Each of Us Can Know Beauty

A passage from the Dao De Jing that I read tonight in the opening ritual of the May Day gathering:

Each of us can know beauty
Only because there is ugliness.
Each of us can know truth
Only because there is falsehood.

Life and death give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complete each other.
Long and short give shape to each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Sound and silence sing with each other.
Past and future follow each other.

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Oh What a Tangled Web

Fairly productive weekend. I had two major projects to focus on and I made good progress on both.

The first (and I won’t get around to the second in this posting, so that will have to wait) is that I’m in charge of the rituals for the Billy Club’s upcoming May Day gathering. At most gatherings this is a matter of planning, preparing, and leading the opening and closing rituals that will get us into and bring us out of our time together. Something I like a lot about the Billy Club is that the ritual and other coordinators for each gathering have a lot of free rein to do things to their own liking, so that you get a lot of different people’s takes on it. Sometimes the rituals are short and simple, sometimes they are more elaborate; sometimes they are familiar, sometimes they are the result of somebody trying out something new or tying things into a particular theme that will run through the gathering.

(Some of the Gnostic Christians ran their congregations in a similar way, with the various roles in the service changing from week to week or even being decided by lot. Anybody might be called on to choose the scriptural passage to focus on or speak about what it means to him or her. I don’t know quite how to express why I feel so called to this sort of thing, but I’ve always thought that that was a seriously wonderful way to worship.)

Of course, even if you’re new to a job at a gathering, there are traditions to lean on. The rituals have some standard parts, some standard elements, and you can’t go too wrong if you stick with them. But you can also put those aside if you’re moved to try something different. The ritual coordinator generally has full freedom to arrange things to his liking, to use the traditional elements or create something unique to the occasion.

But at most gatherings, the ritual coordinator just has to worry about the opening ritual on the first night of the gathering and the closing ritual on the last night. At most gatherings, which is to say any gathering but the May Day gathering, the rituals do not involve getting a 25-foot pole to the gathering site, let alone attaching ribbons to it and sticking it firmly into the ground.

Making the maypole happen is a big fat logistical challenge on top of the rest of it. Again, there are traditions: Billys who have done it in the past pass on advice to those about to do it for the first time. I’m not completely new to it myself, as I was one of the overall gathering coordinators for last year’s May Day gathering, so I had lots of conversations with the maypole coordinator about what was going on, and I still have my notes from those meetings. (Yet more evidence that you should never delete your notes from past projects. You never know.)

Note, though, that I said last year’s “maypole coordinator” and not “ritual coordinator”. Last year we had both, a maypole coordinator in charge of the physical logistics of the maypole and a ritual coordinator in charge of planning the rituals. Last year I saw what a big job setting up the maypole was, and — having as I said a lot of free rein to do as I thought best — I decreed that the job of ritual coordinator would for that gathering be divided in two.

I sort of wish I had myself as general coordinator this year so I could do that again. When I said yes to the job this year, I was thinking I’d be able to break off parts of this and delegate them to people and recreate something of the organizational structure we had last year. That hasn’t happened as much as I’d like. On the other hand, I’m relying a lot on just repeating anything from last year that I thought worked, so there’s not as much fresh rethinking of things to be done as we did last year. We spent a lot of time last year thinking about the symbolism of the maypole and how it applied to our lives and our community, and finding ways to embody that in the rituals and in the weaving itself. I’m like, hey, we found the answers to our questions last year, and I’m happy with those answers, I don’t feel any need to look for new and different answers this year. Someone else who doesn’t like my answers can do the maypole next year and find different answers if he wants to.

The tree is arranged for, the color scheme has been settled (last year’s was all shades of blue and green, symbolizing the weaving together of heaven and earth or something like that; this year’s will be a bit wilder, using both pale and saturated versions of four colors), the ribbons have been ordered, and everything is moving forward. As a result I haven’t thought too much yet about what the actual content and order of the opening and closing rituals will be, but I’m planning to stick with tradition and not do too much original thought, so that should work out okay.

So over the weekend I went through all my notes up to this point, and made some checklists, and went shopping and bought some steel wire (for creating the ring around the tree to which the ribbons will be tied), some new pliers and a new wire cutter (inexpensive but not those bottom-of-the-line ones that look like they’ll bust under any real strain — this was an indulgence to some extent as I already had serviceable pliers, but my wire cutter is real old and gunky and anyway there’s nothing like a few bright new tools that feel good in the hand to make a project appear more achievable), and some cheap work gloves for the volunteers I am hoping to round up at the gathering to help me put it all together and get the maypole into the ground.

I think the physical stuff is now mostly taken care of and I can turn my attention now to the details of the rituals.

Spin of the Day

The Washington Post reports today that documents show that the Food and Drug Administration had known for many years about the problems that led to E. coli contamination in produce late last year, which resulted in hundreds of cases of illness, three deaths, and a massive recall of spinach. They did pretty much nothing about it.

“We know that there are still problems out in those fields,” [Robert E. Brackett, director of the FDA’s food-safety arm] said in an interview last week. “We knew there had been a problem, but we never and probably still could not pinpoint where the problem was.

The reason, of course, is that the FDA has a much tighter budget than they used to, even though we’re importing and processing more food than ever.

In another recent case that I don’t remember hearing about before,

an agency report shows that FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra Foods factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide documents the inspectors requested, the inspectors left and did not follow up.

In 2006, a salmonella outbreak that was later traced to that factory made over 400 people sick.

Funny thing is: according to Brackett, it’s a step forward for the FDA to be doing business this way.

Explosive growth in the number of processors and the amount of imported foods means that manufacturers “have to build safety into their products rather than us chasing after them,” Brackett said. “We have to get out of the 1950s paradigm.”

Ah yes, that silly old 1950s paradigm where we foolishly expected law enforcement agencies to “chase after” lawbreakers right away and not wait for them to do more serious damage. How superior it is to do as we do now, collecting our government salaries for the hard work of sitting back with our arms folded and simply expecting businesses not to gamble with people’s lives in order to maximize their own profits. If we just expect hard enough, others will certainly follow, and when they don’t and people fall ill or die as a result, well, at least we’ll know that it’s in no way because we didn’t do our job. We never lowered our expectations, not for a moment, no sirree.

Quote of the Yesterday

Yesterday I spent way too much of my afternoon watching old episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report that I hadn’t watched yet.

This is Stephen Colbert announcing the top headline of the day on the 4/16/07 episode of The Colbert Report:

Tonight, Alberto Gonzales prepares to testify before Congress. Unfortunately for him, he’s legalized a lot more ways of making him talk.

Bowing Before the Inevitable

Amusing and sweet article in the Washington Post about a prank in which superstar violinist Joshua Bell performed in a Metro station for 45 minutes during morning rush hour as a busker.

Kind of a stunt, though, and I don’t know how anyone could have expected any other outcome. I think every artist who has been at it seriously for any length of time has figured out how few people perceive any artwork or performance for exactly what it is, and how much most people depend on past habit and on context and on the opinions of others to determine what they pay attention to.

It’s unfortunate but heck, most of human nature is unfortunate.

The flip side, though, is that once you’ve got habit and context and popular opinion working for you, you don’t have to work very hard to keep the attention. The very same trait in human nature that results in Joshua Bell’s playing being ignored in the subway station at rush hour also makes it possible for him to sell out concert halls so consistently and so often. You couldn’t have one without the other. Invent a race of humans who will stop in the subway and really listen to every busker and you’ve invented a race of humans who will not turn a small few of them into superstars.

So I don’t see much irony in the idea of the superstar being ignored in the subway during rush hour. He’s a superstar precisely because we’re the kind of creatures who ignore him in the subway during rush hour.

It would probably be better for everyone if that were not the case — if we really listened to everything without having to be told first what we should pay attention to, and if we didn’t create superstars who so many people want to see simply because so many people want to see them. But it ain’t that way and it ain’t going to be that way any time soon.

Anyway, the article is charming.

I Mean, God Only Knows What They’re Being Taught in Those Places

From Media Matters:

On the March 30 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Michael Savage stated that he “agree[d] 100 percent” with a caller who said: “I’m very concerned that the Jews are now accepting gays as rabbis. And as a Catholic, I can tell you it almost destroyed our church when we accepted gays as priests.” The caller added, “[T]hey were raping teenage boys, and if you allow them to come into your churches, I’m sorry, your synagogues, I have no reason to believe they’re not going to do the same thing.” Savage responded: “The idea of a gay rabbi is an oxymoron. Think about it: ‘Rabbi’ means teacher. You cannot have a homosexual teacher teaching boys how to be a Jew,” adding, “I’m not going to mince words for fear of offending homosexuals. They’re everywhere, anyway, trying to tell me what to say and what not to say and what to think. I know what’s right and what’s wrong. And that’s all there is to it.”

It’s true enough, as Mr. Savage has so significantly ascertained, that every Catholic priest who has had sex with boys is also a male who has had sex with males. But as shocking and unexpected as that conclusion may be, there is another factor here that everyone — the media, the Catholic church, the left-wing blogosphere — has been sweeping under the carpet.

Every last one of the Catholic priests found to have molested boys has at some point in his education attended a seminary. Not some, not most, but every last one.

Think about it. I have never attended a seminary, and I have never molested any boys. The probability is extraordinarily high that the same is true of you.

I can only assume that Mr. Savage is unaware of this startling statistic or he would be applying the same dazzlingly brilliant logic to it and also calling for the Catholic Church to stop accepting as priests anyone who has ever attended one of these dens of iniquity.

Second Chance

I don’t know how people watch as much television as the polls say they do. There are only two shows I try to watch regularly, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and I download them from the iTunes Store and watch them on my iPod during my commute to and from work, at least when I’m not doing something else like reading or solving puzzles or working on my laptop. That comes to only about three hours of television a week, which is apparently less than most people watch in a day, but I can’t keep up with it. I have maybe 10 unwatched episodes of The Daily Show on my iPod and maybe 25 or 30 of The Colbert Report.

Which is by way of explaining why I am always catching up with yesterday’s news these days. On the way to work today I watched a couple of episodes of The Daily Show from two weeks ago, including one with an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, touting his new book Second Chance. Man, this is one sharp guy. His main point is that if we can get through the next 20 months without making any more terrible moves like declaring war on Iran, the United States still has enough residual goodwill in the world that we can repair some of the damage; but if we spend the next 20 months embroiled in a war that spans Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and probably Pakistan too, then we will at last finish the job of depleting our strength to the point where we are not the most powerful nation any more.

Unfortunately the interview began with Jon Stewart making a few jokes about his name, and since we were making jokes about it back in the 1970s when he first became well known, by this time it’s just a wee bit stale. Though I was pleased to learn that the final W in Zbigniew should be pronounced F. I guess I should have figured as much since I do happen to know that you say “padder-EFF-skee” and not “padder-ROO-skee” and so on with Polish names. Yet “ZBIG-nyoo” is how I’ve always assumed it was pronounced. From now on I’ll say “ZBIG-nyeff”.

I may go back and listen again and jot down a few of the wise and funny things he said, or maybe I’ll go buy the book since presumably he says the same things there only in a more polished manner instead of off the cuff. Though I’m even more backed up on my To Be Read shelf than I am on my iPod.