Category Archives: A New Ambivalence

Anthropologists debate whether beer or bread spawned civilization: a metaphor for humanity’s struggle for survival versus the quest for enlightenment.

The Pulsing Wall

I lay awake with eyes closed and slowly opened my eyes into the dark. I watched what I knew to be the near wall, only sensing it there in the blackness, but then it became subtly visible. It faded back into dark, but pulsed back into view seconds later. Then it was gone again. In and out, rhythmically, my night vision seemed to be subtly asserting itself as if coming in waves.

I realized it was connected to my breathing. At the apex of every inhale, my night vision returned, only to fade away through the exhale and beginnings of inhale. Wow, how cool, I thought: apparently when my lungs are full, all that extra oxygen fuels a pulse of improved eyesight. If we calm ourselves, tune into our natural cycles like breathing, perhaps we could hone this principle into a sort of superpower, a sixth sense.

My mind drifted to nebulous philosophies that felt important in this oxygen-energized state. I pondered the sometimes cynical concept of history repeating. Do we go round and round, retracing the same steps, like Winnie the Pooh lost in the forest? I didn’t think so. It felt like history accumulates. Some say “it’s all been done,” but every time it’s done again, well, there’s another one for the history books, for our memories, for the lore of all time.

Good and bad accumulates. We hear often of the state we’ve put ourselves in:* tells us how we’ve left a stink trail of environmental degradation that does not float away— we are mired in the bad choices of the past. The things we presume to be throwing away are actually piling up and causing trouble. We aren’t going round-and-round, many environmentalists say, we are spiraling downward.

I agree that we aren’t going round-and-round, but I question if we’re only heading downward. I believe that good things accumulate too. The little good deeds; the things we fix; the people we help, inspire, or even just lend an ear to. Restoration biologist Christopher Wills, in his excellent new book, wrote:

“We have drawn on our intelligence and our technology to exploit the world, but we have only just begun to explore our potential to heal the world as well.” Green Equilibrium: The Vital Balance of Humans and Nature (2013)

Through these thoughts, my pulsing night vision was a soothing rhythm, as if I could lay my head against my chest and ride out the undulations of my lungs. Just gazing at a murkily lit plain wall was plenty of stimuli for my eyes as my mind followed its track around a bend.

It felt like we are scrabbling up the scree field of history, this towering mound of debris from everything people have done throughout all time. Some of the rocks are loose and treacherous, we avoid them or we accidentally set them free and allow them to tumble down and away. Others are firm hand- and foot-holds and we climb upwards on them. On the shoulders of those who came before.

If you think of the mass of stone and junk that makes up this talus field, it might seem overwhelming and wasteful. All this debris from hundreds, thousands, millions of years of life just jumbled up here and useless. It is in our way.

Or is it piling toward something?

How else would we get this high up without the stuff of the past?

. . .

I heard a noise and sat up, looking toward the other side of the room. It was nothing, or nothing very important here in the wee hours. But as I sat there looking toward my laptop, I realized the source of my pulsing night vision. My computer was in sleep mode: the little white power light pulses on and off, rhythmically, illuminating the wall ever so slightly. Clever Apple, I thought, mimicking the human respiratory cycle with a simple little indicator light. They have made technology human-like: friendly and soothing.

I close my eyes and drift off.


Thanks for reading. Cheers,


*Actually, if you visit the link above, you’ll learn that the good people behind— while they’re certainly perturbed with the state of things and our alarming trajectory— are actually making positive steps forward and upward.

Photo by a sleepy version of yours truly

Being Thrown

Today, a brief homage to the virtues of being thrown. I’ll share a journal entry from my fieldwork in Japan studying the martial art of aikido. I was practicing one day with the head sensei, or teacher, named Ikeda (pictured right, working with the club’s captain). In these exercises, I would “attack” him and he would manhandle me to the ground in a pin. Or he would toss me (literally) many feet through the air by manipulating the force of my own attack.

Aikido’s principles of leverage and momentum mean that even a seemingly undersized defender can turn the tables on a much larger, stronger attacker. As “attacker,” I was neither larger (except perhaps in my gangly sort of height) nor stronger in any stretch of the imagination. And facing a “defender” who had been practicing this martial art since 1968, well let’s just say the tables tended to turn pretty dramatically for me on those hard tatami practice mats.

“Ikeda Sensei hailed me and beckoned me to practice with him. He was smiling and encouraging, being frighteningly rough all the while. I really thought he was going to twist my arm off several times (when pinning me, Ikeda Sensei ignored my sign that I’d had enough, twisting my arm until he was satisfied). But each time I’d shake it off and feel fine (if not pumped with adrenaline). The ukemi (the attacker’s rolls which follow a successfully fended off attack) were fun as hell; Ikeda Sensei really knows his stuff. While most of the club is hesitant to really let the American beginner have it, Ikeda Sensei hurled me further and further, faster and faster. And I inevitably ended up on my feet, as surprised as anyone.

“There’s something to be said for the mystique surrounding a martial arts sensei— especially in aikido. It requires remarkable perception, not just of yourself, but of your partner. Ikeda Sensei knew just how far, past my signal to stop, to twist; just how to throw me so I could pull off rolls I’d never tried before.”

(From my field journal for An Ethnography of Aikido, 10/21/93)

my instructor in Japan

The character of the martial arts instructor is endearing, and enduring, in cinema. From Mr. Miyagi to Johnny Mo in the Kill Bill movies, this stoic badass is a fixture in our imaginations. But there is something more than movie magic in an effective sensei. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict figured this out more than 66 years ago in her own field studies of Zen Buddhism in Japan:

“The teacher could not ‘teach’ in the Occidental sense, because nothing a novice learned from any source outside himself was of any importance. The teacher might hold discussions with the novice, but he did not lead him gently into a new intellectual realm. The teacher was considered to be most helpful when he was most rude. If, without warning, the master broke the tea bowl the novice was raising to his lips, or tripped him, or struck his knuckles with a brass rod, the shock might galvanize him into sudden insight. It broke through his complacency.” – The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946)

On and off the mats, I’ve joined plenty of friends who’ve been thrown by people and circumstances in their lives. I’ve seen my share of broken tea bowls and rapped knuckles. Usually this is scary, often it’s painful, always it’s humbling. Those are all pretty commonplace reactions.

Only when it becomes exhilarating, like Ikeda Sensei launching me terrified through the air— when it breaks our complacency— that’s when we fly. For those of us without feathers and wings, sometimes it takes being thrown to fly.

Thanks for reading. Cheers,

Screencaptures by your humble ethnographer

After the Summit … Heading Back Down

If you’ve ever reached some sort of pinnacle of achievement— something you dreamed about and suddenly it becomes real— there is always the aftermath.

My continued agonizing to sort out what’s next after the release of our film (no small time ago) is actually pretty absurd. Though there’s plenty of room in my day for big new projects, I do have enough work to do, there are dreams in the hopper, and I have a business plan of sorts. But I’m guilty of what filmmaking story consultant Fernanda Rossi called “retro-engineering.”

We achieve something and we look back and we decide what of the acts we did were leading to success. But we don’t know, really, what led to success. We do a ton of things, there are a lot of variables in the universe, and then we nitpick, we choose the ones that we think led to success. – Fernanda Rossi

In the following interview, Fernanda, “The Documentary Doctor” who has consulted on at least two Academy Award® Nominee films, discusses success. First of all, she doesn’t believe in it.

Click below to view this 3-minute video:

Fernanda Rossi, Author, on secrets to success. by maxwellflower
In the video, she says: “I believe in meaningful acts every day. And if they lead to success, whatever success is, great.” What’s your definition of success? And what do you do after you’ve achieved it?

Thanks for reading. Cheers,


Photo by yours truly atop “Yahoo Point”