Images Have Power


Art is not just stuff. Art is a physical manifestation of the heart, an expression of the human spirit, a bridge linking minds across languages, transcending ideas. Images have power. Art is subversive.

This little video emerged on my Facebook newsfeed this morning, only days after the announcement that a wealthy Chinese businessman had bought a painting by French Impressionist Edouard Manet for a record (for this artist) $65.1 million. China is producing some of the most voracious and deep-pocketed art collectors in the contemporary world, as well as some of the wealthiest artists. China has also produced Ai Weiwei.

I have no need to hang a Manet in my own home. I prefer Ai Weiwei and yellow origami umbrellas.

Different Kinds of Vultures


Last night I was privileged to attend a screening of Russell O. Bush’s award-winning documentary, “Vultures of Tibet,” a beautiful little movie about sacred rituals and secular appetites. The film is about the Tibetan tradition of “sky burial,” in which the bodies left behind by deceased persons are taken to high holy places and offered to the vultures. Where we say “dust to dust”, I guess they might say “flesh to flesh.” The film was also about the intrusion of tourists – mostly Chinese, but westerners as well – into this sacred tradition and thus about people feeding their ignorance and macabre emotions with misunderstood images and actions. Bush was treading on dangerous and ambiguous ground, calling attention to these rituals in order to argue that the people who practice them ought to be left alone. He succeeded remarkably well, intimately filming hands instead of faces and even having expatriate Tibetans re-record the voices in order to fully protect the identities of the people who worked with him in Tibet. As an anthropologist, I congratulate him on his cultural sensitivity. As a Buddhist, I thank him for his sincere efforts to understand a tradition that westerners too often discount as merely bizarre. If this film comes your way, don’t miss it!

A Sequence of Days


We are all time travelers. It’s just that most of the time, the limit of 24 hours per day, 365 (and ¼) days per year in strict linear succession is pretty rigorously enforced. Once in a while, though, we get to transcend those limits. I had such an opportunity this past week, reminiscing in the company of old friends. I had a visit on Monday from someone who was a very important part of my life back in the early 1970s. On Tuesday I traveled to Dallas and spent time with a few of my favorite people from my graduate school years in the last half of the 1970s. Then Thursday night I met up with some dear friends from my undergraduate years in the late 1960s. Time has treated all of us differently. Our experiences apart from each other occupy far more days and years than the ones during which we were interacting on a daily basis. And yet… the reasons why we became friends remain apparent. Sure, we evoke the past by sharing stories, but we also listen with interest to stories about things we were not a part of, and by sharing those stories we catch up the threads that continue to bring us together, year after year. See you again soon, guys!

(IMAGE: The timeless stairway of Dallas Hall at SMU.)

The Maze


Last week when we had the big rain I discovered a place where a footpath crossed Waller Creek about a half mile from my house. On that particular day, of course, the crossing was flooded, impassable.
Today on my morning walk I went back. The entire creek bed in that area had gone bone dry, so crossing on the footpath was no problem. I ended up on the University of Texas intramural fields. These fields happen to be home to Austin’s largest colony of Monk Parakeets (aka Quaker Parrots) and I was having a lovely time watching the birds flying back and forth between their massive communal nests in the stadium lights.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I was inside the outer perimeter of the fields, which seemed to be fully enclosed, except for exactly the place where I had entered. Determined not to go back, I kept pressing forward. It was like a giant maze! I seriously contemplated climbing the chain link fence. I could see the outside so clearly, but I kept running into locked gates or, worse, fences with no gates at all. Then I found a gate open that probably shouldn’t have been. This led to an actual walkway. And up ahead, I saw a student with a tennis racket entering what appeared to be a gatehouse. If that student came in, surely I would be able to get out. The fence on the front side of the gatehouse had a locked gate. So did the fence around back. The only way out was through the gatehouse. I walked in. “Hey,” I said to the student behind the desk as I nodded and smiled. Then I was out through the front door and free.
Did I mention that after years of searching I had finally found a parakeet feather?

The Interview



One of the icons of American journalism, Ben Bradlee, passed away yesterday at the age of 93. Bradlee’s name will be forever associated with the Watergate scandal; as executive editor of the Washington Post at that time, he made key decisions that brought the scandal to light.
In early summer of 1970, with my fresh BA in political science from SMU in hand, I reported for my job interview at the Washington Post. My recollection is only that I was interviewed by “the editor” of the Post. Whether it was Bradlee or a more junior editor, I honestly don’t recall. But I do know this: It was the damnedest interview I ever had. We sat in the editor’s private office and we chatted. I recall no probing questions, just the kind of friendly queries someone who really wants to get to know you would ask. I was relaxed and actually kind of enjoyed the whole experience.
It was only after I left his office that it hit me that this man now knew more about me than my own mother did. Whoever that editor was, he was a grand master of the art of interviewing.
Did I get the job? Not exactly. I did get a call in which it was suggested that perhaps I was still too “green” for the Post. I was instructed to report instead to the Roanoke Times and World News in Roanoke Virginia, one of the papers owned by the Post. It was a great gig, and I often wonder what would have become of me if I had stayed on the journalism career track rather than taking that sharp turn into anthropology.

(NOTE: The photo above is one I took in rural Virginia while working for the Roanoke Times.)

Blog Redux

Just Passing Through, 8 x 10

A year ago, I had just returned from travels abroad, during which I had diligently blogged and sketched my way through Spain, France and Nepal. Realizing that my journey is not just about travel, I am declaring a resumption of the blog, to include at least occasional sketches and artworks. The new blog title – “Simulacrum” – is meant to convey something about my intention to write and draw and paint in ways that will evoke, however imperfectly, something nearly true about this world we share.

The novel I have recently completed – Way of the Serpent – is a work of “speculative fiction”, akin to science fiction but without the space aliens and mutant beasts. It takes place barely more than 100 years in the future, and my protagonist and friends are only too human. I say the novel is “completed”, but hesitate to use the word “finished,” as that would imply it has reached a state of such perfection that no further tinkering is permitted. I reserve the right to tinker.

There is a second novel in the works – The Fourth Time. It takes place in the here and now… sort of. My protagonist in this one is an archaeologist married to an author who writes about time travel, and much of the action takes place in Belize, a country I have known since my earliest anthropological fieldwork in the 1970s. This one is about 30,000 words to date.

And then there is the germination of a sequel to Way of the Serpent, which I am provisionally calling Flight of the Owl. It will follow the experiences of one of the survivors of Serpent. This one frightens me a little bit, but I’ll get over it and get into it soon enough.

(NOTE: I have just reposted some of my sketches from last year that I was unable to properly blog from Nepal due to technical difficulties.)

Can’t Get This on eBay (9/26/2013)


One of the most distinctive things about human beings is our imagination. We can invent things that never existed before. We can discern relationships between seemingly unrelated things. There would be no scientific hypotheses without a little imagination. With imagination we can make up stories about people who don’t exist and things that never happened. We can even hold things in our mind that are totally untrue or even impossible. And we can draw pictures of them. Although this can be quite entertaining, it can also be dangerous! So sometimes we need to just sit down and shut up and see what reality is like when we are not imagining it into existence.

Nothing (9/16/2013)


Yesterday Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh ( who I was privileged to meet up with back in 1968 or 69) sat in front of a crowd of folks in Boston and did nothing for almost half an hour.
There is an art of doing nothing, and it is not just about meditation. It is also about being able to wake up with no plans.. and no fear of no plans, no compulsion to fill the time with doing SOMETHING. Being alive to the moments as they come. So alive, in fact, that a whole day becomes just one life-filled timeless moment. What is there to do? Nothing. Go!
(Actually, I am not yet very good at doing nothing. But I’m working on it. Oh, wait! I think maybe I’ll just let it work on me…)

Navigating the French Countryside

Over the past 3 days, I have spent a lot of time driving my little black rental car through the southern French countryside.  It is beautiful country.  And we are not talking delicate beauty here!  No, this is a strong, robust beauty that has held up well to the abuse of human occupation over 300 millennia.  Even our attempts to construct a modern road system keep running up against things like massive rivers and towering rock faces that stretch for hundreds of yards.

That, in any event, is my explanation for why me and my petite voiture kept going in circles.  I was lost several times, and I mostly just enjoyed the view.  But today when I was searching for the little auberge I had booked for my night’s rest, I did not enjoy it so much.

My adventure has fostered a deeper respect for our ancient forbears who managed to navigate this countryside without maps or GPS.  But then… they would have seen, heard, felt, and smelled things that I totally missed as I whizzed through in my closed compartment with wheels.

Original Art

The word “original” comes from origin, the source. Today I saw some truly original art In a couple of caves here in France’s Dordogne valley. Thinking about the absorption of these prehistoric artists as they etched images into limestone with sharp flints or applied black and red colors, probably by a technique I used to describe to my anthro students as “spit painting”… I was overwhelmed. Although I cannot know exactly what their motivation was, I can know without a doubt that this was something important.

As someone who struggles with drawing or painting BIG, I was also impressed with the scale of many of the paintings and etched drawings.  Of course, they are still far from life size, so maybe these ancient painters actually thought they were painting in miniature…

The image above includes some curious elements that are referred to as “technoformes”.  These were new to me, and I found them fascinating.  I don’t know what the experts are positing as their significance, but I can’t help seeing them as structures, maybe of wood and other perishable materials.  Maybe the first architectural drawings?