Trouble in Paradise

Lots of folks around Santa Fe, New Mexico consider this little city and its high desert environs to be a very special, natural place, if not actually a paradise. I’ve been living here for some forty years, and though not a believer in heavens on earth, I do think of Fanta Se as a place blessedly removed from the worst evils of modern life.  Or at least until recently.

This past spring I once more watched a splendid cherry tree outside my kitchen window explode in white blossoms.

Cherry Blossoms

After a couple days of such a floral vision, I started wondering why there were relatively so few bees around the blooms in comparison with earlier years. It was disturbing, but at least I got to watch a modicum of fruits forming among the new green leaves.

Now in the past weeks of late spring and early summer, my garden has again exploded in a bumper crop of larkspur. Given a chance, they really do spread like weeds, and if they show up in the wrong place, I simply yank them out.  What’s left seems ample for survival of the species.

In previous years, the zillions of larkspur flowers (that look like birds with little wings), would always be crowded with buzzing bees—even fat bumblebees lumbering around like trucks.

Larkspurs in my garden

This year there are no bees. I do not exaggerate.  No bees!  The only pollinators I’ve seen this year are one hummingbird moth in the dim twilight—once—and one single, solitary tiger-swallowtail butterfly flitting about the flowers most mornings.  Its yellow-striped wings are a beautiful contrast to their purple/blue, but it’s too flighty to work through the masses of flowers.  Now I find many of the bloom stalks not making seed pods.  This is beyond disturbing.

This past week I’ve been even more horrified to see the cherries ripening on the tree next door—and simply hanging there till over-ripe and falling to litter the ground. Always before, as the cherries started to turn red, the tree would be a-flutter with flocks of birds pecking the heck out of them.  Now I’ve seen no more than three or four little birds struggling to reach a fruit or two.

Where have all the bees gone? Where have all the birds gone?  What’s going on?

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Jaguars Changing Spots

I seem to be at my stellar best when I’m boring folks with useless information—or at least with stuff they don’t give a rat’s patootie about. The following verbiage may well fall into both categories.  And since it’s on the Internet, there’s the distinct possibility (but minuscule probability) of boring millions of readers to tears.  What more could I hope for as I hold forth on jaguars’ spots?  I bet you’ve never given that esoteric subject even a nanosecond’s thought.

But I have. For some years, as you likely don’t know, I’ve been drawing digital icons of Aztec deities for a coloring book called YE GODS! Since the jaguar is a major mythological figure for most of the ancient cultures of the Americas (see A Roar of Jaguars), I had to come to terms with how it was depicted in the iconography of those cultures.  In fact, as the Lord of the Animals, the jaguar was my first try at digital drawing.

Already well versed in the iconography of the few Aztec codices that survived the Conquest of that empire by the Spanish, I wasn’t terribly impressed by their renderings of the unique and complex pattern of the jaguar’s pelt. For the most part the ancient Aztec artists made do with a simple scattering of spots looking a lot like those of the Old World leopard.In the Codex Borgia, a more elaborate picture-book, the pelt was sometimes depicted in greater complexity. I chose to use two of those stronger patterns for figures in my later icon of the deities of the moon, but the first pattern was just too weirdly abstract, if oddly more realistic.

For my first digital drawing (eventually used in the icon for OCELOTL), I pompously tried to reproduce a naturalistic jaguar pelt—and believe I did a decent job. It convinced me of the amazing power of computer imaging and kicked off the whole coloring book project.  Having mastered the pattern, I used it also for a seat-cushion in the icon for the goddess CHANTICO (also see the icon for MICTLANTECUHTLI), and for a detail of a jaguar-warrior in that for the god CHALCHIUHTOTOLIN.

Chantico and Jaguar Warrior

At present I’m in the final throes of the icon for TEPEYOLLOTL (see The Divine Volcanoes), who is a were-jaguar (an anthropomorphic creature), appearing in a number of the codices.

Here comes another sneak preview. There are two jaguars in this icon.  I chose to use the Nuttall jaguar, radically restructured, for the leaping one and the Vindobonensis figure as model for the god himself—with a pelt based on one of the Borgia examples.

Leaping Jaguar and Tepeyollotl

This illustration shows that I haven’t yet completed Tepeyollotl’s face, though I have already given him an aesthetic nose-job. While the open-ring pattern may not be any more naturalistic than the plain spots on the Vindobonensis model, I did that on purpose—for the coloring.

I’ve only given explicit directions for coloring the icons in a few cases. First, for the pelt in OCELOTL, I described the animal’s range of coloration from rusty gold to white.  For the icon of EHECATL, I explained that scallop shells come in black, white, and all shades of the rainbow, though very dark and dusky like in the last hues of twilight.  For TEPEYOLLOTL, I will direct the colorist to make those open rings various colors as in these almost hallucinatory images:

In this second Telleriano example, the spots are inexplicably green, and in the psychedelic Aubin figure red, blue, and gold. (By the way, the general Aubin style of illustration might most kindly be called “casual:” Note the incomplete claws, stubby tail, and curious wrinkles on its back.)

The rationale for vari-colored spots on my Tepeyollotl is that, among several other mythical qualities, he’s the Lord of Jewels. Also, any deity worth its salt really should be hallucinatory, psychedelic, and/or surreal.

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My Rock of Ages

Indulging in memories of long ago, like those of my parrot Lorro, impresses me with the bittersweet transience of such moments and beings that now are only immanent images in my aging mind. But I woke up in the wee hours of this morning thinking of a memory that still very much exists in the present.  I call it my rock of ages.

At least 40 years ago (curious how 40 years seems to create a natural cycle!), I was even then a “plant freak.” After visiting the stupendous bonsai collection at the National Arboretum (a gift to the US from Japan for the Bicentennial), I decided to try my hand at bonsai and determined to create one in a naturalistic setting.

One Saturday afternoon while sunbathing with the hedonistic crowd at P Street “Beach”, I explored along the banks of Rock Creek and among the jumbled granite chunks found an ideal rock—more like a boulder weighing maybe 75 lb. Balancing it on my bicycle frame, I walked it home to the Four Belles at Logan Circle, lugged it upstairs to my sky-lit conservatory and made  a miniature mountain with a tiny tree growing out of a mossy slope.  Aurora the Aralia.

Aurora the Aralia

Aurora flourished on her mountainside for several years, including a sojourn in the window of a 19th floor apartment in New York.  Then in 1981 the mountain came with me to New Mexico, where I had to lodge it with an acquaintance in his greenhouse. I’m mortified that I cannot recall who the fellow was or where it was, but that winter it got hideously cold, and the host forgot to turn on his heaters.  Poor Aurora froze to death!  The jade tree I’d also left there froze down to a stub, but it re-sprouted and in 25 years grew into a huge beauty.

Rejuvenated Jade Tree and Me

In my grief, I took the honored rock with me to my new home on West Alameda in Santa Fe and set it out in the “yard”—more like a gravelly field. A couple years later, a sculptor friend (Gretchen Berggren) asked to install one of her works along my terrace wall, a metal-grate “river” with boulders like one she’d done for outside the College of Santa Fe’s Fogelson Library.  Seeing my beautiful rock, she wanted to include it in her sculpture, and I was happy to agree.

For at least 25 years, my rock parted those sculptural streams—until I left that place and once again lifted it from its “creek,” which by that time had fallen into serious disrepair. Behind my new apartment was a boulder-strewn drainage/walkway where I built several terraces (for iris beds) and prominently included my rock in one of them as keystone for “Rock Creek Lane.”

Four years later (1 ½ years ago), when I moved to Alicia Street, my rock of ages came with me and has since sat meditating under my almond tree, probably resting from its botanical, artistic, and architectural labors.

My Rock of Ages

I can’t really say if I might set it to another purpose in the future, maybe not, but it will be with me as long as I can lift it. I feel totally blest to have had this special relationship with a mineral entity, or if you will, spirit.  When I’m gone, let it remain as my monument.

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Reminder of Logan Circle

This afternoon in the sauna I was chatting with a friend about pets and commented that the only pet I’ve had in the past sixty years was a parrot in the late 70’s in DC—while I was living in the Four Belles at Logan Circle. Its name was Lorro, which is Spanish for “parrot” and a masculine noun.  However, we called it “she,” though Lorro never laid any eggs…  It’s not always easy to determine the gender of a bird, especially a yellow-headed Amazonian.

Yellow-headed Amazonian (like my parrot Lorro)

Lorro was originally my housemate Charles’ pet, but he had a way of losing interest in his whims and wound up giving me the bird, so to speak. It proved to be very little work being a parrot-master as long as I kept the food coming, and she was pleasant company hanging around on her cage in the parlor in the round bay by our ancient (unplayable) Bechstein piano.  Lorro had a penchant for talking to herself.

According to Charles, she was raised in a simple Mexican family, which made sense because Lorro had a whole routine of a crying baby and a concerned mother trying to calm it with a lullaby (in Spanish). In addition, she’d sing snatches of Mexican revolutionary songs apparently learned from the radio.  Over time the lyrics got a bit garbled.

I guess my voice was too low for Lorro to care for, but she quickly learned to laugh (giggle) just like me. It was weird to be in the dining room and hear myself burst into peals of laughter in the parlor.  She also had an unnerving talent for mimicking the veritable symphony of sirens one heard every night there in our epicenter of the slum, now epicenter of chic.  She was right on key doing the sirens of the police, fire-engines, and ambulances, and with my laughter mixed in, it sounded rather mad.

Unfortunately, Lorro was a bit developmentally disabled. For some reason she never grew true flight feathers in her wings, and what tried to grow, she assiduously pulled out.  Vets said there was nothing we could do…  That’s why she just hung around on her cage, singing, laughing, and blaring her sirens.  Sometimes I’d take her out riding on my bicycle:  As we rolled down the avenue, she’d sit on the basket and flap her stubby wings, shrieking at the top of her lungs.

I think it was the fall of 1979 when Charles went on an extended trip round the ruins of Guatemala. While he was away, I got up one morning to find Lorro lying on the parlor floor as dead as a doornail.  Assuming she’d had a heart attack or some such, I mourned and tried to figure out what to do with her corpse till Charles’ return from the jungles (which, by the way, played a large role in his manic “nervous breakdown” that winter).

The solution I came up with was to wrap her gently in plastic wrap and put her in the freezer. To be thorough, I also put the book on parrot care in there with her.  When Charles got back, he didn’t want to deal with funerals and anyway quickly proceeded to lose his mind.  Over the next year we wound up having to sell the Four Belles, and the new owners inherited a frozen parrot and book on parrot care.  I often wonder what they thought when they opened that freezer.

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Balthazar’s Seven Redeeming Virtues

After recently carrying on about the majority of humanity being possessed by demons (the seven deadly sins), I got to wondering about that minority of folks who aren’t. Probably under the influence of my early Catholic upbringing, I think they’re the virtuous ones.

Since my catechism lessons had always concentrated on the sins and said very little about virtue, I had to Google virtuous qualities and was surprised to find a wide range of lists with varying numbers of items. Pope Gregory counted seven; another scholarly opinion figures eight; the catechism lists four cardinal virtues; Buddhists and Bushido (Samurai) teach seven differing ones; the Stoics (Aristotle, Plato, etc.) consider four; general theology lists only three; and the Sikhs and Confucius offer five in different sets.

There was lots of overlap and redundancy in the several lists. I threw them all into a semantic blender, and the seven categories that settled out were most similar to Gregory’s. While that Pope was a whiz with his calendar revision and new style of chanting, his philosophy was less than rigorous, and his seven virtues really boil down to only five.

In my agnostically authoritative list I’ve added in parentheses all the definitions, synonyms, aspects, and corollaries that I could pull out of my vocabulary. You might easily think of more to add, but I bet you won’t find a new category.  If you do, please let me know!

Here then are Balthazar’s Seven Redeeming Virtues:

CHARITY (Generosity, Sacrifice, Altruism, Philanthropy, Helpfulness, Sharing)

COMPASSION (Patience, Kindness, Love, Mercy, Sympathy, Tolerance)

COURAGE (Diligence, Fortitude, Confidence, Valor, Perseverance, Hope, Initiative)

HUMILITY (Honor, Respect, Modesty, Renunciation, Gratitude, Contentment)

HONESTY (Justice, Sincerity, Fidelity, Truth, Faith, Integrity)

MODERATION (Temperance, Chastity, Morality, Self-discipline, Prudence)

PERSPICACITY (Wisdom, Insight, Discernment, Understanding, Perceptive)

Humility Redeems All Species.

Apart from Humility being the best antidote for Pride and Courage curing Sloth, the rest of these virtues are a great medical cocktail for treating the other deadly sins. But how can we convince the demon-possessed majority to acknowledge their addictions and take their medicine?  If only there were some way to inoculate folks with Honesty and Compassion, a pill to take for Charity and Moderation, or an operation that would activate the Perspicacity gland!

I’ve seen a poster that exhorts: TEACH TOLERANCE!  But I’m not sure one can actually teach virtues.  Obviously, the deadly sins can be taught though.  They are modelled and encouraged by our economic system, by the entertainment and advertising industries, and in almost all our personal and political relationships.  Sadly, virtues don’t sell well nowadays, and folks who practice them are mostly seen as boring do-gooders—or naïve fools.

And about virtue being its own reward: I don’t buy that old saw.  I sincerely believe that the reward of virtue is peace and joy.  At least that’s why I try to practice it.

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The Stuff of Dreams

I’ve just finished reading Ursula Le Guin’s 1971 novel “The Lathe of Heaven” for the first time. Way back then/when, I read “The Left Hand of Darkness” but can’t remember a thing about it—so I’ll definitely have to grab that one again.  In LofH, she blew me away with the prescience of her sci-fi details of over-population, climate change, and the quality of life which are now so much a part of modern life.  It’s unfortunate that some of them (like kicking the automobile addiction), haven’t yet come true.  But I’m glad that she wasn’t sadistic enough to envision the smart-phone!  At least the people in her future world(s) were still human…

The novel’s theme of dreaming was a genius twist on the subject: a guy has “effective” dreams that affect objective reality.  Not to spoil a great story, I won’t say any more about that, but it put me in mind of the concept of “conscious dreaming,” which some decades ago was a big new-age thing.  Maybe it still is?

One of the themes in the Don Juan novels of Carlos Castañeda, the notion fascinated me. In about 1985, a “dream analyst” friend explained that the best method for achieving consciousness in a dream was to look at one’s hands and actually see them.  That sounded simple enough.

In a vivid dream about walking down a path to a beach (I was an inveterate, if infrequent, beach bum), the friend’s instruction came into my dreaming mind. I stopped on the sand and looked at my hands.  They were in the minutest detail my real hands, all the wrinkles on my knuckles and nails exactly like they were that day, including the longer nails on my pinkies.  And there on the third finger of my right hand was my gold ring with its slab of lapis lazuli—with the exact tiny streak of gold in the stone.  Then I knew that I was conscious.  Not awake, but conscious.

The problem was that as I looked at my real hands, the gold and lapis of my ring began to spread like an incrustation across my fingers. Consciously, I thought, “Oh, no, you don’t!”  With an effort of will, I forced the precious stuff back into the ring.  Confident now in my control of the dream, I looked around the beach at the expanse of sand and the undulant waves.

Dream of a Beach

I bent down and picked up some sand, letting it run quite realistically through my very real fingers. Then I decided I wanted to find a beautiful shell, and I walked along the frothy wave-lines on the beach feeling the utter reality of the scene.  Quickly I found a perfect small conch-like shell, and holding it in my right hand, I admired its whorl, as beautiful as any I’d ever seen.

In my throes of admiration, suddenly the shell started spreading over my hand, covering it with gleaming mother-of-pearl. I tried to command the transformation to stop but couldn’t manage.  The vision was utterly enthralling and joyous, and like happens with the approach of sexual climax, I could do nothing but abandon myself to the ecstasy of the dream.

I can’t remember where the dream went from there. But those moments of consciousness seized in the midst of it have remained vivid all these years since.  I’m not sure why I haven’t tried that trick again.  Maybe because it’s never crossed my dreaming mind to look at my hands again?

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Our Exploitative Healthcare System

My first inclination was to write a letter to my doctor (probably a capable, dedicated, and intelligent man), calling a spade a spade, but then I reconsidered. No matter his many sterling qualities, my doctor is by definition a part of, or at least an accomplice in, the situation.  My rant would surely fall on deaf ears.  Instead, I’ll broadcast my cynical remarks here on my virtually unread blog, where at least someone might hear my voice crying in the wilderness.

Late last week I got a second attack of gout in my right big toe, a stereotypical condition surrounded by a great deal of mythology, rumor, and medical lore. A close friend with the same problem in the same place advised that his VA doctor had prescribed him a generic drug called Allopurinol which costs only $5 a bottle.  He reported that one tablet generally relieves the condition immediately and recommended that I get a prescription for it too.  Or he’d be happy to give me a pill or two out of his stash.

Trying to play the medical game by its rules, yesterday I called to ask my doctor (with whom I’d already discussed the first attack) to issue a prescription for the miracle pill, but he was away for the week, and though this second attack was sure to fade within a few days, I left a message with full details of the VA doctor and the friend’s experience.

My call was returned by a registered nurse who advised that they wouldn’t write the prescription unless I came in for an examination. The sub-text of her response came in loud and clear:  “We won’t do anything unless we add our own bill to the cost of the prescription.”

When I advised that in that case, I would go ahead and borrow pills from my friend, the nurse got uptight, sternly admonishing me not to take anyone else’s medication. I asked why—since it had been prescribed by a “real” doctor and was very effective for the same problem.

The nurse dithered about how there “could be” horrible interactions with my blood pressure medication, citing “studies” of that specific combination of medications (which I find highly unlikely), but offering no specifics of such interactions or statistics. What I heard was “Be afraid!  Avoid the slightest, even infinitesimal danger!”  (Frankly, every time I get into my car, I’m conscious of putting myself in a position of extreme danger.  Every time I walk out my front door…  Every time I get out of bed in the morning…  By definition, life is unsafe.)

I advised that I’ve now (with my doctor’s agreement and under his supervision) almost completely weaned my system from that poisonous blood pressure pill, so the danger of any interaction is probably even less than negligible. (I’m now down to 1/8 of the low dosage originally prescribed years ago by a nurse-practitioner for only slightly elevated readings, which have never improved or gotten any worse.  Even at the time, I understood that it was her professional duty simply to enroll me as a regular contributor to the pharmaceutical industry.)

The nurse responded that nevertheless I was still on the medication and should be very afraid. Ratcheting up the pressure to an almost hysterical level, she gratuitously added that some interactions could even be fatal.  Again there were no specifics or statistics, just alarmist jargon.  Recognizing this tactic as standard practice in our current culture of fear, I noted that over-the-counter herbal supplements, while much less effective than Allopurinol, are widely available, but there are such studies or warnings about them.

Ignoring those unprofessional remedies (at higher cost than Allopurinol with sales income not accruing to the pharmaceutical industry), she again urged me to “make an appointment” (i.e., make an extra payment to them) to talk about treatment and a prescription. I advised that I wouldn’t waste either their or my limited time on the issue of taking a single pill of proven effectiveness for a common, otherwise pharmaceutically untreatable, condition.

She countered with an irritated threat “to tell on me” by writing up our conversation for my doctor. I told the nurse to feel free to do so, just as I felt free to call my friend for some of his pills.  When we ended the call, her frustration was palpable.  She’d missed a possible sale!

When I rang up my friend right afterwards, he wasn’t home, and so I figured I’d call him today. When I got up this morning, the gout was gone, so the entire charade was moot.

However, the charade was a dramatic illustration of the basic problem with our healthcare industry. Like other for-profit businesses, healthcare providers’ real purpose is to generate sales, not service.  Aided by the FDA, they collude with the pharmaceutical industry to “hook” people on their monopolistic products.  (Witness the current opioid epidemic.)  And both collude with the insurance industry (the stock in trade of which is fear), to kick back to each other on their sales and ultimately inflate costs to the consumer/patient.

This unholy trinity has our economy by the throat. In the name of public benefit, they exploit the population for private gain, just as other industries exploit our natural resources (the public’s treasures) for private gain.  The fatal flaw in our government and economic system is that private enterprise is inimical to public benefit.  But I’ve already ranted about that in an earlier blog  or two.

Would anyone care to try and disabuse me of these dire and hopeless notions?

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