Friday, December 14, 2012

Excited about Dec. 21, 2012 (Join me in meditation!)

Image from Facebook personality Catalyzing Change and Way Seer Manifesto

Yep, i'm excited about it!

i wrote a year ago that there were clear reasons to believe the world would continue through 2012 and into successive years. That has only become more clear to me.

True Activist talked to prominent members of the Mayan community (yea, as i learned at the ribbingly titled exhibit at The Houston Museum of Natural Science, Mayans 2012: Prophecy Becomes History, turns out they're not extinct!!) and he confirms that no Mayan ever did think the WORLD was going to end in 2012....just the age, the epoch, the era.

And i'm excited about it, i think it's going to be fun! As the ceremonial and spiritual priest of the Eagle Clan of the Mayans told True Activist, this new age is going to be one of action. So i intend to haul it in with the most powerful action a person can undertake, and i intend to sit on my ass while i do it!

i am going to meditate with 10million other people! For one hour on December 21, 2012, i am going to change the world for the better and i'm going to start with the man in the mirror. That is how i will be the change i want to see.

Think about having the home field advantage in a sports game. Why does such an advantage exist? i think it is because there is so much expectation and intention all amassed for the same purpose, it becomes much more likely through pure shared-visualization.

This is my understanding of why the organizers of the 1st World Parliament on Spirituality have organized this global, mass meditation. i believe in it and i will participate. The one hour, 5pm-6pm Indian time, falls inconveniently from 5.30am-6.30am where i am currently in, in Houston, Texas. But i will happily participate just the same.

 Find your time zone here. And join me and the other 10million we are sure to amass:-)

Now, for those of you who already meditate, this is a no-brainer, i'll see you in the upper world. If you have never meditated before, that is no problem, you can still participate with us. Here is my simple guide on how to meditate:

Earth Heart
1. At the appointed time (or any other time for that matter) make a strong determination to meditate for one whole hour, for the purpose of benefitting the world.
2. Do so. Just close your eyes and do what comes to mind.
3. Don't worry about anything else.

Ok, ok, so maybe that brings up questions and i'll offer some advice. i have some basic training and have dabbled with Vipassana Meditation and many other forms of meditation, both formal and less so. i have received forms of training in India, Italy, and the United States from Buddhist, Hindu and Western traditions. i am however NOT qualified to teach meditation and not an expert in any way at all. But seriously, it's not rocket science. From what i can tell there are two basic ways (perhaps among many others) to do it without getting technical:

1. Sit comfortably and follow your breath with your eyes closed. When you breathe in, be aware that you are breathing in. When you breathe out, be aware that you are breathing out. If your thoughts wander, ha cuna matata, don't worry, just bring them back and follow your breath again.

This is the first step of what i have done in 10day silent course of Vipassana, but also what is suggested by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests in his book Being Peace, and also the advice of the Spirituality Parliament. Personally i like to set a an alarm so that i can not worry about time until the alarm goes off. So go for it, just sit and follow your breath, you're doing more good than you can imagine without trying it;-)

2. Simply think positive thoughts. Do this with intention and you are meditating.

If you sit with the intention of meditation, close your eyes and simply imagine your favorite spiritual teacher (or ancestor or deity or whatever) smiling, then you are meditating. Done. Or imagine the happiest most peaceful place you can imagine. Imagine yourself there happy. This is what Mike Dooley recommends and is close to, if not the same as, the bhakti tradition of Hinduism and devotional practices of Catholicism and other sects. If you do this with the intention of opening your heart or  or spreading love or even simply feeling peace inside yourself, then you are meditating and therefore helping the world.

So just do it. And tell your friends!

And for an hour on the 21st, you can know me and 10million other people will be multiplying all your efforts, and you can magnify ours! :-)
Benefits of Meditation graphic by

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Learning from Mandela's Way

Nelson Mandela
i've just finished listening to the audio book of Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage, a book by Richard Stengel, read by the author. It was fantastic: enjoyable, moving and insightful.

Stengel collaborated with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela began his career as a terrorist against the officially racist (anti-black) and oppressive regime of South Africa. He went was sent to prison for violent crimes in 1963. He pleaded guilty at his trial, saying he was guilty of fighting for universal equality and freedom. Twenty-seven years later he came out of prison ready to forgive the people that put him there. He worked towards both freedom of the oppressed black-skinned Africans of South Africa and the reconciliation and security of that country's white-skinned minority. In 1994, he became South Africa's first democratically elected President. In 1999, at least equally important, he chose not to run for an (otherwise assured) 2nd term, instead ushering in a peaceful and democratic change of power. His incredible personal growth and impeccably reasonable nature in all situations not only avoided civil war and lead to the creation of a modern country, but also makes him the powerfully effective sage-saint the world has come to know. In Mandela's Way, Stengel elaborates on 15 lessons taught to us by Mandela's life and successes.

The fifteen lessons are:

Mandela's Way, by Richard Stengel

  1. Courage is not the absence of fear.
  2. Be measured.
  3. Lead from the front.
  4. Look the part.
  5. Lead from the back.
  6. See the good in others.
  7. Keep your rivals close.
  8. Have a core principle.
  9. Know when to say no.
  10. Know your enemy.
  11. It’s always both.
  12. Love makes the difference.
  13. It’s a long game.
  14. Quitting is leading too.
  15. Find your own garden.
To learn about how Mandela lived these lessons left me thinking that A) i was doing well to pay close attention to what i was hearing and to then meditate on the lessons and try to incorporate them into my life and B) i need to (and now have) put Nelson Mandela into my mind among the greatest persons and best influences i know about.

Stengel, in this book, (and many other contemporary writers) have taken to describing Mandela as a saint. Of course, nobody means to imply anything having to do with the vapid designations put by pontiffs. They use the term, i think (and i adopt it here), to signify the heroic good example of his life to be emulated by the rest of us.

The many stories that Stengel gives us to show these lessons are excellent. But two of the principles struck me as much more important than all the others:  number 6, to see the good in others, and number 8, to have a core principle. Surely they are all important for me in my life, but these are the two that i think can make the most difference for me as i attempt to be a person of substance and happiness, and they are the two i think the world needs most from us all.

i recommend both Mandela and the book to you all. Thank you to Stengel for writing it, and thank you to Mandela for living as he did!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Texas does not seem weird!

When i began telling my friends that i was going to Texas for an extended visit as i am considering moving there within the next year, the responses varied in wording but the tone was always the same:

Sign in the History of Printing Museum, Houston, Texas

"Oh wow. ...well......"

"You're WHAT?? Why would you do THAT??"

My response to this last question was simple and immediately understood: "Because that's where she lives."

i had met a beautiful Texan woman and was considering putting my life together with hers. And, just as my friends were, i was expecting a culture shock at least as extreme as when i moved from the United States to Italy 8years ago. i had, after all, grown up in New England. Waterbury, Connecticut is in one of the old immigrant, industrial towns of that tiny state and everything i'd heard about Texas while growing up lead me to believe that The Lone Star State would be a cross between the Wild West of Spaghetti Westerns and an unknown intergalactic moonscape.

But now, after nearly 3weeks in Houston, i am finding that my friends' (and my own) premonitions about big, bad Texas were unneeded. In fact, the place doesn't actually seem weird at all! Sure, i have been able to find  some regional distinctness, but from my experience thus far it is mild when present. Incredibly, the people don't even talk funny, hardly any accent at all most of the time!

Now, i'm sure that TEXAS Texas does exist out there, full of cowboys, racists, preachers and other scary creatures, enthusiastically perpetuating the stereotypes we all know. But it seems to me you'd find a similar cut of folk at Connecticut flea markets or inland Florida small towns as well.

In the last three weeks i have been to art museums, New Age chapels, worked out and played in a YMCA, spent lots of time and too much money in a Starbucks, joined the local Theosophy Society, shopped in an Asian-language supermarket, hit the public library, shopped and strolled through the mall, wandered through a deserted urban downtown on the weekend, and i have met a variety of open minded (and even liberal) people - just like i've done in CT, FL, and Washington DC.

So, subtlety aside, Texas just has not struck me as weird. And i am glad:-)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My personal art collection

i will soon be leaving the apartment where i live and likely leaving Rome completely as well. As i do so i realized i am quite pleased with the art i've accumulated here in this room. It has been an effective source of powerful inspiration and positive influence, so i've decided to share it and some of the meaning behind it with all of you, my dear blog readers:-)

Pantheon painted on terracotta, Italian handicraft

This image of the Pantheon is hand painted on a piece of terracotta. My friends Jenny and Flavio gave these out as gifts to their guests at their wedding a few years ago. It depicts my favorite building in Rome. The Pantheon, i believe, has always been used as a place of religious tolerance and openness. Surely some priests in some periods got in the way of spirituality at times, but it is still one of the most beautiful, important and peaceful buildings i know of and it is wonderfully depicted in this small jewel of Italian art.

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(Unauthorized) poster of Banksy image of protester with flowers
The poster here below is of an image by Banksy, a contemporary artist from Britain. i love the image. This protester is not shown throwing a rock or some other tool of destruction, but some flowers instead. And he's not fahking around, he's really flinging them, David style versus Goliath - an act of apparent civil disobedience which should have no harm. i agree with Time Magazine (who awarded "The Protester" person of the year for 2011) that protesters have served important purposes in recent years, and i think they've still got a lot more work to do. But i don't think breaking stuff often helps anything. And so i love how Banksy modifies our expectation of social change.

Unfortunately, Banksy did not authorize the creation of this poster. He is really good about sharing his images and art with the public but as he writes in his web site, "making your own art or merchandise and passing it off as ‘official’ or authentic Banksy artwork is bad and very wrong." i got had by, and i am sorry, Banksy, if you're out there reading this. But i am not gaining from it financially and in fact i paid a pretty penny for it. So i hope it spreads your message faithfully, and that you don't mind too much.

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Tibetan hand-painted thangka of Buddha

i bought this Tibetan thangka in McCloud Ganj, India, home of the Dalai Lama in exile. It is hand painted and came with the large cloth frame included. i think thangkas are supposed to be/could be used as meditation purposes, though i use it just for decoration. Better detail of the image here below.

Thankga image of Buddha and Tara or Yab-Yum
i have heard this image described in various ways. The Tibetan man who sold it to me said it was of Buddha Shakyamuni with White Tara, who is the embodiment of Compassion, and that their embrace was a symbolic depiction of his enlightenment.

i have also been told that this is Yab-Yum, a mother-father deity for Hindus and that their embrace is a depiction of them putting effort into becoming a mother and a father, and many variations of the two versions.
i don't mind, i like both stories, and think of it as each, depending on the moment.

Poster of Om and Gayatri Mantra
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i found this cloth poster in Rishikesh, India. The big symbol at the middle is "om" (pronounced in meditation as "aum"). It is a symbol of everything, or a symbol of God, which i think of as the same thing.

Beneath that are the Sanskrit words of the Gayatri Mantra, a prayer i was taught at Parmarth Niketan ashram, in Rishikesh, India. My favorite translation of it is from Swami Vivekananda:

"We meditate on the glory 
of that Being who has produced
 this universe; 
may He enlighten our minds."

Hari om!:-)

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Macchu Picchu poster
i bought this little photo of the ruins at Macchu Picchu. i am absolutely fascinated by The Celestine Prophecies and believe that, though a work of fiction, it contains a lot of wisdom, and i think these ruins are connected also to a lot of wisdom. That books plot takes place near these ruins.  i think i should visit them some day. And i'm a believer in Mike Dooley's techniques for visualization, so this hangs next to my bed.

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i found this scroll in the Dalai Lama's temple in McCloud Ganj, India. It contains a quote from the Dalai Lama that suggests we daily remind ourselves, 

Dalai Lama's "A Precious Human Life"

"Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive, I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it.I am going to use All of my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others. I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can."
It is one of my favorite prayers.

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Ayahuasca vision art by Maestra Celestina, of the Shipibo tribe of Peru
i got this cloth from Maestra Celestina (hear her sing her ikaro here) during my ayahuasca experience last year. Celestina is a shaman who used to administer at The Temple of the Way of the Light, in Peru, and who (last i heard) was traveling with Traditional Plant Medicine, administering Ayahuasca ceremonies to people in Europe and South America. My experience with her and the other shamans was wonderful, and this cloth brings back fond and helpful memories of my time with them.

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Gopi Krishna decoration from Vrindivan, India
 i found this cloth decoration in Vrindivan, India. It depicts Krishna with Radha, his love, enjoying music, dance and love together. i'm no expert on Hindu theology, but it goes something like this:

Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu of the Hindu trinity, the one that would correspond to Jesus Christ. Here he is a shepherd who spreads joy by the music of his flute and the love in his heart.

The people in Vrindivan believe that Gopi Krishna still comes to make his music and spread his love, literally, physically, still today there in Vrindivan.

i love the image for its peace and romance.

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Patch Adams "Io sono uno smiler" pin ("I am a smiler")
 i bought this pin at a Patch Adams speaking event here in Rome, Italy. i actually got to meet Patch (the real life guy behind the Hollywood movie) at my university in Washington DC. So i was thrilled when i found out he was going to be in Rome. Like the movie suggests, he really travels around the world in the dual role of clown and volunteer doctor, and he really founded The Gesundheit Institute, a non-profit medical group which gives free medical attention to tens of thousands of people. The doctors are volunteers, and neither Patch nor the Institute pay for malpractice insurance or, as i understand it, any other type of insurance.

In his speeches, Patch talks about when he was young he decided to never again have a bad day, and that he hasn't. i feel very inspired by this, and aspire to emulate it, and therefore love this pin which reads, in Italian, "I am a smiler."

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Tibetan national flag, from McCloud Ganj, India
i am a big fan of the Tibetan people, culture and spirituality. If i had to choose just one spiritual teacher (though i am glad i don't), it would be the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. He was the one in charge when China invaded their country in 1950, and he has now long been in exile in India. i have been there to visit his home town twice now, and am planning another trip for this winter.

Though the country of Tibet exists now only as a subject of Chinese rule, i support the memory of that country and the strong good intentions of its people.

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Poster of The Eternal Idol, by Auguste Rodin, from Rodin Museum, Paris

i bought this little poster at the Rodin Museum in Paris. The Rodin sculpture it is made from is perfectly titled, L'Eternelle Idole, or The Eternal Idol. i love the concept, the image, the woman's expression - a perfect bedroom decoration.

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Papyrus painting of Wedjet of Eye of Horus with "PaxRyan" personalization
i had this hand-painted papyrus decoration customized for me in Giza, Egypt. i had bought a full day guided tour with car and driver services as well for $90. Despite having what i thought was too much to do in one day on the itinerary, the tour guide, who didn't REALLY speak English (consistent to European licensed guide standards) insisted that we go to the papyrus shop. i didn't have to buy anything, she promised. 
So eventually i gave in said i would go. Turned out the presentation on how they make papyrus was actually pretty interesting. And the souvenirs were cheap. This one cost me $10. i chose the Eternal Eye, or Eye of Horus (or Wedjet), a symbol widely used in Egyptian art and other traditions that followed it. Horus is a Christ-like figure in ancient Egyptian tradition.

The personalization are the gold and black characters at the bottom. They have supposedly worked out ancient hieroglyphs to correspond to our modern alphabet, so you can have your name or moniker or whatever written on your art. i chose to have them put "PaxRyan" along the bottom of this Wedjet to make it mine.

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This is a photo me and my goddaughter, Livia, taken 
The light of reading ;-)
by her mother Kathy about 5years ago. i love that the reflection of the book page is lighting up the baby's face. Livia's birth changed my perspective on life, and this photo reminds me of the welding together of Kathy and i in friendship.
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Poster of "The Creation of Adam" frame of the Michelangelo's ceiling
of the Sistine Chapel
This poster of Michelangelo's art in the Sistine Chapel, the work of art that has unwittingly helped me earn a large portion of my living as a tour guide during my time living here in Italy. i have always loved this image and all of the spoofs of it as it shows the moment in which God creates man. Now in reality i think the likelihood that man was created by a bearded man in the sky are equally as likely as us having been created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. 

In fact this is precisely why i like this image: Michelangelo has painted the red cape surrounding God in a way that resembles a cross section of the human brain. i have often had clients with medical backgrounds notice the parts of the anatomical brain visible in this image. i imagine that he has subversively used this 16th century fresco in the Vatican to indicate that in fact Man is God, or Man created Man, or the Brain is God, or perhaps even my personal belief: "We are God is everything." The fact that the painting does resemble the human brain is widely accepted and can be read about in more detail here (including anatomical images for comparison), but the interpretation is my own and is subject of my bedroom, not of my tours.

i am also amused by this poster as i bought it from a Chinese shop and you'll notice that, though the key parts are perfect, it has been altered and relieved of its surrounding context that it has in the actual Sistine Chapel. The actual chapel image, for comparison, can be seen here in this photo i took there myself: 

A photo of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" scene from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
That actual image of Michelangelo's art is from my tour, not from my bedroom!:-)

Speaking of my bedroom, here is the only work of art here i actually created myself, a photo of the view of my window from the bed, with a reflection of Saint Peter's Dome in Vatican City!

My window reflection, with Saint Peter's dome in Vatican City.

Living here has had its perks (both the apartment and the city), but also i look forward to leaving like a breath of fresh air.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Visiting The Shroud of Turin

Photo negative of the face of The Shroud of Turin. Photo of image in a pamphlet from The Photographic Display of the Shroud, Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Divine Love, Rome, Italy.
Back in 2010, the famous Shroud of Turin was on display in Turin, Italy. Being a cultural Tour Guide and Tour Accompanier here in Italy, i knew i couldn't miss something like this. So i made preparations with a friend to go from Rome to Turin, in northern Italy, for the display and to study up all the info i could about the Shroud in preparation.

Dr. Joe Nickell's book on the Shroud. He is the
Senior Fellow of the Committee for the
Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
In this post i will talk about the history of the Shroud, what is known, claimed and believed about it, my experience going to see it, and then i will describe the three possibilities of the true nature of the Shroud.

History and Claims

The Shroud of Turin makes it's first appearance in the history books in the 14th Century, in France. "We do know that by about 1357 the shroud was placed on view by the canons of Lirey. Great crowds of pilgrims thronged to exhibitions of the 'relic,' which was shown at full length and advertised as the 'true Burial Sheet of Christ,'" writes Joe Nickell, Ph.D. in his 1998 book Inquest On the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings.

The idea is that after Jesus's, his body was removed from the cross and placed in this shroud, this sheet, and that an image of him remained there on the cloth. This image shows how the Shroud would have been wrapped around Jesus' body:
Photo of image from April 2010 edition of Oggi magazine.
Many Catholics and Christians around the world venerate this Shroud as a holy relic. Both at that time and this one though, even Catholic authorities are of mixed opinion on the authenticity of the Shroud. The Archdioceses of Lirey, France, at that time in the 14th Century obviously endorsed this. (Nickell, p. 11)  French Cardinal cum anti-Pope Clement VII claimed that the image on the Shroud was a "representation" and that it was therefore not a relic, not the burial shroud of Jesus. (Nickell, p. 7) (It would take a whole other blog post to explain what an anti-Pope was, but suffice it to say that in his time and place in 14th century France, he was a Catholic authority locally seen as the one true Pope.)
Modified photo of Shroud of Turin,
from Wikimedia Commons

In more modern times, Pope Benedict XVI spoke very vaguely and craftily about the Shroud in such a way that he did not actually say it is an authentic relic, the true Shroud of Jesus, but that allowed people to believe he had done so anyway. Check this out:
"Dismissing skeptics on Sunday when he visited the Shroud of Turin, Pope Benedict XVI said the burial cloth was none other than the same robe that once 'wrapped the remains' of Jesus Christ."  
That's journalist Nick Squire's subheadline in an article in The Christian Science Monitor on May 3rd, 2010. What the Pope actually said is that the Shroud, "wrapped the remains of a crucified man in full correspondence with what the Gospels tell us of Jesus." (the quote is in both that CSM article, and in translation in the Oggi magazine cited above.) He later cites the Pope also saying the shroud is ""an icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified, and injured on his right side."  This is classic politician speak from the Pope. If it is an icon, it is not a relic. He does say it is an icon, but doesn't bother mentioning that it is therefore not a relic. But, the journalists of the world worked their magic on those quotes just the same.

Much more clear though is Archbishop of Turin, Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini at the previous showing of the Shroud in 1998, who "insisted the shroud was not a relic (that is, not a burial cloth) but an icon (an artistic image)." (Nickell, p. 7, citing New York Times, April 19, 1998)

With the opposite view point is STURP, which is meant to stand for Shroud of Turin Research Project. They have in modern times insisted on a fair-minded, scientific study of the Shroud. "I personally believe it is the Shroud of Christ, and I believe this is supported by the scientific evidence so far," (Nickell, p. 115) said one member of the STURP team. And another: "I believe it through the eyes of faith, and as a scientist I have seen evidence that it could be his [Christ's] Shroud." (Nickell, p. 115) THEN, after making these statements, these supposed scientists were granted to permission to have access to the Shroud for what they were calling scientific study.

Waiting in line to see the Shroud of Turin

My visit

The Shroud of Turin on display in Turin Cathedral, 2010
i took a train from Rome to Turin to see the Shroud on display there in Turin Cathedral. i paid the required 4euros to make a timed-reservation online in order to see the Shroud. Then, i got there an hour ahead of my appointment, as prescribed. When i got there, i found a typical Italian mess. Not only was there a line around the block and down the street, and not only was there nothing to do about the fact that i had a timed-appointment, but nobody ever even checked my appointment or confirmed that i had paid for it at all! Noting that the crowd was in fact mostly Italians, very few foreigners, i began to feel that reservation fee had been a bit of a joke or a foreigners' tax, and that i should have realized the Italianess of it and just showed up without the reservation - the waiting in line to view the Shroud would clearly have been exactly the same.

When we finally arrived in the Cathedral, the place was packed. Waiting in this long line got you the right to go up close to the shroud, within maybe 15feet, and remain there close for a few minutes.Then that group was ushered away and a new group of many dozen was ushered in.

The "Prayer of the Shroud" was being recited every few minutes as we shuffled towards the main attraction.

i was surprised by what i saw: The Shroud of Turin is a white sheet with burn holes on it. There is just the vaguest hint of any image at all! The photos that you see of the face, like the one at the top of this blog, are created by creating a photo negative of the image of the Shroud. Or, like the one of the whole Shroud from Wikimedia Commons, they've simply played with the contrast and color saturation of the photo itself.
The Shroud of Turin
The left hand side in the photo here above shows the front of the man, with the feet on the left and the head in the middle. The other side shows the back. As you can see, this is hardly visible.

My zoomed in photo of the face of The Shroud of Turin.

My photo of the Shroud of Turin with the modifications like the ones often used in the famous images of it.
When my friend and i arrived up close, we and everyone around us took out our cameras. There were signs all over saying no flash AND no photography. But there were digital cameras out all over the place. As we got close, an Italian kid in front of us, camera in hand, asked a lady guard if photos were okay. 
"No," the lady said. 
"Without a flash?" the kid persisted. 
"Non si potrebbe," she said, which is something like "No you shouldn't." 
And then that kid and all the rest of us started taking photos! The kid was just inches away from the guard who had just said no, and nobody bothered anybody about it. Gotta love Italy! And, when in Rome! to speak.

Three possibilities of the truth

So what is the Shroud really? From what i can tell, there are there possibilities:

Possibility 1. It is the authentic Shroud of Jesus, and the image was created by residue of his actual crucifixion, ie., blood stains.

There are three major problems with this theory:
Cutting the Shroud of Turin?
Image from Great Shroud of Turin FAQ

Problem A. It has been Radio 14 carbon dated to be about 700years old. From a peer-reviewed article in Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science:
"Very small samples from the Shroud of Turin have been dated by accelerator mass spectrometry in laboratories at Arizona, Oxford and Zurich. As controls, three samples whose ages had been determined independently were also dated. The results provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is mediaeval."
But controversy has been stirred over claims that the Shroud had been mended 700years ago and the scientists had managed to only take samples of the mended parts.

Problem B. The facial image on the Shroud is of normal dimensions. But, when an image is created by putting a cloth-like material over a face (such as when making a death mask), the image comes out distorted, too wide. The two-dimensional view of a three-dimensional object is always distorted, as can be seen in this ancient Greek death mask of a Mycenaean king, sometimes thought to be the famous Agamemnon:

"Golden Mask of Agamemnon," Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece
Ironically, the fact that the Shroud face looks correct and life-like actually indicates that it was not created by being faced over the bloody face of anybody.

Problem C. A STURP scientist looked at the fibers of the colored parts of the Shroud under a fancy microscope to find out what caused the color. What did he find? "He had detected significant amounts of artists' vermillion and rose madder" as well as "ultramarine, azurite, orpiment, and wood charcoal - all known in the Middle Ages and suggestive of the shroud's presence at some time in an artist's studio." (Nickell, p. 124)  In English? He found paint. It is paint, said the scientist commissioned by the Shroud of Turin Research Project to consider such questions. Very simple. That scientist, Walter McCrone, was then ostracized from STURP.

Possibility 2: It is the authentic Shroud of Jesus, but the image was created due to the miraculous power or intention of God.

Glowing Jesus? Image from Pope Alice
You can't argue with what someone believes. But i personally can't buy this one, simply because i think it sells short the power of God. Perhaps he made Jesus' body die with an explosion of light, which almost photographically or with vapor left the image of Jesus on the Shroud, or maybe he just inexplicably put the image there with his divine will or divine hand.

If he wanted to make a permenant image, though, i think it would still be there. It just doesn't make sense that the deity would or could fail to make the image last forever, nor does it make sense to me that he would choose to make such an important image and then let it fade away. Even the ancient Greeks could make images that have lasted 3,000 years, i'm sure God himself could have lasted 2,000 without the image becoming a nearly blank sheet!
Remains of 3,000 year old painting from the ruins of Akrotiri, Santorini, Greece.
Photographed in the Archeological Museum, Athens.
Possibility 3. It is not the Shroud of Jesus or of anyone else, it is a 500-700year old painting.

Nevermind the fact that at least one scientist found under a microscope that it was a painting (some people even say Leonardo da Vinci painted it (Gianella, Oggi magazine, April 2010), though that presents its own whole new set of problems). Here is the story that makes me laugh out loud every time i think about it, that makes me sure it is a painting and not a relic:

At the turn of the 16th century, the owners of the Shroud at that time wanted to know whether it was in fact a miraculous image. To test this, they boiled the Shroud and scrubbed it to see if the image would come off -

AND IT DID! (Nickell, p. 107)

Like i said, you can't argue with what people believe, but for me the question became laughable 400years ago when they washed it and turned this remarkable painting into a nearly-blank white sheet!

The Shroud of Turin, nearly blank today.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

i love the foreigners in Rome, especially in August!

Massage from a Chinese lady, on Ostia beach, Rome
i love the foreigners in Rome. We really make the Roman world go round, especially in August.

i live on Piazza Risorgimento, in downtown Rome, just outside of Vatican City. When i go outside in the morning to the bar right on the corner, the first smile and "Buon giorno," i get is from the Romanian girl that makes my coffee.

If i'm missing an ingredient for breakfast, i go around the next corner to the Bangaldeshi mini-mart where the shop keeper gives me a smile and asks how i am. He is almost always open, even late into the evening. Local holidays mean nothing to him, so he's here all August, on Christmas, Easter, whatever. And it's not just because he's not Christian - right now is the month of Ramadan, a serious holy period for Muslims, during which they do not eat from sunrise to after sunset for the whole month. This does not cause him to take time off work, it does not cause him to be any less consistently friendly than he always is.

If i need something printed out from the internet i go across the street to his brother's internet point. He also keeps his shop open late every day and is on his toes to be helpful. (And there are no internet points in this neighborhood run by Italian people, so all the more reason to be thankful for the Bangladeshis!)

August is famous for being the hottest month of the year, and we are told it's a bad time to visit for that reason. But actually July is the hottest month here. And what do all the Italians do in August? They go on vacation in Italy!;-) And because of this things run by Italians, like restaurants and churches, tend to be closed, sometimes without explanation or warning. i found this to be the fact yesterday at the Pantheon, as i took clients there during hours it should have been open...but it was not. Why? Because they don't tend to hire foreigners as staff there, so it has to close in August, screw all the visitors from around the world that have come to see it!

i walked all over the center yesterday and heard barely any Italian being spoken. This makes the sites much less crowded, and the roads are quieter, and much safer, without the Romans driving on them!

Getting a massage on Ostia beach, Rome
And as the Italian restaurants close up, i find myself increasingly thankful for the kebab shops around the touristy parts of the center, where i can good wholesome, tasty food served to me most hours of the day. My favorite shop here is run by a Kurdish guy from Turkey, always open, always friendly.

But maybe my favorite way that foreigners make experience better here is at Ostia beach, where Rome meets the sea. It reminds me a lot of the Jersey shore. Nice, sandy beach, often with nice waves to ride - and African and Bangladeshi guys bringing around water and beer (!!!) for the same price that the Italians sell them for in the bar. And best of all, Chinese ladies giving good, cheap massages on the beach. Most recently i paid 20euros for a 45minute massage from a Chinese lady called Chen. They tend to not speak much Italian or English, but they sure know what they are doing! Chen even got the many-miles-per-day-of-walking out of my feet, the tension from carrying my work bag out of my lower back, she massaged the inside of my eye sockets and the crown chakra at the top of my head. It was pretty fantastic and made me realize how much i appreciate the foreigners in Rome, especially in August! :-)

First photo by my friend Harry O.B., second pic by an unknown friend of the author - anybody want credit? 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Poem: Absolutely Anything Is Possible

M.C. Escher's Drawing Hands
Back in high school and college i got interested in spoken word poetry. i had actually forgotten this until recently a beautiful, muse-like woman accidentally lead me to remember it. i found some of my old poems, including this one, with which i made my poetry open mic debut, performing this poem on June 4th, 2002 at Mango's on 14th St. NW in Washington, D.C.

"Absolutely Anything Is Possible"
- by PaxRyan

"Absolutely anything is possible,
Even the unlikely things
     that aren't very probable.

You see, the rhythm of this life is altogether rife
    with surprises.
It's a syncopated mess that won't always give
    what's expected. 

Women with gills and pregnant men,
Happy homework - what would happen then?
World peace and angels with aces,
Pigs that fly and money trees that shed.

Yes, absolutely anything is possible,
Even the unlikely things
     that aren't very probable.

Or are some things for sure?
Death and taxes, constant war?

Maybe this will be the time 
     that we're all surprised to find 
     that we're wrong.

Because, absolutely anything is possible,

Even the unlikely things

      that aren't very probable."

(Escher image from Visual Art Encyclopedia.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Greeks on Greek politics

Syntagma Square graffiti, Athens
Back in June i was working on a traveling tour from Rome to Greece. We were to arrive in Greece just days after their 2012 Parliamentary elections. Leading up to the tour some of my friends and colleagues joked that there might not still be a Greece by the time we get there.

This, of course, is ridiculous. All the Greek politicians could disappear and evaporate, all the world's currencies could spontaneously combust, and Greece would still be Greece, with its islands, its olives, is Orthodox traditions and ancient history, etc. Several Greeks pointed this out to me while i was there. Greekness is not political.

The press was billing this election as a competition between pro-Europe forces in Greece that would choose to conform to austerity and stay within the Eurozone and anti-Europe forces that wanted to see Greece exit from the single-monetary zone and therefore maybe from the European Union.

From this perspective, the pro-Europe forces won.

Now, as was my habit also in Egypt and Rome, i asked several local Greek people what they thought of the situation. One reaction was almost universal: they were all glad to have a government. Before these elections they apparently had no governing coalition, so they all seemed glad to no longer be a ship adrift.

Most of the people i talked to about it had little more to say on the situation though, they seemed resigned to apathy (in fact all of the tour-bus drivers i came across had this attitude.) The tour guides though and tourist accompaniers (quite an entrepreneurial group, generally speaking) all said that the result had been a bad one. "It would be better for everyone if we get out (of the Euro zone)," one guide told me, with an undertone of embarrassed humility that went through the rest of the conversation as well. Another guide agreed but took a more sensible, if radical, point of view:

She claimed that the press had misframed the argument as being between pro-Europe and anti-Europe factions. Instead, she said it was a decision between the status quo corruption that had lead them into the mess, and a newer, outside-the-beltway faction (to put it in American terms) that was pushing for a smaller, less corrupt, less Europe-dependent government.

As austerity packages continue to be pushed upon the Greek people, she seems to me to be right. The government is now telling the people of Greece that their pensions, their prescription medicines, the social programming and safety net must all be removed in order to pay their bills. The problem though is that the people did not spend Greece into debt, their politicians did. The Greeks get a lot of government benefits, they also pay quite high taxes. This should work out fine, if the government intended it to be so.

The politicians and their appointees and families have enjoyed spending and wealth at an unsustainable rate. This spending did not make all Greeks wealthy, but it did do so for a small political class. Now the bill for that class's spending is coming due, and they are forcing the same poorer people to foot the bill for their wealth and spending.
Greek Parliament, Syntagma Square, Athens

In Italy, where there is 1/5 the population of the USA, they have a larger number of publicly funded officials than in the States. The situation is similar in Greece. By employing so many citizens in cushy jobs, the incumbent government creates their own voting bloc. They can then screw the majority for the pleasure of the minority - and that is what i see happening in Greece (and in Italy and the USA for that matter.)

It would be different, the guide said, if the bailout money was coming from European banks. But it is not, she said, it is coming from specifically (obviously self-interested) German banks.

Then she made a fascinating point: Back in 2001, why would Germany, even then among the stronger of the European economies, agree enter into the single monetary Euro zone knowing that such weaker and more poorly managed economies such as Greece and Italy were and in fact would become such terrible and dangerous financial partners? The reason, she suggested, was a hunger for power and the knowledge that in fact Greek (among others) politicians were perfectly happy to, even intending to, spend their country into ruin. When the Greek government eventually could not pay their debt, that was Germany's cue to step in and offer to foot the bill in exchange for just that little thing called sovereignty. "This is the 4th Reich," she said. (Not to mistake this for a Nazi reference necessarily, she made it clear that her point was that they were power hungry - she made not indication that it was the same type or motivation of power hunger from the 1930s-40s.)

And that's what it's coming down to now. Germany is (partially already) calling the shots of how Greece should be governed. i personally don't trust banks to save anything, i agree with that first guide i talked to - it would be best for everyone long term if failing governments did not take bailouts from foreign banks! Whatever the people might have to go through as a result, it will still be better than going through exactly the same thing while also being owned by profit-interested banks, which is what is happening now.

"We are not born with critical thinking," this female tour guide pointed out. And, she's right - as Western world's middle class is proving. We are also beginning to learn the consequences of the fact.

All photos by author.

Friday, August 3, 2012

On rude Italians

When i do traveling tours as an Accompanier around Italy, after a few days invariably the clients begin coming to me to ask very hesitantly if the people in Italy are always so rude or if it is just them.

Sadly i have to inform them that that is how it goes here. Italians have a reputation for being very very friendly - and they are, to family, friends, and people that are giving them money. But visitors to Italy often to not encounter any one under those circumstances. Instead these visitors find themselves going into shops and being completely ignored by the staff that works there. It is not at all an uncommon experience to go into a shop (could be souvenirs, clothes, tobacco shop, whatever) shop around, go to the counter to pay, pay, and then leave while the person working there has been on the telephone the whole time, never even interrupting themselves to deal with the customer.

In America, where most of my clients come from, this would be strikingly weird and out of place and everyone would assume, i think, that if the boss or owner were to notice this behavior the employee would be fired on the spot.

i have repeatedly seen these Americans then assume, "The people here obviously don't like Americans, look how rude they are to us!" (And don't even get them started on Paris!) Then i have to explain, "No no, it's not you and it's not Americans, that's just how things go here."

i had a day recently that exemplified Italian rudeness perfectly:

i was going to visit the Borghese Gallery here in Rome. At the ticket office there was just one family ahead of me in line. When they finished their transactions and had their tickets the Italian girl working at the desk got up and walked away leaving me there by myself. She did not say anything or excuse herself, nothing.

When she eventually came back i gave her my reservation codes and she gave me my tickets. "You enter upstairs, right?" She looked at me and lowered her head in what pretty clearly seemed to be a nod (at this point she has yet to open her mouth to me at any point.) So i go upstairs to the entrance i've always used before and find it is roped off and clearly no longer an entrance. So i go back downstairs to the ticket lady and say, "i though the entrance was upstairs, is it not?"

"In the back on the right," is all she said, and with a voice and contenance that made it very clear i was annoying her.

So i go to the back of that downstairs room, turn right and find the new entrance. When i walked up to the ticket checker there she held up one finger and rotated it in a circle. i'm trying to hand her my ticket and she's spinning her finger, not speaking. i have no idea what the hell she could be doing so i use my words. In Italian, exasperated, i ask her what she is doing. "Your bag," she says, and nothing more.


i literally didn't know what to say. i felt like i'd been transported to a bizzaro world of retarded mutes. Finally she says, "You have to check your bag." i was wearing just my small tour guiding bag that i have carried into museums all over the world without a problem, but whatever.

So i go to check my bag in and find the same experience as at the ticket booth. There are two employees there, a few families in line, and the employees are chatting in Italian while one of them accepts the bags to be checked in and the other one helps him by....chatting and doing nothing else.

Then, the family in front of me is taken care of and both of these cacacazzi turn and walk away continuing their conversation. i'm left standing their by myself while the ferocity of my suppressed rage at the rudeness threatened to boil over.

Annoyingly, since i understand Italian, i know they're just talking about going to the beach this weekend, where to go and who to invite. Which is FINE....but either do the job my ticket price is paying you to do or please go home so that maybe someone else will do the job!!!

When i finally get that taken care of i'm heading to the entrance again and go by the desk where they rent out audio guides. i wanted to hear the house's explanation of their art so i stop to pick up an audio guide. Nearly as taciturn as her colleagues the lady there grabs an audio guide when i ask for one. The cost was  6euros and i handed her my Visa card, figuring that since this is a famous museum at which i had paid for my tickets by credit card, they must accept credit card.

"No card," the girl says, startling me with the sudden burst of speech.

So i reach into my pocket and wallet and find that due to poor planning, i have just 4euros on me. i couldn't believe how this visit was going. "In fact, i cannot take the guide, i do not have 6euros in cash right now," i told her and walked away quickly and angrily.

"Signore," i hear her call after i've already stormed a few steps. "Signore," she is calling to me so i look back and find she is getting an audio guide ready for me. i understand she is giving me the guide even though i don't have the cash. i put my 4euro coins on the counter but she pushes them back at me and says not to worry about it.

So i enjoyed the audio guide that i could not pay for due to the kind charity of an Italian employee.

Yin yang sign from Wikipedia.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Gripping expat novel, Youth, by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee's novel, Youth
On a recent work-trip to Pisa, Italy, after setting the group up with advice, directions and a meeting point to meet me at a few hours later, i had some time to myself. i had not foreseen this free time though so i had brought no book of my own or any other personal stuff to pass the time, so i wandered into an Italian university book store. In Italian, i asked the shop keeper whether he had any books in English. Without speaking he lead me to one book shelf full of English language books.

As i thumbed through classics like Shakespeare and fads like Harry Potter, one book figuratively jumped out into my lap. From the moment i laid eyes on it i knew that it was what i had come into the shop looking for:

Youth, by J.M. Coetzee, the South African writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years back. At that time i read Waiting for the Barbarians and was impressed by Coetzee's expressive, concise language and interesting showing (not telling) of social ideas.

The book's main character is a young, South African man who is passionate about poetry and about doing things well. He is uncomfortable with his home country, its political situation and the effects that that situation had on social sensibilities. He was not blind or conservative enough to go along with Apartheid attitudes, which saw black Africans as pests in their own land. Nor was he radical (or confused) enough to think he had anything in common with those black Africans with whom he empathized. And perhaps worst of all, he believed that that backwardness of Afrikaaner politics also left their culture behind in terms of poetry and art, love and passion, any cultural measure worth noting.

So he saves up his money and expatriates, to England.

The bulk of the book takes place there in England as we watch this character search for himself/happiness/satisfaction through a parade of ridiculous adventures with women, Europe and the (assumed) voices in his head. He finds the English women too picky to choose him and his fellow foreigners he judges below himself and treats them poorly. He seemed to be both in love with and loathe his own unhappiness. The one thing he does seem sure of though, is that he is an expatriate, that he does not want to end up back in South Africa.

Some fascinating perspectives that the book brings forth from the 1960s: 

When the character is fired from IBM and later hired by and English company working to compete with the Americans in computer technology, he makes friends with a colleague, Ganapathy, who is Indian, but lived in America and worked in computer programming there. The friend tells him he should go to work in the States, that America has more of a mentality for big ideas. But,
"he has read Allen Ginsberg, read William Burroughs. He knows what America does to artists: sends them mad, locks them up, drives them out. 
'You could get a fellowship at a universtiy,' says Ganapathy. 'I got one, you would have no trouble.'
He stares hard. Is Ganapathy really such an innocent? There is a Cold War on the go. America and Russia are competing for the hearts and minds of Indians, Iraquis, Nigerians; scholarships to universities are among the inducements they offer. The hearts and minds of whites are of no interest to them, certainly not the hearts and minds of a few out-of-place whites in Africa." (p. 151-152)

Then, the progress and world of computers. The narrator, who is the main character though he remains unnamed, get his first employment in England with IBM, billed as the top company in its infant field, and as an American entity. He works on a room-sized computer that helps collect, collate and calculate data. At that time, there were so few functional computers in all of England that he sometimes has to take a long train ride to use the one computer during the night when nobody else is using it. Obviously, iPods were a long way off 50years ago. 

"He is reading the history of logic," the narrator tells us of himself, in a weird twist of omniscience that happens repeatedly in the book and that creates an air of confident wisdom,

"pursuing an intuition that logic is a human invention, not part of the fabric of being, and therefore (there are many intermediate steps, but he can fill them in later) that computers are simply toys invented by boys (lead by Charles Babbage) for the amusement of other boys. There are many alternative logics, he is convinced (but how many?), each just as good as the either-or. The threat of the toy by which he earns his living, the threat that makes it more than just a toy, is that it will burn "either-or" paths in the brains of its users and thus lock them irreversibly into its binary logic.
He pores over Aristotle, over Peter Ramus, over Rudolf Carnap. Most of what he reads he does not understand, but he is used to not understanding. All he is searching for at the present is the moment in history when either-or is chosen and and/or discarded." (p. 159-160)
If this had been actually written in the 60s, i would say this was the stuff of a prophet, or that the author was really deeply in touch with the universal truths that are being so widely neglected today (as i think Mike Dooley, or Neale Donald Walsch, or the Dalai Lama actually are). But even for being written 10years ago, this observation on our current culture is remarkable - an evil influence i had yet to pin on computers and their use.

The other incredible insight from the 1960s perspective of this narrator is about the Cold War. He describes it as, "this quarrel between Britain and America on the one hand and Russia on the other." (p. 164) i think that first part is easy to forget - Britain was still losing/coming to terms with losing its grip on its Empire. Certainly no Brit, and especially no recently-bombed-Londoner was going to have much sympathy for Germany right then, but with the Nazis gone the race to decide who the world's next hegemon would be. The US had moved ahead in the race not just with their military effort and leadership in World War II, but perhaps more importantly by financing the reconstruction of most of the war-torn countries. It was refreshing though to see Coetzee's character's perspective on the Vietnam War:

"In a photography on the front page of the Guardian, a Vietnamese soldier in American-style uniform stares helplessly into a sea of flames. 'SUICIDE BOMBERS WREAK HAVOC IN S. VIETNAM," reads the headline. A band of Viet-Cong sappers have cut their way through the barbed wire around the American air base at Pleiku, blown up twenty-four aircraft, and set fire to the fuel storage tanks. They have given up their lives in the action. 
Ganapathy, who shows him the newspaper, is exultant; he himself feels a surge of vindication. Ever since he arrived in England the British newspapers and BBC have carried stories of American feats of arms in which Viet-Cong are killed by the thousand while the Americans get away unscathed. If there is ever a word of criticism of America, it is of the most muted kind. He can barely bring himself to read the war reports, so much do they sicken him. Now the Viet-Cong have given their undeniable, heroic reply. 
...despite his (Ganapathy)'s admiration for American efficiency and his longing for American hamburgers,"  (p. 152)
both characters are definitely sympathetic to the East in the Cold War divide. The narrator, assuming the Viet-Cong would not ignore his origins and let him help as a soldier or suicide bomber or even a porter, turns to the Vietnamese allies. He writes a letter to the Chinese embassy in London, offering to teach English in China with or without pay, to do his part in the war effort. When no reply arrives, he gets nervous. "Is he going to his lose his job and be expelled from England on account of his politics? If it happens, he will not contest it. Fate will have spoken; he is prepared to accept the word of fate." (p. 153)

i highly recommend this author for both the powerful prose and the fascinating, rare perspective.

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