The Sinner’s Dilemma

31 03 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Christian ideology is as American as store-bought apple pie and rising oil prices. Whether or not one calls themselves a Christian, our culture has adopted beliefs and behaviors espoused by this doily-trimmed dogma. Media and marketing outposts deliver suggestive invitations guiding Americans into these “guilty pleasures” and abashed self-serving rituals. We collectively covet the seven “deadly” sins we’re supposed to be avoiding.  Whether (1) gluttonously consuming foods we know are decadently destructive, or having one-too-many drinks after work while we (2) wrathfully or (3) enviously judge and ridicule our bosses, employees, co-workers, spouses, friends and neighbors to boost our own (4) pride, or we (5) greedily pile into shopping malls (a.k.a. corporate-mega-churches), excessively spending on meaningless junk that we then take home and sit around staring at like (6) sloths while choosing to ignore the many ways in which we could be making the world a better place. But none of our offenses are as un-Christian as the American rated-X obsession with (7) lust – that evil pleasure-dome where sinners line up to burn in eternity. (Please stand clear of the V.I.P. line for politicians only.) This is not happening on occasion, but all the time. It is the American Dream: indulge, and then of course, renounce and condemn.

The anonymity of the Internet has opened up a world of sexual predation once requiring brazen acts much too bold for many to consider. Internet pornography is the largest and fastest growing segment of the World Wide Web. The days where the only options for adult entertainment were found in seedy, dark adult video stores and strip clubs have transformed themselves into polished websites just a credit card click away from every turn-on imaginable. But thanks to the Church, sex has transformed itself from a basic human behavior into confession-worthy infatuations and that awfully unfitting word “naughty” preceding what is most often anything but.  And though we are now connected in ways never before possible through technology, it is also isolating, creating seclusion and delusions about the organic world we are an intrinsic part of. Humans are social creatures. Though sexuality can be explored anonymously, there is nothing like the real thing.

Energetically, sex and sensuality revolves around the female form. (Certainly that’s not true for everyone, but we are a largely heterosexual society, you know, perpetuating the species and all.) The odalisque exploitation of this powerful force results of the inability to control it – as men are wont to do. Ripened sexuality has become glorified so massively, defining the merit of women that a qualified-but-aging female presidential candidate will surely lose because nothing lacks power like a woman who is deemed un-sexy.

So what is sexy, exactly? Strip clubs are home to some of the unhealthiest, over/underweight, drug addicted/alcoholic women, yet men still pay to see them naked. This is how powerful female sexual energy is – even in its most vulgar deviations, men are still drawn to it.  Women reduce themselves to fit into contrived categories of sexy through elective surgery, excessive dieting, cosmetics and so on. Much more so than men, they define themselves by their desirability. That’s not to say being – or rather feeling – sexy isn’t a good thing, it most certainly is a significant human experience, but it is not something defined by bra or waist size.

If women have evolved to understand this sexual energy, then it is no surprise that it has come to be used to our advantage. This goes for the drug addict as well as the corporate ladder climber. These self-serving exploitations occur constantly but go largely ignored, rather, accepted and expected. HOWEVER, as soon as a woman uses that energy to deliver a powerful message, like a group of vegan strippers in Portland have done, criticisms fly out of control. Feminists are outraged at these women  (and the club owner, a vegan for over 20 years) for using their bodies to stand for an important cause, while the regular old stripper whose only “cause” is herself appears to be of no concern.

Portland is a progressive, vegan-friendly artistic community. Its laid back sensibility is an idyllic backdrop to a counter-culture seeking respite from the frenetic corporate world and the exploitations of women so often used in big business. As forward thinking as Portlanders seem to be, this rally against sensibly using sexiness obviates that bigger issue rampant in our sinful nation: Guilt.  It happens every time the food issue is put on the table. Americans are fastidiously obsessed with sterilizing their homes and over-medicating the smallest ailment, yet they can’t seem to let go of eating infectious disease-causing “food.”  They rally behind hot dogs and twinkies even though study after study reveals health and longevity are largely linked to predominantly plant-based diets.

Though not conventionally sexy, PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk learned to capitalize on other women’s mainstream sex appeal early on in her animal rights endeavors. “Lettuce ladies” wearing nothing but green leaves where bikinis should be or super models and sexy stars like Pamela Anderson going naked in anti-fur campaigns to garner attention for the un-sexy plight of animals in captivity. It has worked incredibly well – PETA is the largest animal rights organization with close to one million members worldwide.  Their controversial choice of using sex appeal in many of their campaigns strikes a nerve with feminists, preachers and (apparently) confused citizens.

While there are still places in the world, in this country even, where people grow their own food, not just a little herb garden or tomatoes, but the whole meal, Americans for the most part are oblivious to food without packaging, no nutrition fact boxes, no price tags, but real, fresh whole foods eaten as a form of sustenance and survival. This can and should be pleasurable, but as food is first and foremost fuel, it’s got to have a nourishing value to warrant consuming. At least that was how humans related to food until the last century. Put a can of Pringles in front of a Moroccan shepherd and eating them is probably one of the last things he’d consider. Food in America, like sex, is defined and controlled by corporations. Companies invested in our addictions and diseases are obviously interested in their being an association between things that are bad for us being indispensable. It’s why we cycle between binge eating and dieting, idolizing sexuality in others while one in two marriages in this country ends in divorce.

If we want to break this cycle and stop punishing ourselves, we’ve got to start asking those questions that make us tense up. What’s sexier: A woman eating a greasy hamburger or biting into a juicy summer peach? Is there really something un-masculine about eating vegetables?  Certainly men will find the woman with fruit on her tongue more appealing than a chunk of gristle, so why then would he assume a woman finds it sexy if he were gnawing on the leg of a helpless chicken? It never got weird enough … Hunter S. Thompson said that. Well, what’s weirder than eating things that are making us sick and being repulsed by healthy sexy women?  Maybe the only thing weirder would be to stop doing it.


Cleaning Up Soap: Why The Bronner Family Is Washing Out a Few Mouths

27 03 2008

By Jill Ettinger

What we eat, drink and breathe is certainly important, but so is what we absorb through our skin. The skin is an organ – our largest in fact. Our internal control centers are all wrapped up inside this giant organ, yet we seem to forget (or ignore) this truth. Perhaps it’s because our personalities and identities appear to be forged through our skin’s shapes and colors. We deem it as a reflection of our deeper “organ-less” self, when it is simply just one part of the whole.

Contrary to red carpet commentary and style magazine recommendations, the skin does much more than make us sexy or otherwise. It does more than keep our bones and guts from falling all over the place. It soaks up nutrients; it’s both a delivery system and a barrier. The skin is our most corporeal relationship. It’s sensual and mysterious. And of course, it must be kept clean.

If cleanliness is indeed right up there next to the holiest of all things, then the Bronner family appear to be a bunch of angels working overtime, ensuring people are truly getting soaps that are safe and effective, not laced with harsh chemicals.

Read the full article on Reality Sandwich.

Global Beat Fusion: Classical Egypt in America

21 03 2008

by Derek Beres

The room is not filled, but there are enough people to embrace the musicians as they deserve—warmly, affectionately, and personably. Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is known for exceptional traditional and world-oriented programming, and is a fitting venue for what is to come.

Seven men and one woman dressed eloquently stroll onto stage, displaying with their instruments an intriguing blend of Arabic and Western histories—the tambourine riqq, the small lute oud, the zither qanun, and the more recognizable violin and cello. Three singers sit at the helm of the semi-circle; a 30-ish man and woman flanking a man more than double their age. He will be the spotlight of the show, though in truth everyone plays brilliantly.

That man’s name is Youssef Kassab, a Syrian professor who has been singing the classical folk music of the Arabian world for over five decades. While he did not found the Chicago-based Arabesque Music Ensemble, his advice and guidance on their latest album, The Music of the Three Musketeers (Xauen), proved to be a godsend to the young collection of musicians. Their aim was to capture Arabian folk traditions in their every nuance, and though they were forced to completely re-record the original to meet Kassab’s approval, founder/qanun player Hicham Chami felt blessed for the opportunity.

Read the full article on PopMatters

Eagles vs. Sharks: Thoughts on Surviving a Really Bad Moment

19 03 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Sometimes the worst experiences are also the best. Profound adaptability comes to us in stressful times. Like all things in nature, we face challenges. Usually in these moments, instinct takes over and we are not as helpless as we thought. Or at least, we hope.

I was pondering this during a recent trip to Hawaii. It was my first solo vacation; free to do everything and anything I wanted, whenever I so chose. It seemed no greater opportunity to thrust myself into strange situations. No one around to remind me of any embarrassing moments after they’d passed. No one but myself.

I’ve known for many years that the open sea and my stomach have a very turbulent relationship. I admire the ocean a great deal, even feel a need to live coastal, but I keep a safe distance from its ebbs and flows, especially on a full stomach. (Long story short: don’t eat lunch right before scuba diving.)

So there I was, the north shore of Oahu in March. The ocean is teeming with Humpback whales, a sight not to be missed. As I was researching whale tours, I noticed several area shark cage tours. This caught my eye for several reasons. (1) I am terrified of sharks and (2) I am terrified of sharks. I knew I had to go.

The tours are quite safe. The shark cage sits in the water about two miles off shore. Steel bars enclose human visitors and a Plexiglas front on one side allows the more squeamish (me) to peer out with more comfort. The sharks are Galapagos, which typically stay nearer to the ocean floor, but years of crabbing in the area has trained them to respond to the sound of boats. They hit the surface looking for leftovers from crab fishers and a tourist trap (literally) was born. They pose no real threat to humans, though sticking your finger in their mouth is not recommended.

Occasionally a tiger shark will appear in the mix with the others. They are the breed most common in local surfer attacks. One shark tour a few years ago caught footage of a 21-foot great white – the only Hawaiian great white encounter caught on film.

When no one else volunteered to be first, I felt my hand go up. Might as well get it over with, I thought to myself. I knew there was no real danger. I remember fearing stepping into the early morning cold water more than the sharks. Two people need to go in the cage at the same time (for time restrictions) so another girl accompanied me. We climbed in, holding onto the bars and the boat let out the slack, cage and us in it, drifting.

As lungs took their first breath through the snorkel, eyes gulped in the beast only a few feet beyond the bars. How strange nature is, I thought. To call their eyes beady is unfair, but there is a dull predatory blankness that points at you with every glance. It’s as if they see right through you and not at all both at the same time. I was not afraid.

There were a good dozen of them scattered in every direction, spinning me around the 6-foot enclosure to catch glimpses of them glimpsing me. Then, it hit me. I came up for air and felt the choppiness of the sea. Just the day before I had gone whale watching. I took an anti-seasickness pill to be safe, and it had worked fine. I repeated the dosage that morning before the shark dive, but it was a different ocean than the day before. All I could feel was the even choppier ocean inside of me. The captain suggested that if I was going to get sick that was fine, I should still go under and watch the sharks until I threw up. His words just seemed to charm it right out of me and all of a sudden, the sharks and I were connected in a much deeper way. There are a few of them out there now with a little bit of my breakfast glistening in their sleek fins.

I crawled back into the boat and took respite in a sunny spot on the floor. My eyes sought the stability of the horizon. There are few things worse than feeling completely nauseous. One of them is knowing that you have to feel that way for at least another hour while two more cages drop. The other is realizing that you are the only person on the boat having this reaction, and quite possibly the worst thing: having to listen to the Eagles while you wait for it to end. Glen Fry and Don Henley blared out of the captain’s radio, sounding about as soothing as Celine Dion singing Ethel Merman (heaven forbid). It was, as far as I could tell, the worst possible moment of my life, ever.

My mind raced to recall The Life of Pi, and how Pi used his imagination to survive being stranded at sea. But his might have been a different story if he had been stuck listening to “Desperado.” It was too much. I thought about thrusting myself overboard and letting the sharks tear me to pieces, but then I remembered they aren’t really known for eating humans. I could run over to the radio and call the coast guard. I’d tell them a shark attacked someone and surely they’d hurry. But the thought of taking my eyes off the horizon to walk towards the radio was too big a task. Then suddenly, I felt different. My gut was still wrenching, the boat was still rocking and someone was urging me not to let the sound of my own wheels drive me crazy … but now, I was smiling. A little laugh slipped out between my lips as I realized just how awful this moment was and that I would forever look back on it fondly. It was so bad that it was simply perfect.

While I’ll probably avoid becoming a pirate anytime soon, I continue to enjoy finding those moments that force me to surrender some parts of what I think myself to be. Every once in a while, it’s important to be reminded that we have the opportunity to consciously make choices in this life that may go against our desire to be self-serving. The natural world, as fierce as it can be, is still so fragile. We know this now more than ever. Our choices stand to change the face of nature permanently. Other animals seem to rely solely on their instincts to guide them without sentiment. Well, we’re not sharks (and aside from a few California guys, we’re not the Eagles either). We’re just a bunch of humans being. Being what though, is entirely up to us.

High on Mount Sinai

19 03 2008

By Derek Beres

While the academic sometimes goes to great extremes to “prove” the obvious, there is something endearing about professors bucking trends and putting forth new ideas — even if many of us knew the reality of the situation. Such is the case of Hebrew University professor Benny Shanon, when he put forth the idea that Moses was tripping on some serious drink when he declared the Torah while standing high on Mount Sinai. All we can ask academia is: What took you so long to realize that?

While journalists label the theory “provocative” after its publication surfaced in the philosophy journal Time and Mind, the realization that the father of three major world religious traditions was under the influence while reciting what would become the most quoted passages in history is not groundbreaking to those of us who’ve tasted similar fruit. In fact, it was Shanon’s own experiences with ayahuasca and a drink made from the bark of the acacia tree — a hallucinogenic mixture based on a tree often mentioned in the Bible — that led him to his conclusions.

It remains to be seen how Shanon’s theories will be greeted. He is honest in saying that there is no direct proof of his interpretation, but given the evidence, is it that far a stretch? The reality is that no one has direct proof that Moses even existed, much less that he was completely sober or “God inspired” off plant mixtures during his thundering evenings.

Read the full article on Reality Sandwich

Ain’t That a Trip: Our Water is Drugged

13 03 2008

By Derek Beres

Remember that scenario from the first in the series of Batman remakes, when a pre-Hillary Jack Nicholson nearly killed the population of Gotham by poisoning the water? And remember just a few years ago, when the U.S. government used the same trickery to make its citizens believe that those evil Muslims would kill us all by polluting our water with toxic chemicals? The irony of the situation is that we’ve been the Joker all the while–not to discredit our politicians, of course.

A CNN health report recently revealed the results of a five-month AP study regarding the levels of pharmaceuticals in our drinking water. They found 56 different drugs in the taps of roughly 41 million American homes. Granted, the quantities of each drug are far below medical dose, yet this does nothing to quiet the fact that they are in there in the first place, and that the long-term effects of this are not known.

Talk about the case for being what you eat: Drugs enter our body through our mouths, propelled by the minds that insist we need them. In some cases, we certainly do; in many others, they are superfluous. According to the article, there were 3.7 billion drug prescriptions written over the past five years, to coincide with the 3.3 billion non-prescription drug treatments. Put that into perspective. In a nation of 301 million people, there have been 7 billion drug treatments used in a half-decade. And this says nothing about the majority of antibiotics, which are used on livestock, and also travel the same path back to our streams, lakes and aquifers.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post.

Jill Almost Catches Whale in Hawaii

12 03 2008