Sunday, March 30, 2008

I Ching #47 ~ Oppression (Exhaustion)

Oppression. Success. Perseverance.
The great man brings about good fortune.
No blame.
When one has something to say,
It is not believed.

“Times of adversity are the reverse of times of success, but they can lead to success if they befall the right man. When a strong man meets with adversity, he remains cheerful despite all danger, and this cheerfulness is the source of later successes; it is that stability which is stronger than fate. He who lets his spirit be broken by exhaustion certainly has no success. But if adversity only bends a man, it creates in him a power to react that is bound in time to manifest itself. No inferior man is capable of this. Only the great man brings about good fortune and remains blameless. It is true that for the time being, outward influence is denied him because his words have no effect. Therefore in times of adversity it is important to be strong within and sparing of words.”

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ancient Egypt's Beasts of Burden

Life was pretty harsh in ancient Egypt, as pointed out in two news articles appearing in the last two days. And it appears the real beasts of burden may have been men, women and children while some four-footed creatures were revered.

In one article, from Reuters, anthropologists studied the remains of ordinary Egyptians buried around 1300 BC in a cemetery in Tell el-Amarna, the capital of Egypt during the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten. In the second one, from the New York Times, a tomb from about 3000 BC was unearthed where the remains of high-ranking officials were expected, but instead revealed the remains of donkeys. At one time they may have been revered because of their role in alleviating labor for humans.

The human skeletal remains found in Tell el-Armana showed high incidences of anemia – 74 percent in children and 44 percent in adults - broken bones, a high juvenile death rate and stunted growth. Average height for men was 5 feet 2 inches and about 5 feet for women. “Adult heights are used as a proxy for overall standard of living,” says Gerome Rose, an anthropologist with the University of Arkansas and one of the main researchers. “Short statures reflect a diet deficient in protein. People were not growing to their full potential.”

What’s new here is that life in Egypt around the time of Akhenaten has been believed to have been pretty good, based on the paintings found in tombs and their displays of abundance. “We’re seeing a more realistic picture of what life was like,” Rose says. “It has nothing to do with the intentions of Akhenaten, which may have been good and paternal toward his people.”

The remains of the donkeys (NYT photo at left) date much earlier, from about 3000 BC. Archeologists had been digging at the tomb of a king in the ancient town of Abydos and expected to find the graves of officials who’d been sacrificed to accompany the dead king in the afterworld. Instead they found the skeletons of 10 donkeys, a find that is being termed “spectacular” and informative.

The donkey bones also revealed wear from carrying burdens, with bones and cartilage damaged in the shoulders and hips, with signs of arthritis. But the animals otherwise had been in good health and well cared for, with no signs of feet or teeth problems.

It’s clear the donkeys had been revered. “This is a very high-status area where these donkeys were buried,” says Matthew D. Adams, a lecturer in Egyptian art and archaeology at New York University and one of the excavators. “And they were buried just like courtiers that were associated with the king. That in itself is a statement on the importance of the donkey as a service animal at this time.”

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Merchants & the Raven ~ Aesop Fable #318

Some merchants were making a journey when they happened to meet a raven who was blind in one eye. The travelers halted and one of them said that the sign given to them by the raven meant they should turn back home. Another member of the company protested, “But how can such a bird predict what’s going to happen to us when he couldn’t even predict the loss of his own eye in time to prevent it?”

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fighting Lashon Hara

Hebrew teachings are tough on gossip. The Torah – or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, beginning with Genesis - calls it “lashon hara,” or evil speech. The rabbinical teachings in the Talmud equate the sin of gossip with that of murder.

And in a recent speech in New York, Rabbi Aryeh Mezei told hundreds of female high school students that gossip has its own “butterfly effect,” borrowing the term from Chaos theory. “Just like a butterfly’s wings can cause a tornado, so do your words reverberate in heaven,” he told them.

Rabbi Mezei’s speech was part of a campaign in New York’s Jewish high schools to curtail gossip, which can be so incredibly damaging to reputations and self-esteem at any age. The schools call the campaign “shmirat halashon” – or “guarding speech” – and it involves repeated reminders of the dangers of gossiping. Posters stating, “Do the words you say reach their mark or pierce the heart” hang on classroom and corridor walls. And at least one high school at 11:15 each morning has a student make a public-address announcement, asking fellow students to refrain from gossiping for the next 60 minutes.

One student at the all-girl Stella K. Abraham High School told the New York Times: “The first time, it was really hard not to gossip with my friends. I just sat listening to my iPod for all of recess. I couldn’t talk to anyone.”

Rachel Simmons is author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and she says, “Gossip confers power, coheres friendships and damages reputations. The most painful aspect of gossip is not just what is said about you, but about how people treat you. Whispers and stares can destroy a reputation and self-esteem.”

While she apparently values the campaign in the schools, Simmons admits: “Getting buy-in with these kinds of initiatives from teenagers is the hardest part.”

I Ching #56 ~ Darkening of the Light

Darkening of the light.
In adversity it furthers one
To be persevering.

"One must not unresistingly let himself be swept along by unfavorable circumstances, nor permit his steadfastness to be shaken. He can avoid this by maintaining his inner light, while remaining outwardly yielding and pliable. With this attitude be can overcome even the greatest adversities. In some situations indeed a man must hide his light in order to make his will prevail in spite of difficulties in his immediate environment. Perseverance must dwell in inmost consciousness and should not be discernible from without. Only thus is a man able to maintain his will in the face of difficulties."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

From the Tao Te Ching

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people's greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.

Bully Bosses

I’ve recently run across some articles dealing with workplace bullies. The articles intrigue me because of having been victimized by two bona-fide workplace bullies years earlier in my career – one male during my journalism years, the other a female high in the ranks of a Fortune 500 company.

According to the New York Times, the research firm Zogby International last fall conducted a survey showing 37 percent of American workers have experienced bullying on the job. It also concluded that 40 percent of workplace bullies are women.

Of course workplace bullying is not as physical as the playground variety. It relies more on psychological assaults and subtle harassments. Researchers at the University of Manitoba contend its effects often are more severe than sexual harassment. And what’s worse, the bully in many cases may actually be praised by higher-ups for exhibiting a tough management style. 

The Times concludes that help may be on the way in the form of legislation, such as an anti-bullying bill before the New York State Legislature and similar measures being considered in New Jersey and Connecticut. Somehow I find it hard to get wildly enthusiastic about the remedial effect of such laws on our insular corporations.

I’m more interested in what writer Amy Sutherland states in her book What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage. She studied animal trainers skilled at making creatures from whales to monkeys perform tricks and then has applied those tactics to some human situations. She says there are three rules good animal trainers use that can help reform some bad human behaviors:
  1. Ignore the bad behavior. Go blank. The trainers call it the “least reinforcing scenario.”
  2. Any interaction should be considered as training. Do not reinforce any of the boss’s bad behaviors at any time.
  3. Reward the behavior you want. Animal trainers use reward after reward after reward. Punishment doesn’t work nearly as well and can create a whole other set of problems.
These three simple – but too frequently forgotten - rules can promote on-the-job self-preservation, which likely will be necessary until something hugely dramatic occurs to wake up the deaf-ears in HR. At least that’s my experience.

As for my own two tormenters. The woman bully boss became so out-of-control she was “encouraged” to get therapy, was put on meds, and was quietly eased out of the corporation. The male was praised for his iron fist (which he literally tried to use on a couple of us one raucus night), was promoted and eventually given a lofty position in the nation’s largest newspaper chain.

To learn more about bully bosses and how to train them, go to Chip and Dan Heath's column in the latest issue of Fast Company. Click here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Helping the Hoarders

There are messy houses and there are really messy houses. And the astoundingly messy ones could well be the residences of compulsive hoarders.

It seems psychiatrists and behavioral scientists are now taking a closer look at household clutter and finding that the more extreme examples can be related to depression, attention deficit disorder, emotional trauma, brain injury or other psychological disorders.

Compulsive hoarding is on its way to being classified as a mental illness, but at present the psychiatric community does not consider it as such, even though it’s been estimated that at least 1.5 million Americans suffer from it. It’s defined as clutter so extreme that it overtakes living, dining and sleeping spaces to the extent it damages or impairs quality of life.

To learn more about hoarding, Dr. David F. Tolin, an associate profession of psychiatry at Yale, recently did brain scans on persons suffering from hoarding. While in the MRI, hoarders were shown possessions and told to choose to keep them or to throw them away. If they chose to discard them, the items were shredded right in front of them. Researchers soon noticed that at the point of making the decision, a hoarder’s orbitofrontal cortex freaked out.

“That part of the brain seemed to be stressed to the max,” Tolin told the Associated Press, whereas people who are not hoarders showed no such brain activity when told to make the choice.

Tolin and other researchers say that more storage bins and boxes aren’t going to help the hoarder. “Such things are based on the concept that this (excessive clutter) is a house problem,” Tolin said. “It isn’t a house problem. It’s a person problem. The person needs to fundamentally change behavior.”

The goal of the new research is to help determine how compulsive hoarding works and how to enable the change is its sufferers.

[Coincidently, this topic is the intersection of two of my recent posts: the one about the horrors of “spring cleaning” in colonial times on March 16 and the one about neuroscientists studying “the brain and creativity” on March 23.]

I Ching #7 ~ The Army

The Army. The army needs perseverance
And a strong man.
Good fortune without blame.

“The justifying cause of a war, and clear and intelligible war aims, ought to be explained to the people by an experienced leader. Unless there is a quite definite war aim to which the people can consciously pledge themselves, the unity and strength of conviction that lead to victory will not be forthcoming. But the leader must also see to it that the passions of war and the delirium of victory do not give rise to unjust acts that will not meet with general approval. If justice and perseverance are the basis of action, all goes well.”

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Brain and Creativity

“So when you solo, yeah, you might get into one thing, but then, hey, everything has implications! You can hear the next level. And that's how I feel about improvising - there's always another level.” 
~ Sonny Rollins, one of the world’s 
foremost jazz saxophonists

Groove on Miles Davis. Or John Coltrane. Or Charlie Mingus (picture below). Charlie Parker or Thelonius Monk. Listen as they take chords and melody to where you never thought they’d go.

So what happens to a jazz musician's brain during these incredible flights of improvisation? The answer is teaching scientists a lot about creativity in general. And it's providing insight that might apply to a far greater range of creative thought:

When improvisation begins, the brain first turns off self-monitoring – in other words, inhibition - by shutting down the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Got that?

Next self-expression ignites in the medial prefrontal cortex and gets connected to the brain region where autobiographical storytelling resides. That’s why individual styles of improvisation are sometimes considered as telling your own musical story.

And finally your sensory awareness shifts into high gear even though you’re doing nothing externally to stimulate touch, hearing or sight. But still, your senses become sharpened.

In fact, these are all the same brain activities that occur when we dream.

So how was all of this determined? Neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins and the National Institute of Health recently used an MRI to watch the brains of six professional jazz musicians as they improvised. This was no simple challenge since the large magnet utilized by the MRI can’t tolerate metal – as in musical instruments – so the scientists used special plastic keyboards that could fit inside the cramped MRI as the musicians played structured music and then switched to improvisation while listening to pumped-in music.

“It’s one thing to come up with a musical ditty, but it’s another thing entirely to come up with a masterpiece – an hourlong idea after idea,” said Dr. Charles Limb, the Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist supervising the research. This jazz-based brain research is beginning to get widespread attention and appreciation.

"Improvisation always has a sort of magical quality associated with it. People think when you're improvising you have some sort of inspiration that's not measurable," Dr. Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute, a pioneer in the neuroscience of music and himself a classical organist, told the Associated Press last week. "They went forward where everyone else feared to tread."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I Ching #64 ~ Before Completion

Before completion. Success.
But if the little fox, after nearly completing the crossing,
Get his tail in the water,
There is nothing that would further.

"The conditions are difficult. The task is great and full of responsibility. It is nothing less than that of leading the world out of confusion and back to order. But it is a task that promises success, because there is a goal that can unite the forces now tending in different directions. At first, however, one must move warily, like an old fox walking over ice. The caution of a fox walking over ice is proverbial. His ears are constantly alert to the cracking of the ice, as he carefully and circumspectly searches out the safest spots. A young fox who as yet has not acquired this caution goes ahead boldly, and it may happen that he falls in and gets his tail wet when he is almost across the water. Accordingly, in times 'before completion,' deliberation and caution are the prerequisites of success."

(Note: The opening stanza is correct from the Wilhelm/Baynes translation. It does end with "further.")

Monday, March 17, 2008

We See What We Want to See

“It's like you weren’t even at the same meeting I was.”

Every so often during my years as a journalist I’d get phone calls from angry readers questioning what I’d written. Other readers of the same articles would congratulate me on having such accurate perceptions.

Before long I became convinced we all live in our separate and personal realities.

That’s why I’m looking forward to a new book by Farhad Manjoo called True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, where he discusses how as humans we see what we want to see. His overall contention, apparently, is that things are getting even murkier in this digital age.

In his column today, Manjoo describes 9/11 film footage of Flight 175 as it approaches the World Trade Center. This very footage is vital evidence for a large group of conspiracy theorists who plainly see a missile being launched from the plane and striking the WTC tower shortly before the plane itself smashes into it. So far “official” investigators, however, have not seen the missile (nor does Manjoo, he admits) while viewing the same footage.

The same situation occurs after 45 years of analyzing the Zapruder footage of bullets blowing apart John F. Kennedy’s skull. Some people see proof of multiple assassins on the "grassy knoll" and others only see proof of Oswald as the lone killer.

This phenomenon is known as “selective perception” and was studied nearly 50 years ago by two social scientists, Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril. They showed footage of a Dartmouth football game against Princeton to groups of students from both colleges and told the students to document all infractions they saw. Each side perceived a completely different game – the Dartmouth students listed numerous infractions by Princeton players and few by their own team, while Princeton students did the opposite.

Hastorf and Cantril concluded that the key was the fact that the game – like many other things in our lives – was really just organized chaos. So much was happening at once that viewers were forced to construct reality by assembling pieces of the action into a coherent whole.

“Think about a schoolyard at recess, a baseball game, a political debate,” Majoo writes in his column. “Think about a confrontation at sea, a presidential assassination, a terrorist attack. Or just think about all that happened to you yesterday: Every ‘thing’ that occurs is really a million smaller things involving a million people. But which of the million things, and which of the million people, do we notice? And which do we overlook?”

I see what my brain wants to see, and you see what your brain wants to see.

Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I decided to leave journalism. I realized my best efforts at capturing objective truth were being sifted through my brain’s “reality” filter and that my irate critics and supporters alike were also just being true to their own perceived realities. There just wasn't enough perceptual middle ground for a firm footing.

(And it's not just the sense of sight. I recall years ago playing a Beatles album backwards on the turntable – the what?? – to hear the “Paul is dead” message heard by millions who became convinced we were one Beatle short of a full band. But all I heard was “rrrrraahhh-ehhhrraaahaaa” and was greatly relieved when John Lennon later confirmed that Paul was alive and there was no message embedded there at all. Whew.)

From the Tao Te Ching

A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.

Thus the Master is available to all people
and doesn't reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations
and doesn't waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.

What is a good man but a bad man's teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man's job?
If you don't understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Spitzer and Shakespeare

Once more a personal tragedy of Shakespearean proportions unfolds before our eyes, this time in the downfall of Eliot Spitzer, governor of New York and potential future candidate for yet loftier offices.

One of the reasons William Shakespeare remains the world’s greatest playwright after 500 years is because his plots describe the most intense machinations of the human spirit and his characters are complex and fascinating. And every once in a while something Shakespearean happens right in front of us. Trouble is, we need to take a step back to recognize it because these events don’t come with opening credits, trailers or soundtracks.

Eliot Spitzer was New York’s attorney general for eight years. He was moralistic, driven and seemingly fearless as he battled high-flying financial bosses and investment firms. The media called him “the sheriff of Wall Street.” Eliot Spitzer went after corporate corruption, street crime and prostitution rings and they called him “Mr. Clean.” He was destined for big things.

Now we see Eliot Spitzer in front of the news cameras with his shattered wife and crumbling career as he apologizes for something unspecified. But we soon learn of his years of patronizing expensive prostitutes, the $80,000 he spent on his whores, even his demands that he won’t wear a condom during his luxury-hotel trysts.

As we ponder Eliot Spitzer’s dark side, it’s easy to recall another recent moral hypocrite – though one far sleazier and less Shakespearean – in the person of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican known for his homophobic rants against same-sex marriages, especially in advocating the Defense of Marriage amendment to the Constitution. A standard bearer for arch-conservatives throughout the land, Craig was arrested last June for trying to hustle the man sitting in the next stall in an airport men’s room. After that, a number of Idaho men went on record about having had sex with the senator.

Of course Larry Craig is just one of a long line of Congressmen– some gay, most straight – whose political careers were mortally wounded by their penises, such as U.S. Sen. Mark Foley of Florida, U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, U.S. Sen. Brock Adams of Washington, U.S. Rep. Robert Bauman of Maryland, U.S. Rep. Dan Crane of Illinois, U.S. Rep.Wayne Hays of Ohio and U.S. Rep. Wilbur Mills of Arkansas. But these are all bit players compared to the sexual irresponsibility of Bill Clinton and his Oval Office “relations” with young Monica in her blue dress.

So when you tire of the pundits, experts, analysts and commentators giving you their take on why our moralistic politicians sometimes undo their own careers, feel free to turn off your television and turn to Richard III, Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear for some truly ageless insight.

(For a fascinating description of the days and hours leading up to Eliot Spitzer’s “apology,” click here.)

The Horse & Warrior - Aesop Fable #47

There was a horse who was sole owner of a meadow. Then a stag came along and wreaked havoc in the meadow. The horse wanted to get revenge, so he asked a certain warrior if he would help him carry out a vendetta against the stag. The warrior agreed, provided the horse take a bit in his mouth so the warrior could ride him and wield his javelin. The horse consented and the warrior climbed on his back. But instead of getting his revenge, the horse simply became a slave to the warrior.

Real Spring Cleaning

Spring cleaning to us might mean a couple of days of sorting through cluttered closets and organizing the garage. Even the words “spring cleaning” sound tailor made for marketing fresh and cheery aerosol scents.

All of which is a far cry from what our early American ancestors confronted when the snow retreated and they could finally deal with the stinking hovels their homes had become over the winter. Cold was the culprit, and the farther north people lived, the deeper they had to burrow into their shelters for months on end. Any description might seem like a worst-case scenario, but consider the typical household in eighteenth-century rural New England.

Most of the houses are log and clapboard with a main keeping room dominated by the hearth—the source of heat for warmth and cooking and of the flickering firelight for up to 14 hours at a stretch. Keeping the fire stoked is a life-or-death necessity that consumes four or more cords of wood over the winter and covers everything in the house with a gritty layer of ash and soot.

As temperatures drop, the family spreads straw over their dirt or plank floor to act as insulation and to sop up inevitable messes. As snowbound weeks turn into months, the straw is trampled into itchy dust. More straw is dragged from the barn and spread in over the floor until the supply runs out. Keep in mind that the family could be 10 people plus cats and dogs for mousing and devouring food wastes.

Winter drags on and conditions only become worse. The cold makes doing laundry impossible, except the smallest amounts than can be washed inside the house and hung near the fire to dry. Bathing – typically regarded as a health hazard by many - is canceled as the streams freeze. “Slops” – that descriptive term for human and animal wastes and other garbage – pile up as drifting snow blocks the path to the privy. Chamber pots overflow. In some cases, when temperatures drop to deadly levels, people bring horses, cows and even swine into the house to protect the animals from freezing. Talk about adding to the slops.

And on it goes. More filth, stink, dirt and darkness.

Until finally the snow melts and the mud dries and the family can step into the bright warmth of the early spring sun. It’s difficult to imagine how those colonists felt when they were able to finally let the fire go out, to drag every piece of furniture into the sunlight and scrub it down. To rake the mashed and stinking straw from the house and then scrub the floorboards clean of months of filth and muck. It still will take several days to scrub and whitewash the interior, do the accumulated laundry, and wash the furnishings before returning them to their rightful places in the home.

Spring brings one more ritual to these hardy folks. All those ashes that had piled up in the hearth and been stored over the winter are now put to good use. They’re mixed with water from the rain barrel to produce lye that in turn is mixed with pounds of melted livestock fat. The result is another smelly aspect of spring cleaning – the making of the year’s supply of soap.

So you might want to spring-clean your closet and organize the garage and know things could have been much, much worse.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Lion & the Boar at the Spring ~ Aesop Fable #61

In summertime, when the heat makes everyone thirsty, a lion and a wild boar came to drink from the same small spring. They began to argue about who was going to take the first drink and their argument turned into a duel to the death. When they paused to catch their breath, the lion and the boar saw vultures were waiting to snatch and devour the one who was killed. At that point, the lion and the boar put their hatred aside and said, “It is better for us to befriend one another than to be eaten by vultures and ravens!”

Springing Forward ~ With Reluctance

Tonight I will participate in the semi-annual ritual of tampering with time. I will “spring forward” my clocks for Daylight Savings Time. Since childhood I have disliked DST, which has always seemed to me unnatural and humanly arrogant. It has robbed me of the awe of watching the steady progression of daylight as the year marches on – from winter’s darkness at 5:30 p.m. to summer’s corresponding dusk at 9:30 p.m. as the earth tilts in its season and more daylight spills onto the world around me.

Each year, in early spring, everything gets an awful jolt. It’s been bright when I awaken these past few weeks, but starting tomorrow it’ll be dark—with bright, sunny mornings several weeks away—like slipping down a muddy hillside and having to slowly crawl up it again.

William Willet should be burning in Hell for this. In 1905 this English builder formalized the DST system in part because he didn’t like stopping his round of golf at dusk. He tried unsuccessfully to get his plan adopted in England until his death in 1915, but then-Axis-of-Evil Germany liked his idea and adopted it in 1916 while making war on the rest of Europe. Britain quickly followed suit and the U.S. took the same misguided step of adopting DST in 1918.

Of course DST is supposed to be good for the economy. Too bad the statistics don’t agree. Sure, without a doubt it helps some retailers, sporting-goods makers and golf courses. Fortune magazine once claimed that extending DST just one week would bring in another $30 million in revenue for 7-Eleven stores and that same extension would boost golf industry revenues another $300 million a year. (Click here for more details.)

Too bad it hurts farmers, who need that extra hour of daylight in the morning, not at night. Too bad just the act of tampering with time is so expensive – in 2000 the one-day loss of changing the clock was $31 billion on U.S. stock exchanges, while in 2007 the overall cost of accommodating the altered DST annual end date was somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion in losses to the economy.

And did I mention energy savings? After all, that's the big reason DST has stayed in effect for nearly a century. Well, sorry about your luck. A recent study at the University of California, looked at electric bills for 7 million Indiana homes over three years. They chose Indiana because most of the state has refused for decades to participate in DST, but the state legislature there ended the boycott in 2006. Researchers found that having DST caused in increase in Indiana's residential electric bills of $8.6 million a year. It was the additional air-conditioning usage that really hiked the bills, along with more television, more dishwashing, more computer use – the stuff of a family lifestyle quite different than the 1918 version.

Something else: I read recently in a fascinating book called Awakening Intuition by Mona Lisa Schulz that instances of intuition and psychic messaging occur most frequently between 10 and 11 at night and  2 and 4 in the morning. So, am I supposed to tell my inner voice – the mysterious one that solves a lot of my problems while I sleep – to just “spring forward” for about eight months? Or maybe  just “fall back” until everything settles down and the clock returns to normal, whatever that is.

(For example, the photo at the top of this post is Mt. Hood at sunrise by photographer Greg Hughes. Unless I oversleep, this familiar and beautiful vision will now be replaced by darkness for several weeks thanks to DST.) 

Friday, March 7, 2008

Chasing the Devil

For centuries there’s been a way to get rid of the devil on Miyako Island, a far-flung speck of earth in the Pacific between Okinawa and Taiwan. The devil’s name is Paantu and a flock of priestesses could chase him away by shaking branches of the camphor tree and shouting, “Hoi! Hoi!”

It’s not so easy anymore. A recent article in the New York Times provided a glimpse into the pending disappearance of a once-vital ritual. The island has survived millennia of typhoons and even Japanese conquest during World War II, but nothing has proven so destructive to the ancient religion as newfound affluence and a more westernized culture.

Priestesses are particularly important as guardians of the sacred forests, springs and wells in Miyako's nature and ancestor-based religion. In one village, some 60 women traditionally served as priestesses. Today there are 10 and even that number is threatened. Young women in the village say they’re too busy. “Young people now have jobs,” Tadashi Nakama, director of the Nishihara District Community Center, told the Times. “In the past, there was only farming, so everybody participated.”

According to the devil-ridding Paantu ritual, the priestesses would march in a procession to a house where a baby had been born during the past year or a house that had been recently built. There they would encourage the devil to keep moving on. “But there weren’t any (babies) this year,” Ikuko Tokuyama, an assistant to the chief priestess, said. “And there weren’t any newly built houses either. Really, what shall we do?”

Even the selection of Paantu himself is becoming problematic. A group of boys played rock/paper/scissors, but the loser refused to wear the Paantu mask. So Takuya Sunakawa, 12, was drafted over his protests of “I don’t want to.” (That's him in the NYT photo with the Paantu mask.)

So, the ceremony to oust the devil occurred once again, this time with a reluctant Paantu and far fewer priestesses chanting “Hoi! Hoi!” as the world’s rituals continue to disappear.