Three lessons about life

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I’m home with a cold while Erik is off getting himself all worked into a tizzy at the state beekeeping convention.

In my couch-potato-ing, I ran across this delicate piece of wisdom while watching a video of a lecture by Matthew Fox. During the lecture, he tells the story of how he saw the poet Mary Oliver at a reading in San Francisco. At that time, she was 84 years old and she said to the crowd (as paraphrased by Fox), “I’m getting old and I want to leave you young people these three lessons I’ve learned about life. Everything else is details.”:

  1. Pay Attention
  2. Be Astonished
  3. Share your astonishment

“Interstellar”: Leaving the farm for the stars

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Erik: Every once in awhile I like to see a big budget Hollywood movie, especially when I think it might be a window into the cultural episteme. I had a hunch Interstellar might touch on some themes related to this blog so I suggested we go.

Kelly: And I went for the popcorn.

Erik: I wasn’t disappointed, at least with the epistemological bits.  The movie itself was a mess.

Kelly: You and your big words. We should tell people who don’t know that this is a science fiction film set in a near-ish future, in the wake of Something Bad happening which causes massive depopulation of the Earth. I think the food supply failed.

Now, everyone left is a farmer, and working hard to keep failing monocrops going. We seem to be living on an all-corn diet. There are no animals to be seen, anywhere. Not even a cat. I’m assuming we ate them. There seems to be plenty of gas left, perhaps because there are so few people. At any rate, things aren’t good–there are constant dust storms and disease threatening the crops. It seems that humanity isn’t out of hot water quite yet.  And our hero, Cooper, who is a ex-NASA pilot forced to play farmer, discovers that NASA still exists, in skeletal form, in an underground bunker. (For Angelinos: The NASA bunker is the Bonaventure Hotel!!!!)  From there the plot turns to “How can we get all of us off this sorry rock before humanity expires?” aka “Space will save us.”

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Kelly’s photo of the Bonaventure Hotel: the set for underground NASA.

Erik: Two more big words for you: eschatological panic. To me that’s what the movie is about. That panic is intertwined with, as you note, a profound disrespect for Mother Earth. We screwed up the source of all life, but thankfully we can shoot ourselves up into heaven (through the Bonaventure!). Anyone who thinks otherwise (like the school bureaucrats depicted in an early parent/teacher meeting scene) are cranks.

Kelly:  I think we should spell out that scene with the teachers which Erik is referring to, because it is important to what I’ll have to say later.  In this scene, the hero/pilot, Cooper, goes to a parent teacher conference where his son’s high-school teacher blithely states that the Apollo landings were all a brilliant CIA hoax designed to drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. She believes this as absolute truth, and shows him that it is written into all the revised textbooks. Cooper is horrified. Somehow he has missed the re-education program that came after the big die-off.

This is important to me because it is a good example of the typical, lazy — and typically lazy– thinking about science and nature and philosophy which goes on in popular culture. There is a central narrative which tells us that science will save us, and that science must be protected at all costs from backward thinking nutjobs–whether these be religious zealots or brain dead bureaucrats.

In the world of Interstellar it seems a new sort of political correctness has been developed which privileges some very narrow band of ag studies over all other kinds of learning, and downplays the achievements of science in the past. There are hints that this may be because the failures of science are what got them into their predicament to begin with– this is not clear.

But what is clear is that the only hope for humanity, both physically and spiritually, is abandoning the planet.  We see this played out in Cooper’s adult children: one is a farmer, one is a scientist. The farmer is blind, blind even to the suffering of his own family, while the scientist literally saves mankind.

This dualistic set-up–Science vs. Farming or really, as the story plays out, Science vs. Earth is a very bad model, yet it is the one we are presented with over and over again. You’ve heard the quote attributed to Einstein that says something along the lines of “We’re not going to solve our problems by using the same thinking we used to get into trouble”?  I feel like we are swimming deep in those problematic waters, and this false duality is an example of it.

Erik: Interstellar, like most Hollywood movies, takes the techo-utopian side of that dualism. So does Richard Branson with his plans to sell expensive eschatological roller coaster rides. On the other side of that dualism you have pseudo-science and a kind of rainbows and unicorns denial of the physical plane.

Two things really bug me about Interstellar: first it’s the ultimate expression of suburban flight. We screwed things up here, but thankfully a wormhole has opened and we can (spoiler alert) repopulate a new planet that looks like Joshua Tree. It’s dry but there’s some great rock climbing!

Secondly Interstellar’s denial of the sanctity and beauty of Earth. And, I want to be clear that I’m not misanthropic: I believe in human civilization. I’m saying that there is something special about this planet and that it is our place in the universe. And, practically speaking, the rest of this solar system is inhospitable to life and the stars are so remote we’ll never reach them. We really need to tell different stories than this one.

Kelly: Yup. And to be clear, neither of us is anti-science — we just want to look a little more closely at the stories we tell ourselves in this culture.

For instance, why can’t we see a story which tells about people rebuilding after the Bad Thing happens, and being happier than they were before?

Instead, the story is always apocalyptic. In Interstellar they make passing reference to the greed and blindness of the before-times, but the present reality for the survivors is grim. Everyone is “stuck on the farm” and Cooper’s farm house needs a paint job real bad and there’s not much to do except watch for dust storms. Leaving the planet becomes our manifest destiny.  As Cooper says at one point, “I was born on Earth–I wasn’t meant to die here.”

Here’s a different story. In the wake of the bad times, people awaken to their true humanity? What if we let go of materialism and greed  and fear and live in more cohesive communities? We develop a positive, living spirituality and a deep bond with nature,  to which we are now devoted to healing?

What if we celebrated the role of the caretaker as much as we do the explorer?

I know, I know, that would be a boring movie because it would have no spaceships or explosions.

Erik: I can think of some positive examples from science fiction with both spaceship and explosions. First, Frank Herbert’s Dune which values human abilities over machines. Then there’s Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which, among other ideas, explores what happens when we become detached from nature. And in some ways Gravity is the inverse of Interstellar. Gravity celebrates humanity and culture (Remember the radio conversation? See the short the director’s son made about the other side of that conversation with the Inuit man–very worth watching) with a plot about how inhospitable space actually is and how good it is to be standing on the living earth.

Kelly:  All true. But my obsession right now is not with SciFi but with real life. I’m tired of our culture’s hostile and dismissive attitude toward nature. I’m more than tired of narratives which have already given up on nature. This includes the “Let’s get off this rock” narrative of this movie, but it also includes the “Don’t worry, the Rapture is coming” narrative and the “It’s too late to do anything, the planet is doomed anyway” narrative and the related “Humans are doomed for X Y or Z reason and the planet will be glad to see us go” and the most pernicious narrative of all, “It won’t happen in my lifetime, so why should I care?”

I want new narratives. We deserve more. Our children deserve more. Our planet deserves more.

Is the Detroit Urban Farm Revolution Over?

David and Sky Brown’s house.

It appears that a young couple, David and Sky Brown, who bought a $2,000 house in Detroit last May ran afoul of an Animal Control officer on Wednesday. The couple’s goats and chickens were seized over the tearful pleas of their owners. There’s more on the story here. The Browns have asked for help on their blog.

If any Detroit area readers know more about this story please leave a comment.

Update: there’s a petition.

Leaf Blower Lobbyists

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At the risk of becoming an anti-leaf blower blog, I wanted to follow up on one of Emily Green’s points in the podcast I posted yesterday. Leaf blowers do indeed have lobbyists who work out of a swanky office near Washington D.C.: the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI).

If your city tries to enact a ban on leaf blowers the OPEI will orchestrate a campaign to stop the measure. I’m not against outdoor tools (chainsaws, in the right hands, are very useful). But landscapes that depend on and are shaped by machines need to go. And let’s sweep away the leaf blower lobbyists while we’re at it.

This reminds me of the work of an artist friend of mine, Steve Rowell, who has a project called Parallelograms that maps the physical landscape and architecture of lobbying that surrounds this nation’s capitol. So Steve, you can add the OPEI offices to your list . . .

Behind the Scenes at Root Simple is a World of Big Pumpkins, Pomegranate Catapults and Man Crates

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In case you were wondering what the Root Simple offices look like, I included the image above. On the left is our blogging control panel. In the center you can see Kelly and I overseeing our team of Thoughtstyling™ testers. To the right is our garden.

Our main task each day is monitoring the incoming stream of press releases and spam comments. In the interest of giving you a behind the scenes glimpse into the thrilling life of a blogger, I thought I’d reproduce some of the better press releases verbatim, just like real journalists do.

HALF MOON BAY’S WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP OF MONSTER GOURDS COMING UP OCTOBER 13
$30,000 MEGA-PRIZE OFFERED FOR NEW WORLD RECORD PUMPKIN

HALF MOON BAY, CALIFORNIA (October 1, 2014) –– Will this be the year the world pumpkin heavyweight record is squashed in Half Moon Bay, California? The intrigue is building as Superstar Gourd Growing Greats and their astonishing, mind-boggling, Volkswagen-sized orange orbs gather on the morning of Monday, October 13 for the 41st Annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off –– in the World Pumpkin Capital of Half Moon Bay, California –– the kick-off to Half Moon Bay’s world-famous Art & Pumpkin Festival which takes place October 18-19. . . . Using forklifts and harnesses, the monster gourds will be carefully placed on a 5-ton capacity digital scale under the watchful eye of officials from the San Mateo County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office of Weights, Sealers, and Measures.

If only we were closer and could hang out in the green room with those Office of Weights, Sealers, and Measures officials. And does “intrigue” imply that these same officials can be persuaded with a cash donation? Can monster pumpkin enthusiasts have people killed?

Madera hosts 4th annual Madera Pomegranate Festival

Madera, CA. – In Madera, the Heart of Pomegranate Country, preparations are well underway for the fourth annual Madera Pomegranate Festival, which takes place Saturday, November 1, 2014, at Madera Municipal Airport. The event is organized by the Madera Tourism Alliance, a committee of the Madera Chamber of Commerce.

“On behalf of the Madera Chamber, I would like to invite everyone to come out and join us for this fun-filled event,” Eugene Bell, Chairman of the Board of Directors, stated. “The Tourism Alliance Committee and Chamber staff are working hard to bring another great event to our community this year.”

A favorite part of the lineup according to event producers is the Pomegranate Grenade Launch. Dreamed up by the committee and brothers Brian and Nick Davis of Twin Pomegranates Winery, the Pomegranate Grenade Launch is a massive slingshot that launches pomegranates at a target some distance away.

Organizers say Madera Municipal Airport provides ample space for vendors and displays. That, along with ample parking for attendees, make the airport an ideal location for this annual event. “The available space and the City’s help in making the event happen really creates the perfect environment for the Pomegranate Festival,” Debi Bray, president and CEO of the Madera Chamber of Commerce says.

Returning to this year’s lineup is a display for various aircraft as well as skydivers from Madera Parachute Center.

New to this year’s festival will be a children’s stage featuring local dance, karate and other talents from our young Maderans, a Jelly Belly attraction with samples and games and a Fossil Dig hosted by the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County.  Other attractions include a presentation from the Fresno Chaffee Zoomobile, art classes from the Madera County Arts Council, kids’ games from the Madera Parks Department, numerous cooking demos from local chefs, live music by the Marie Wilson Band, plus everything pomegranate.

“We’ll have vendors selling the fruit itself, plus pomegranate trees, pomegranate-scented candles, jellies and anything else you could think of involving pomegranate, and probably some things you didn’t know could incorporate the fruit,” Bray mentions.

Will they aim the pomegranate trébuchet at the skydivers?  Or does the Geneva Convention prohibit that?

Hello Kelly and Erik!

My name is Alexandra, and I’m the community manager for Man Crates. We’re a new company that ships awesome gifts for men in custom wooden crates that he has to open with a crowbar! At Man Crates, it is our mission to end the difficulties that have long been associated with buying gifts for men. I’m emailing you because I think you would be a perfect fit for our “ManCave Makeover” campaign.

The man cave… a ritualistic spot where men retreat to in order to watch football with friends, spill beer, shout at the TV, and tell the same 8 stories over and over again. Man caves come in all sorts of interesting shapes and spaces, be it in a basement, a garage or the classic shed. However, as original as these spaces are, when it comes to decor they tend to all look the same. A cheap neon beer sign (or beer mirror), a dart board and of course a mini fridge. I don’t like to use the word dull but I suppose they are called caves for a reason!

We are looking for bloggers like yourself to help us end these man cave decorating woes by creating a post highlighting some items you would gift to a guy who is looking to decorate his new man cave. Replace that bar cart with a fancy new whiskey set, change the neon sign to hanging lamp, and for goodness sakes buy a new arm chair!

If this sounds like something you might be interested in, let me know and I can send over more details.

Just in time, I completed my own ManCave Makeover:

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I can hardly wait to crowbar open that crate and launch a few pomegranate grenades.

Stoicism Today

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We’re honored to have an essay in a new book, Stoicism Today: Selected Writings.

From Stoic ethics to emotions, from Stoic mayors and mindfulness to practical philosophy, parenting, psychotherapy and prisons, from Star Trek and Socrates to Stoic lawyers, literature and living in general, this book brings together a wide-ranging collection of reflections on living the Stoic life today. You’ll read advice on coping with adversity, reflections on happiness and the good life and powerful personal testimonies of putting Stoicism into practise. But you’ll also read about the links between Stoicism and psychotherapy, Stoicism and mindfulness meditation and the unexpected places Stoicism can pop up in modern culture. This book will be of interest to both academics and non-academics alike and is about the varied ways in which the 2,300 year old philosophy as a way of life remains relevant to the concerns and needs of the present day.

The book is available as a paperback and Kindle e-book.

The Stoicism Today website also has a free handbook and online course, well worth checking out.

Hollywood always gets gardens wrong (I’m talking to you, Maze Runner)

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See, after they covered the maze walls they had all this leftover ivy… (Maze Runner movie poster)

If you know a lot about one subject, maybe gardening, or law, or the history of Roman armaments, or police procedure, or whatever, you will probably have noticed that the film and television industry gets a lot of the details wrong. I understand. They’ve got a lot to do to get a story on the screen, and most people don’t care about the details, but sometimes, it gets to be too much.

One of the worst areas of screen offense is in the depiction of vegetable gardens. I would love to gather a bunch of stills from all the ridiculous vegetable gardens I’ve seen on screen, maybe make a Tumblr of them.  (Let me know if any come to mind!)

[Erik here: see the Meryl Streep vehicle It’s Complicated for a vegetable garden that combines cool and warm season veggies all at once.]

I’m on this rant because Erik and I saw the worst garden last night in the film Maze Runner. Now, I’m embarrassed to even admit we went to see Maze Runner–but–well, there’s no excuse. Let’s just leave it at that. Yet I’m going to ‘fess up to doing so because I have to talk about this garden

[Erik here: the plot is, basically, a Gnostic Crossfit Gym overseen by evil archons and patrolled by the same biomechanical spider thingies seen in Starship Troopers.]

A part of the plot involves a pack of feral teenage boys tending a survival garden. The garden seems to consist mostly of an extensive trellis system made out of twigs. Vertical gardening! OK!  The set designers had probably picked up on some of the recent vertical gardening hoopla and were using that to make for interesting use of visual space. But what was growing on the trellis?  Cloth ivy fronds, my friends. Cloth ivy. The sort used to festoon wedding tables, or is sometimes found creeping dustily along the molding in B&Bs.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to offer a pack of hungry teenage boys a bowl of cooked ivy, much less fake ivy.

Now, of course, the intended audience, teenage girls, are NOT looking at the ivy as the hot boy leads discuss their survival problems in the garden. They are, in fact, at this moment, laughing riotously at my boring middle aged concerns. (“Plants? You were looking at the plants?”)  Yes, I was analyzing  the background foliage while yummylicious Dylan O’Brian and Thomas “Elf Boy” Sangster were talking about…something. But yeah, I was looking at them, too.

But seriously, ivy??? This may be an all time low.

And to add insult to injury, they also have an upside down tomato planter strung between two of the trellises. It’s like those plastic ones the big box stores sell, but it is instead constructed of suspicious vine material, a la Gilligans Island. To its credit, though, it did seem to be a real tomato plant, a yellowish, straggly one (and that, at least, is a realistic detail) and it has a couple of tomatoes hanging off it–though those tomatoes may well be clipped on. These were the only edibles in the scene. Seems the boys can have a tomato garnish on their ivy bowls.

I wish I had a still for you, but for some reason the garden is not featured in the publicity stills.

Since I’m rolling on this rant, after the jump here’s a few of other things that perpetually peeve me in film. Please do contribute your own!

Continue reading…

Happy Fall Equinox!

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Our Rodger’s Red grapevine tells us when Fall is here.

Here in LA last week we suffered a miserable heatwave: four days of temperatures above 100°F ( 37.7° C) without even the relief of cool nights. In bed, I wept as the fan swept a 95°F breeze over my body, and vowed to my pillow that I would divorce Mr. I Love LA  and move to Seattle.

Then, on Sunday, I woke up feeling in my bones that something had changed. Suddenly, I was happy and energized. The nights turned cool. I heard the crows returning to the palm trees in our neighborhood, and I realized that Fall must have arrived. I checked the calendar, and saw that the equinox would be — today — Tuesday the 23rd. Glory Hallelujah!

Autumn in LA is really just a gentling of the summer–there’s no frost and little color change. No burning leaves or apple harvests. It will most likely be hot and sunny on Halloween day, perhaps even on Christmas day–and it may never, ever rain again. Yet everything has changed. The sun is crossing the celestial equator and will be spending more time in parts South, meaning it will not beat so hard or so long upon the top of my poor head until next summer.

I cannot say how excited I am. Suddenly, I want to cook. I want to work in the garden and wander in the mountains. It’s like being let out of jail.

How about all of you in your respective parts of the globe. Did you feel the shift? Will you be celebrating the coming of autumn — or summer, if you are south of the equator?