian in America have their prayers before football, their invocations at Presidential Inaugurals, their displays of crosses and nativities and whatever-else they want on public property, even paid for by public funds, if they'll allow me tax-financed public health care - including abortion and contraception. Basically, I'll allow you your moral outrage if you'll allow me mine. Maybe that's what it means to live here, to be an American. E Pluribus Unum, baby. Something else Jefferson said, in a letter of April 27, 1781: "Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals." I would add: even if their reasoning is based on allegedly divine commands.

Let me be blunt: I find it very difficult - if not potentially dangerous - to believe much of anything anymore. That includes religious "beliefs" but also virtually anything else you can name, from the original intent of the framers of the Constitution to the latest findings of astronomers. Heck, I can't prove that anything in my sensory perception even exists outside of and independent of my mind (whatever that is)!

I would say to those of fervent religious belief, YES: believe what you will, and I'll never complain. But don't use your beliefs to force any law or behavior on me. That's not good enough. I may not need proof that God exists (and I'll probably never get it!) but I do need proof that your legal impositions on me have some basis in this reality, independent of your mythical cosmology.

I don't really think that's gonna happen. After all, Jefferson also said "An enemy generally says and believes what he wishes."

He also said "The way to silence religious disputes is to take no notice of them."

Maybe I should have never said anything at all.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A New Start, And Let's Hope It's Not A False One

All right. I'm the world's lamest blogger.

This is the first time I've posted in almost a year. Holy crap.

In the past, I've promised a great deal and delivered hardly any of it: to post more often, to post passionately about (insert whatever I'm preoccupied with at the moment), to save the world, to post about others saving the world, etc. etc. etc. If I haven't learned by now that making promises on a blog is a bad idea I never will, but in this post I'm only gonna make one: to try to do better.

I'm only 46 years old, but still... when I was a kid, only James Bond had a portable phone, and even as recently as when I was in college the only computers on campus were gigantic mainframes that took up entire rooms of the science building. Needless to say, things have changed. Whether I like it or not, social media via computer is one of - if not THE - dominant forms of communication in our world, and I'd better get used to it. That means staying in touch in ways that might not be as natural for ME but are old hat - even passe - for others. I hereby grudgingly accept the premise that I blog, therefore I am.

It's not as if I've been asleep for the last year: I've played lots of gigs, I've taught lots of music students, I've made lots of art, and I've written a few words even if they (so far) haven't amounted to anything. I also had a great Christmas with family, took my first trip to Hawaii, re-connected with a lot of old friends (via the same computer social media that I seem to be disparaging at the moment), read a lot of books, started taking kendo again after many years and started yoga classes for the first time ever, bought a few flowers for my girl, etc. etc. etc.

I have no demonstrable reason to complain, but I've also been fairly deeply depressed. I won't go into it... it would ultimately bore you and it isn't really anybody's business but mine. I mention it because its lost me lots of time that I could have either been having fun or being productive (or both!) and I'm gonna take steps to snap the hell out of it. This will be hard, and sometimes halting. Still, rust never sleeps. There is no try, only do. Do or die.

So here's what's up:

In my day-to-day life, I teach music lessons. Guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, bass, hand percussion. I've offered songwriting too, even though nobody's taken me up on it. I'm available, my rates are fair, and I need more students. Email me though the link on my contact page or call me up and we'll talk about it! 575.758.7840 is the number where I can be reached most times. I'm delighted to take on kids, but adult beginners are my specialty. No piano or banjo or fiddle, sorry.

I'm gigging. Kim and the Caballeros are up and running, despite the fact that we haven't booked as much this year as we usually do. We'll see what happens over the summer... fall might be a jam-up. Also, twenty years after moving to Taos to start a band and play rock-n-roll I finally did it: my very own power-trio Chipper Thompson and Stray Ravens are tearing it up and our next show is Santa Fe's famous Thirsty Ear Festival, Sunday June 10, 2012. YOU WILL BE THERE, AND IT WILL BE AWESOME. I'm playing some solo shows, playing with Miz Kim and Mark Dudrow as Les Nouveau Antiquarians, very active with Bone Orchard, and even getting calls occasionally to sit in on songwriter's circles and the like. Check out my "Gigs and Events" page for details. (And even though it's a LONG way in the future - and I've promised not to make promises on this blog - there's spurious talk of some performances this summer with bouzouki master Roger Landes, and even.... wait for it.... whispered rumors of another recording next year with Mason Brown! Shhhhhh! Don't tell anybody!)

And I'm doing other projects of a non-musical nature: I've been working with Taos Edge to design some awesome T-shirts and other stuff, and you should immediately check it all out. Click now! Order stuff! It's really great quality stuff, and I think you'll like the designs that me and my baddest sombrero-wearing homie Dan Enger have come up with... and you'll be supporting a homegrown local business that keeps us all in the green! Yeah!

And something that I'm really excited about: Friday, August 17, 2012... my first one-man show at the illustrious Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There'll be a whole room of my "Documents" fine art pieces, and after we all schmooze one another for a while I'm gonna play a short solo acoustic show in one of the most beautiful rooms you can imagine. Been wanting to take that vacation to the Great American Southwest? That'd be the time, my friends... but book your room now, because my opening is happening during Indian Market Week, and the town'll be packed!

Typically, I'm spread pretty thin, or at least it seems that way when you read about it here or when I get up in the morning and have to face the day... and it ain't like I'm known for being the cheeriest guy in the world anyway! But like I said, I've been struggling with a bit of depression, and hell... it's hard for everybody these days. But I'm keepin' on keepin' on and hope you will too, friends. And don't forget my one promise... I'm gonna try to do better. So keep on checking in here to see what's happening - or at least what I'm ranting and railing about lately! (And for Godess' sake... I've even updated my "Gigs and Events" page for the first time in who-knows-when! Can you believe it??? So, check and see! It's true!)

Thanks for all your years of support, mi amigos, and here's hoping we have many more ahead of us! Adios,


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