Wednesday, April 23, 2014


I remember when we heard the news that Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had scaled the towering, majestic slopes of Mount Everest--the first human beings to do so, in what seemed to us all at the time a magnificent, indeed an almost superhuman accomplishment...

The two men reached the summit on May 29, 1953, but news was a little slower in arriving in those days: I learned of it only when I was camped out for the night on the Mall with a group of friends, in an uncharacteristic display of patriotism, awaiting the pomp and ceremony of the new Queen's coronation parade on June 2nd.  Two majesties, then, on a single day!  I was 17 years old (and am now able to confess, some 60 years later, that at least one of my motives was to indulge my newly acquired--but then forbidden!--habit of smoking cigarettes.  I must have gone through two packs of Senior Service in the course of that night...)

Everest had remained until that time an undefeated challenge, one that had taken the lives of many who attempted it--including, a long thirty years previously, that of George Mallory in 1924.  British explorers were the source of great pride to boys like myself, who grew up in the immediate post-WWII years.  We were as inspired by them as we were the military heroes whose valor had helped assure the victory over Hitler (no link for him!) and his Nazi Germany (nor them!)  There were many besides myself who bathed in the reflected glory of their courage.  So news of Hillary and Tenzing's triumph, arriving on the very day of the coronation, was a heady and memorable event--one worthy, I'm sure, of another few celebratory cigarettes.

Once a mythical--and to many a sacred--monument to nature's superiority over puny humankind, Everest is now reduced to the status of a tourist mecca.  A venerable mecca, to be sure, but one that is accessible to even indifferently skilled climbers.  It is also, to judge from the recent Nepali documentary Death Zone: Cleaning Mt. Everest, "the world's highest garbage dump," littered with the discarded remains left behind by hundreds of climbers whose attempts are made possible only through the work of the legendary Sherpas--an ethnic group that became known largely to the rest of the world only when Sherpa Tenzing partnered Hillary on his epic climb.  Without him, it is generally acknowledged, Hillary's achievement would never have been possible.

I'm sure I share in a greatly romanticized image of the Sherpas, but I was shocked by the news that 13 had been wiped out in that avalanche a few days ago (three more are still listed as missing), in the service of aspiring climbers from the West--more than three hundred of whom were installed at Base Camp, awaiting the opportunity to join the line for the climb to the top of the world.  Beating the path and carrying the supplies that would make the ascent, if not easy, then at least tolerably achievable for those drawn here by ambition, or challenge, or simple vanity, provided what must have been a welcome livelihood for these men.  The return for themselves and their families must have seemed worth the great risk of their employment.

Quite aside from the physical risk to life and limb, however--at least as I have been led to understand--was the act of desecration involved in exposing this sacred place to the invasion of Western commerce and exploitation.  I find it infinitely sad that even such remote and inhospitable parts of our planet Earth have sacrificed their mystery and once-venerated inviolability to the insatiable lusts that characterize our species; and that the unrivaled mountain-climbing skills of the Sherpas have been co-opted to enable our ambitions.  The ascent of Everest now no longer takes exceptional skill, strength, daring, endurance  and individual initiative.  It just takes several tens of thousands of dollars and a team of Sherpas to see you to the top.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


I remember what my mother used to say: "These things are sent to try us."  I think it was my mother.  I think that was what she used to say...  Anyway, a Christian sentiment.  I have been spared this peculiar--yet familiar!--agony for quite some time.  I attribute the respite to a friend's suggestion, years ago, to sleep with a pillow between my legs.  Whether it's that now nightly habit or not, I have no way of knowing.  But I do know that, aside from the occasional twinge, soon passed, my back has held up remarkably well.

Until now.  This present pain was heralded several days ago by warning signs--an unease in the lower back, a quick signal to the brain.  When it came, it was not sudden as it sometimes is: I've put my back out.  No, this time it was slow in its arrival, taking its good time to blossom into its full, unquestionable presence. As always, the dilemma is this one: whether it's better to exercise the back gently, to "warm it up" and trust that movement will keep it lubricated; or whether to lie flat and remove the pressure entirely--and for how long!

My mother's wisdom is not out of line with Buddhist teaching.  It's just that the lesson is different.  The back pain is not some kind of punishment sent to test our faith, but rather a simple fact of life to which it's better not to get attached.  I try to remind myself of the old saw, that pain is inevitable, but suffering optional.  Just notice that it's there and let it slip away.  As with all teachings of the dharma, it's easier said than done.  Simple, as I often tell myself, but usually very hard to do.

Friday, April 18, 2014


No, that's not a typo.  It is "Hillywood."  Which is a thriving creative movie-making center set in the hills of Rwanda--hills, as this inspiring documentary shows, whose astonishing beauty stands in stark contrast to the country's all-too-familiar recent tragic history.  How, we wonder as we watch this footage, could such a travesty of all that's good and beautiful have happened here?  It's a question we repeat to ourselves constantly through Leah Warshawski's hour-long film as we watch the faces of the Rwandan men, women and children, whose radiant beauty rivals that of the land in which they live.

Finding Hillywood is a film about the redemptive power of the creative spirit; about forgiveness and restitution, about acknowledging the past and learning to shape the future.  The dreadful history of the genocide is never far from the surface.  The film's story tracks its main character, Ayuub, a man racked with regret and guilt for his absence from his native country at the time of the genocide, for having failed to save his mother from the slaughter, and having for a while abandoned his obligation to his wife and five sons as he sought release in alcohol.

He is pulled back from the brink, first, by a minor film crew job on the making of "The Last King of Scotland."  Falling in love with film, Ayuub decides that this, against all probability, will be his life's calling--and finds Hillywood, an organization devoted to the support and promotion of the work of Rwandan filmmakers.  We follow them from village to village, despite all obstacles, braving tropical heat and rainstorms to set up their inflatable screen and delight rapt audiences with their films.  Many have never seen a film before; all are inspired with pride in the achievements of their compatriots, and share in the healing they bring to the still-raw wound of fratricidal violence and hatred.

"Finding Hillywood" observes all this with a sympathetic documentary eye.  It honors the courage and tenacity of a people ravaged by genocide, and their profound humanity.  It dwells unabashedly on the beauty of the children, their eyes aglow with wonder, their faces shining.  It revels in the lush colors of the landscape, the rich fall of rain, the slow flow of red rivers.  It asks, always beneath a surface of joy and celebration: how could it happen here?  And, more importantly even than that question, it reminds us that the human spirit is boundless in its capacity for redemption, and that it is our creativity that provides us with the means.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


It hit me, not for the first time but with a sudden clarity, as I was following the long, slowly descending arc of an on-ramp from the 133 to the 405 north: while already of necessity adapted, the human body-mind has not yet fully evolved to the extent that it is capable of driving the freeways without experiencing--most frequently at the unconscious level--some significant psychic damage.

I had reached that point along the arc from which I look down on a long stretch of the freeway reaching out in front of me.  Each one of the six lanes--including the merging lane and the carpool lane--was nose-to-tail with multicolored speeding vehicles, none traveling less than fifty-five miles per hour and most barreling along at seventy or eighty.  (I was reminded of the Hot Wheels little two-and-a-half year-old Luka already loves to play with; or, more dramatically, of Chris Burden's "Metropolis" at the L.A. County Museum, with its crammed arteries and the unremitting buzz of tiny, racing autos.)  From this vantage point, my task seemed hair-raising: to accelerate across those speeding lines of traffic, one by one, and edge into the next entry into carpool lane, a quarter mile ahead.

Crazy, when you stop to think about it.  Like most of us, I suspect, I don't often stop to think about it, and might drive myself literally crazy if I did.  You just go ahead and do it, and trust that all your fellow drivers share the skills that you possess.  It's not that complicated, adjusting your speed to that of the cars in the adjacent lane and waiting for that half-second's break in the stream of traffic to apply just the right additional pressure to the accelerator and make your move.  What's astonishing is that most of us are skilled enough to manage this process with little disruption to the flow.

But when you do stop to think about it--preferably not until after the fact!--you can't help but realize what a toll it takes.  Seen in the perspective of our long evolution as a species, these past few decades of our adaption to the motor vehicle are but a millisecond.  It's not long since we were driving oxcarts along muddy tracks, or at best taking the carriage or riding horses from one town to the next.  A journey of sixty miles would have been a major undertaking.  Now we do it, barring accidents, in less than an hour.

Still, what we generally take for granted does take a toll.  The brain and the reflexes, I think, adapt more readily than the human body-mind, which is still not ready to rest easy in the experience of speeding along at seventy-eighty miles per hour encased in a ton of metal, in the immediate proximity of dozens of other, similarly careening coffins, many of them of far greater size and tonnage.  We pay for the convenience in the often unnoticed stress on a brain that, aside from all its other tasks, must process millions of bits of information per second as we drive the freeway; and a body-mind that is constantly, whether we're aware of it or not, on survival alert.

As it has evolved thus far, the human body is also ill-suited to the task of sitting for hours on end in pretty much the same position.  With their long periods entrapped in the sedentary position, whether in automobiles or airplanes, our twenty-first century lives would have been unthinkable two hundred years ago.  These days, an hour's drive is enough to lock my aging knees into a state of acute discomfit and send pain shooting down my legs.  Having reached my destination, I unbend from my seat in spasms of agony that last until I've had the opportunity to warm up the lower extremities with some welcome movement.

All in all, I'd be happy never to have to climb into the driver's seat again, let alone board an airplane for a ten-hour flight.  But there you go.  Would I choose not to visit my grandchildren, in England?  No.  The wonder is, that it's possible to do it.  And that it's possible to drive down from Los Angeles to our cottage in Laguna Beach in the space of a single hour.  It's just that the doing of it drives a person crazy.

Monday, April 14, 2014


(Thanks to Marlan Globerson for this image!)

We enjoyed a great “Slow Art Day” at Laguna Art Museum.  This event differs from my “One Hour/One Painting” series (now “Slow Looking: The Art of Looking at Art”) in several respects.  First, it takes place at more than two hundred venues in locations throughout the globe—museums, galleries, art centers, studios…  Then its basic premise is to take in five works of art in the space of an hour—ten minutes each, unlike the single work we sit with at a “Slow Looking” session.  And it concludes with a convivial discussion session over lunch or coffee at a local cafĂ©.   But the principle is the same: spend some good, concentrated time with the art work, rather than rushing past it at the usual museum/gallery trot.  So, pay attention.  Think about what you’re looking at, and about the looking process.

My co-host for the Laguna Art Museum event was the painter, Hedy Buzan...

(here she is, center...)
... whose approach is very different from my own; she talks participants through the compositional aspects of the painting—line and shape, color and value, texture, and so on, offering an artist’s education in how it’s all put together, how it works as a structural entity.  My approach is based in the time-tested skills of meditation and contemplation, applying them to the process of looking; it attempts to engage the perceiving mind, settling it into a state of pure stillness and receptivity and demanding from the eyes the hard work of registering every detail of the work.  I act as guide to the process.

I did not do a head count of our Slow Art Day participants.  I believe there were up to sixteen at any given moment—“up to”, because one or two of our number tended to wander off and follow their own inclinations.  Which was fine.  But we had reliably a dozen people at each stop along the way.  Our original plan was for Hedy and myself to introduce our different approaches and invite group members to choose between the two.  But then… we thought, well, we can start together and see where we go from there; and things turned out differently from what we’d planned.

First stop was a Millard Sheets painting, “Night of the Dead”, a complex work evoking the presence of both living and dead in a Mexican graveyard.  Here, Hedy did such an excellent job of guiding the group through her structural approach that I thought, why not let’s alternate?  Let’s encourage the whole group to experience both approaches.  So we all went on to a landing on the museum’s stairway, where a group of small, dazzling Frank Cuprien sunset/seascapes was installed--quite typical of this California Impressionist's magical play with light and space.  There was enough continuity between each of the paintings to allow group members to select of their choice; and I realized, as I led the process, that my vision—and presumably theirs too—had already been much enriched by Hedy’s analytical approach.  We brought that along with us into contemplation.

So we decided to alternate, keeping the group together for all five of the paintings, and derived enormous benefit from the way the two approaches fed into each other, enriching both our skills and the experience as we went.  From Cuprien, we moved on to a beautiful William Wendt landscape--again typical, with its rich interplay of greens; and from there to a small Wayne Thiebaud painting of a cigar, still burning, laid across an ashtray; and to a remarkable, large-scale drawing by the contemporary artist Dana Harel, “Gatekeeper,” with its skillful juxtaposition of grey graphite values evoking three partial images--a chair, and a seated figure holding an indeterminate animal.  Our final two minutes with this work were spent in silent contemplation.

Across the street, we settled down to coffee—and, some of us, lunch—in a shady garden corner set aside for us at Madison’s.  Here we enjoyed the opportunity to compare notes about the experience and get to know a little more about each other.  From feedback, it appeared that all our guests had been as happy with the “Slow Art Day” experience as were Hedy and I.  A great day, and one which I hope will lead to better art-viewing habits for us all.