Somewhere Inside the Rainbow

30 12 2007

By Derek Beres

In the ever-evolving “battle” over the future of the music industry, many questions are being asked: Who will emerge victorious, the artist or the label? How will musicians eke out a living despite the ease of recording transfer from machine to machine across invisible networks? Is this the demise of the retail store? Will digital be the inevitable stamp of the future? What are the boundaries of organizations like the RIAA, and how much influence should they have over governmental regulations?

These are only five questions among many on the tips of industry and musician tongues. The boldest move of 2007 was certainly Radiohead’s online offering of their latest album, In Rainbows, at a choose-your-own payment rate, starting at the base price of free. Numerous people took advantage and paid nothing. Still, some have speculated that the band brought in over nine million dollars – a number that is likely inflated, although vocalist Thom Yorke stated that they’ve made more from digital sales on this recording than from all their other releases.

The Radiohead Chronicles show us that digital sales empower artists. But they raise an even more relevant point: Why are we so concerned with the fiscal status of superstars?

Read the full blog on Reality Sandwich.


Eye of the Tiger

27 12 2007

By Jill Ettinger

The news out of San Francisco that a Siberian tiger escaped its confinement and killed a Zoo visitor is tragic and shocking for several reasons.  It’s certainly going to taint Christmas for years to come for friends and family members of the victim. It also imparts safety concerns for future zoo-goers. But the most tragic result of this situation is the way in which it creates a deeper misunderstanding between humans and the “natural” world.

According to the US State Department, only 30% of Americans hold passports. And roughly the same number of our population lives in rural areas where wildlife sightings are more common. Urban dwellings, where the majority of our country resides, consider their resident wildlife mostly as “pests”: possum, squirrels, pigeons, rats and raccoons. While the rest of our citizens have more frequent access to wild animals, our slimly populated rural communities are often only exposed to cattle, pigs, chickens, goats and horses. Few people actually regularly – if ever – see our amazing indigenous wildlife like grizzly bears, gray wolves, alligators, mountain lions, the el Segundo blue butterfly, peregrine falcons and bald eagles, let alone the other amazing creatures on the planet. Except, maybe, at zoos.

Zoos have been around for centuries, often intertwined with traveling circuses. Their entertainment value has turned educational in the last several decades. Folks like Jack Hanna of the Columbus Zoo were instrumental in this, bringing fun and funky creatures onto late shows, piquing interest in parents looking for ways to bond with, educate and enthrall their own offspring. The annual zoo membership became a must-have in many urban households. Most earnestly offering a way to understand the world we live in, zoos aim to be places of learning. Interactive education is a memorable way to experience these foreign ambassadors. The curious creatures playing in their “habitats,” the noises they make, the smells – all play a part in connecting children to the wild world in a way a its Sesame Street stuffed counterpart can never offer. There is nothing quite as magnificent as a trumpeting elephant standing just several feet away from a young child.

Like many children, I grew up in a zoo-frequenting household.  It seems like my parents took us once a week. It was never enough. I have more memories of being at the zoo than I have of any other place, besides home. Even more than school. It’s no wonder that I have a deep love for and fascination with animals. My diet, which was always animal-adverse, no doubt stayed that way because of the many hours I spent looking into the eyes of llamas and gorillas, flamingos and zebras.

In the summer of 1995 I took a position as the “lead attendant” at the Pittsburgh Zoo, where I had spent so much of my childhood. (At the time, it was ranked in the top ten zoos in the country). The job was puzzle-piecing a comprehensive schedule of eighty or so high school students with summer jobs monitoring the interactive deer, kangaroo and goat yards, as well as various “play areas” where sugar-hyper kids pretending to be animals mostly fell off the slides, swings and rides. Because I was lead attendant, I was privy to lots of relationships with senior zoo management and was able to get an internship during the off-season in the big cats/rhino/bear department. It was like winning the lottery. I was going to shadow a trainer and interact intimately with some of the most amazing life forms on the planet.

I’d never been so thrilled and devastated at the same time. My very first experience of the internship was confounding. I stood there watching as they put down an old female Siberian tiger who had cancerous growths all over her underbelly. The vets knocked her out with a dart so that they could get a better look at her stomach and then decided to just not wake her up. The cancer was extensive, and it would be painful for all involved to let her continue. There before my eyes lay one of the world’s most stunning creatures, dead from an illness extremely rare in the wild. My hand discreetly touched her warm fur as they carried her out. My watery eyes drifted to the other tigers that remained in the cages nearby – they were her children.

Over the few months of the internship, I would interact with cheetahs, leopards, jaguars and lions. There is nothing more terrifying than an angry, caged, hungry lion staring you in the face and roaring (except one out of its cage, I suppose). I can still remember the smell as I would clean his cage after we fed and moved him into the yard. Every night he would rub his thick mane on the walls, leaving black oil marks that we would scrub constantly. In the wild, leaving their scent is crucial to marking territory. This lion was haunted each night by a strange creature named Clorox.

There were black, brown, spectacled and polar bears too that we fed. If anyone could rival the lion’s intensity, it was the polar bears. They would growl and bark and swipe at me with their giant white paws through the bars. But I worked most closely with two baby black rhinos. They were a trade for a few white rhinoceroses that were supposed to be going to a mating colony in China when the truck they were on was hijacked and they were poached, killed for their horns believed to be valuable tonic used in traditional remedies, but illegal.

I’d see about one animal death per month at the zoo over the year I spent there. The keepers were some of the most passionate people I’ve ever met. They cared deeply for their responsibilities; these animals did not die from neglect in that sense. Food was a major issue, and of course confinement. In the wild, rhinos will nurse until three years old. The two we cared for were not quite 18 months old and therefore still required milk. There is no commercially available rhino milk. We would cook up gallons of a concoction of cow milk and sugar and water, but they would constantly battle massive diarrhea. There would be weekly formula tweaks from the physicians to no avail. Their immune systems were so compromised that the female ended up contracting a disease – apparently transmitted from rats – and died less than six months after I left.

Zoos all over the world are constantly faced with animal illnesses and deaths. Humans have evolved to live in confined spaces, but wild animals – well, we call them wild for a reason. Some of them have been bred in captivity, but that’s only in the last few generations. The saddest part of all this – the tragedy of the escaped tiger in San Francisco – is that we keep them there to remind us of the world we can’t see everyday; the world that is in jeopardy by our neglect, our fear, and at the mercy of our addictions to fossil fuels. We keep them in captivity not so much as a way to understand and respect them, but in our uniquely human way of conquering and collecting the things we don’t understand or respect.

When we stop trying to own Nature, perhaps we’ll be more inclined to take measures to actually enhance the habitats of our fellow earthlings. It’s quite sad that a tiger fatally attacked someone. She certainly didn’t do it out of hunger. It is an unbelievably horrifying and unfortunate commentary on what our culture has done to Nature. We live in a world where Siberian Tigers number less than 500 in the wild, and more than double that, are pacing cages in zoos.

The Redistribution & Revival of Roots

20 12 2007

By Derek Beres

It seems impossible that someone wouldn’t immediately take to the quintessential reggae classic “Satta Massagana”. Yet when the Abyssinians recorded it at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One in 1969, he shelved it for two years; in ‘71 the band had to buy it back for £90. Not only did it become a juggernaut of a hit for the vocal trio, it also set the tone for melodic, spiritually focused roots reggae in the mainstream. Interestingly, at the time only one of the three singers—Donald Manning—was Rastafari. Yet nearly 40 years later that song remains biblical in Rasta folklore.

What are the “roots” of reggae, really? We can trace it back to the African griot tradition and the imported folk stories carried to the Caribbean during slave times. Indian culture planted seeds in the mid-19th century as indentured servants mingled with local Africans and introduced important concepts (karma, redemption) as well as nutrition (Ayurveda, ganja), of which would eventually define Rastafari

Musically, reggae was an interesting concoction of traditional Nyabhingi drumming and chanting set to the tunes of airwave-dominated American R&B, soul and jazz; ska was the Jamaican flip on these. We can probably attribute Toots (of Maytals fame) for coining “reggae”, though it was already a fusion of many forms by that time. Like any art or culture, reggae did not just appear from nowhere, and its roots spread in many directions.

Today, the Golden Age of this song form remains birthright to a handful of important names, three of which are seeing new light from Heartbeat Records: Bob Marley, Lee Perry and the aforementioned Abbysinians, whose Satta Massagana is crucial to the development of those sweet honey harmonies indicative of roots reggae. The three “previously unreleased” tracks, including extended mixes of “Abendigo” and “Poor Jason Whyte”, are nice but unnecessary. This is one of the most important documents regarding the mindset and spiritual musings of Jamaican culture; the original 15 will stand against time for as long as humans have ears to listen with.

Click here to read the full column on PopMatters.

A Light Unto Christmas

19 12 2007

By Derek Beres

No tradition is created in a vacuum. As we approach the Christmas holiday, it is always good to reflect upon the roots of that tradition, to better understand the symbols behind the figures involved—the process, and not only the form that the process takes. Christianity, likes its “pagan” ancestors, is based on agricultural mythology, something rarely recognized when the media focuses solely on the economics of the holiday, and political leaders throw the name of Christ around as if his importance lied in his actual human form, and not the process that he represented.

It begins in translation. As Richard Dawkins pointed out in The Selfish Gene, the translation from Hebrew to Greek rendered “young woman” as “virgin,” and hence a disastrous series of biologically impossible misinterpretations ensued. Yet the virgin motif is not new; the Buddha too was born of a virgin in some stories. Recognizing the feat as symbolic in the Christian world, Mary was an updated equivalent of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who, as Manly P. Hall wrote, “although she gave birth to all living things—chief among them the Sun—still remained a virgin.” If we treat the word virginal as meaning purity, which would move us into the realm of ethics and away from biology, then the birth of her gifted son (sun) was due to her positive nature: she was pure at heart.

More to the point, however, was Mary’s virginity representing the unplowed soil. Her son was born at midnight on the winter solstice, the time of year when the sun is furthest away from the planet. This would correlate her as a lunar deity giving birth to the sun, a very old story indeed. At the point of total and complete darkness a light is born. This is why he is destined to be a “light unto all nations,” for the star that beams into every nook of this planet, as well as what gives life to this planet, is the Sun—the Son, “light bearer,” Christ. If there were any actual creator of life on this planet, this would most certainly be the source.

The Bible is ecologically inclined in numerous ways. Not only is it a tale of the barren soil (a motif fitting for Sarah as well as Mary), it is a folklore that begins, and ends, with trees. Trees are necessary for human existence: they provide oxygen for us to breathe; they attract and retain moisture, helping to prevent dehydration of soil; they provide shade, fruit and medicines; they are, quite literally, what civilization is built by, in the ways of ships, houses and buildings, as well as assisting us in the transition from single-text doctrines on clay and papyrus to the mass production of books, so the most sacred aspect of existence—the Word—could be passed down for thousands of years. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the trigger of duality, and when mankind ate of this tree consciousness came to be. This is the same tree that Christ was crucified on, completing a very important cycle: the tree, in Adam’s time, who sinned upon earth (sin=ignorance), served as the same instrument by which Christ, the redeemer, was enlightened upon. Man’s descent into darkness and his subsequent rebirthing is told through the ecology of trees.

Read the full story on Sound Against Flame.

Waiter, There’s Too Much Water in my Glass

18 12 2007

By Jill Ettinger

I think a lot about water – probably more than I should. (I am a Pisces, after all.) Last night I was having dinner with my brother’s fiancé. We both ordered tea, as it was a chilly, windy December evening in New York.

I arrived a few minutes early and started sipping a steamy cup of jasmine green. Even before that the waitress plopped down two menus and two very full glasses of water on the table. My mind wandered as the waitress left to get me the beverage that I actually ordered, and I thought of the thousands of tables this was happening at right now in Manhattan, and the millions more around the world.

Usually when I’m served water in a restaurant, I drink some, but not all of it, unless I’m really thirsty. Tea is my drink of choice, which is just herbed water, I suppose. I just don’t like to drink much when I’m eating.  Sipping is nice and the warmer, the better.

I’ve noticed that even some of the most unpretentious restaurants have a water guy. (It’s rarely a girl.) You might have taken just two sips from your glass and he will refill it promptly. It frustrates me to embarrassing levels. It even scares me. I feel a duty to the dwindling fresh water on the planet not to waste this precious liquid even though I’m not thirsting for it. Sometimes my hand makes it to the top of the glass in time to prevent the pour. Sometimes it does not. I often offer the water to my friends at the table. I realize I’m way too focused on this. But I’m learning to just accept my intuition or whatever it is that takes over my thoughts in these situations.

Later last night, Gabby and I stopped into Whole Foods Bowery before the journey home. I noticed that Volvic, a well-known spring water from France, is now selling fruit flavor enhanced water. This I thought a lot about too. As losing the bottle came into fashion this year (ala cities like San Francisco banning bottles in government office buildings), water companies need a new angle. Just plain old ordinary water will no longer qualify for many concerned consumers. But if there is the (appeared) added benefit of flavorings (minus sugar or enough fruity stuff to call it “juice”) or even supplements like Vitamin Water, it crosses the line from ‘water’ into ‘enhanced water beverage.’ It’s got value beyond keeping one hydrated. There are curious flavor nuances to ponder and delight over. Much needed minerals, vitamins and super-immune boosting antioxidants in an easy to absorb form. This stuff is futurewater. Oooh.

It was quite quenching to read today’s great post from Joel Makower comparing the bottled water insanity to none other than cigarettes. It’s true though. As the facade of bringing “pure” drinking water to Americans with access to some of the purest municipal drinking water in the world is breaking down, water companies are panicking. They’re doing everything they can to paint a picture of health and eco-friendly sustainability though all plastic bottles are petroleum-based. Nothing short of brilliant, Makower illustrates it here:

“At a recent conference at which I spoke, attendees were given bottles of Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water, with signs promoting its “New Eco-Shape™ Bottle.” Among its green characteristics: it is made with 30 percent less plastic than the ‘average’ bottle of its size. And it features a label that is 30 percent smaller…That’s not all. It is ‘100 percent recyclable’ . . . ‘Easy to carry’ . . . and ‘flexible so it’s easier to crush for recycling.’ It doesn’t take a PhD in marketing to see that these claims are pretty thin. A label that’s 30 percent smaller?!? If that’s the pinnacle of environmental achievements, we should all give up now.”

No wonder I keep losing my thirst.

The Devil With a Thousand Medias

17 12 2007

By Derek Beres

In one of the more infuriating clips I’ve seen lately, Bill Moyers presents this amazing (and tragic) piece of news regarding tomorrow’s FCC voting on whether it should “relax” rules over newspaper publishers moving into TV or radio in their particular market. After the barrage of requests for a delay in the vote all over this video, FCC chairman Kevin J Martin has declined the extension. A lot of the ire expressed in the Moyers piece regarded this Nov 13 NY Times Op-Ed that Martin published mere days after over 1,000 people in Seattle expressed their dismay that the vote was even being brought to the table.

On the surface, the loosening appears tame. He appeals to the citizen’s sense of tribalism: look, the small local paper is suffering. Allow them to expand into other forms of media. That will keep the small local paper alive. That is, in a sense, what sensibility he’s appealing to. Even the actual change seems like a non-event, one he calls “relatively minor”:

“A company that owns a newspaper in one of the 20 largest cities in the country should be permitted to purchase a broadcast TV or radio station in the same market. But a newspaper should be prohibited from buying one of the top four TV stations in its community. In addition, each part of the combined entity would need to maintain its editorial independence. Beyond giving newspapers in large markets the chance to buy one local TV or radio station, no other ownership rule would be altered. Other companies would not be allowed to own any more radio or television stations, either in a single market or nationally, than they already do.”

See? No worries, we’re promoting the small man, like you. What he fails to entertain is the very basic and fundamental reality that if a newspaper is struggling in the first place, what are the odds they’re going to expand into another market, rather than beef up their online presence, which is a) much more conducive to their existing market and b) is, in his own words, “has increased greatly?” This slackening of the law is geared to serve corporations already successful, that can afford to expand without depending on that expansion for their very survival – which is why the piece starts off with the Murdoch acquisition of the Wall Street Journal to begin with.

As shown, people like variety, for a number of reasons. One of them: it adds to the experience of life. I do agree with Barry Schwartz that too much choice may not be the best thing, and actually limit our decision making in the end. But in a democracy that’s currently hell-bent on “liberating” other countries by giving the citizens options, we have to wonder why we can’t look after our own in the same way. Or maybe that’s it: it’s a one-way street, leading to the other reason people like variety. When we’re only given one perspective, one take on the news, thoughts and ideas of the planet, it shelters us from the possibility. Humankind’s greatness has always resided in the realm of making the possible real, and when you no longer have access to what that means, something is lost. It’s not money, it’s not status; it is power. But not the power the conglomerates are dealing with. It’s something much more primal, authentic and real to us than they will ever take the time to realize.

Re-Defining Sustainability…Again…

16 12 2007

By Derek Beres

I read this enlightening piece by journalist Michael Pollan in this morning’s Sunday magazine. After having read, and thoroughly enjoyed, The Omnivore’s Dilemma last month, I enjoy Pollan’s ability to condense the concepts he explores in-depth in his books to gem-sized nuggets like this. In a few thousand words he touches upon the buzzword of the day, and all the perils that entails: sustainability.

He nails the hammer when he brings up an important point: what company would today claim its not sustainable? Like the terms “spiritual, not religious” and “organic,” sustainability has come to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean in the context of what they’re trying to sell which, in effect, means not a lot at all. The idea holds a spell over us – we can get something and return something at the same time. The reality, as Pollan shows, is anything but.

I have found myself often using this very word lately in my yoga classes. It is not only sustainable, it is also preventative, two foundational concepts in Asian and South Asian medicine and nutrition. It is in nature to recycle; it is who we are, an emergence and return of the elements. The industrial model – as Pollan discusses, factory farming – does not take into consideration many and varied factors, here relegated to pigs and bees. The sustainability of yoga is in the constant maintenance of your total body: muscles, ideas, emotions. Same for our food industry, or, at that point, every industry.

In Omnivore’s, Pollan spends a week on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, where the man has created an entire structure and community on one basic principle: let each element be what it is, naturally. This does not imply that there is not a lot of work; in fact, the opposite is true. Factory farming is easy compared to the lengths and depths it takes to be natural. In yoga it is called the path to self-realization, and is equally arduous. Yet if we want to embody that famed buzzword, and allow it to mean what its supposed to mean, the task is well worth the effort.