October 2nd, 2006

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Living fairy tales -

Saturday night I was Cinderella, and now, I am awake this night-morning, feeling like Sleeping Beauty, awakened by a universal kiss.   I feel full, warm and sustained.  Enthusiasm brings me to this new day, October 2nd.   May it fulfill for each one of us, with many leaves to fan the breeze.
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It happens again.

It is hard not to feel that we are repeating Rome's folly.   This article adds another nail to the proof.

September 30, 2006

Pirates of the Mediterranean

Kintbury, England

IN the autumn of 68 B.C. the world's only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome's port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.

The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution, their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself.

Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: no nation would have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. They were, rather, the disaffected of the earth: "The ruined men of all nations," in the words of the great 19th-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, "a piratical state with a peculiar esprit de corps."

Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack. To quote Mommsen again: "The Latin husbandman, the traveler on the Appian highway, the genteel bathing visitor at the terrestrial paradise of Baiae were no longer secure of their property or their life for a single moment."

What was to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. The consulship, elected annually, was jointly held by two men. Military commands were of limited duration and subject to regular renewal. Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry of "Civis Romanus sum" - "I am a Roman citizen" - was a guarantee of safety throughout the world.

But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing to compromise these rights. The greatest soldier in Rome, the 38-year-old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to posterity as Pompey the Great) arranged for a lieutenant of his, the tribune Aulus Gabinius, to rise in the Roman Forum and propose an astonishing new law.

"Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone," the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. "There were not many places in the Roman world that were not included within these limits."

Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman Treasury - 144 million sesterces - to pay for his "war on terror," which included building a fleet of 500 ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Such an accumulation of power was unprecedented, and there was literally a riot in the Senate when the bill was debated.

Nevertheless, at a tumultuous mass meeting in the center of Rome, Pompey's opponents were cowed into submission, the Lex Gabinia passed (illegally), and he was given his power. In the end, once he put to sea, it took less than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire Mediterranean. Even allowing for Pompey's genius as a military strategist, the suspicion arises that if the pirates could be defeated so swiftly, they could hardly have been such a grievous threat in the first place.

But it was too late to raise such questions. By the oldest trick in the political book - the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed as "soft" or even "traitorous" - powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man in the empire.

Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of "serious" physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy combatant - all this represents an historic shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the executive.

An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.

In truth, however, the Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar - the only man, according to Plutarch, who spoke out in favor of Pompey's special command during the Senate debate - was awarded similar, extended military sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senate, largely had direction of its armed forces; now the armed forces began to assume direction of the state.

It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to bribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar crossed the Rubicon - and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.

It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case. But the disproportionate reaction to the raid on Ostia unquestionably hastened the process, weakening the restraints on military adventurism and corrupting the political process. It was to be more than 1,800 years before anything remotely comparable to Rome's democracy - imperfect though it was - rose again.
The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect.

Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate does not have the same result.

Robert Harris is the author, most recently, of "Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome."

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Vicki and her Road Stories -

Vicki Dern set out on the road quite a few years ago now, and she sends Road Stories back to those of us who are less mobile.   Now, though she has bought a home, and, yet, she also continues to travel for work and for pleasure.  I share with you the road story she sent  today.   She said I could edit it, but I want you to have a whole Vicki taste.

Bears in the Orchard
Road Stories 06, #3

Two nights in the Beatty’s apple orchard in my little mesh tent, ears tuned to the roar of a creek that’s usually a mere trickle at this time of year, and grateful for maybe the first time in my life for the barking of dogs. All these fragrant apples ripening in the autumn sun are pure ambrosia for the local bears, and this has been the year of the bear in the Huachuca Mountains. The Beattys know of 15 that have had to be trapped and re-located, or shot, in the last two or three months, and this is not a big mountain range.

The property here is surrounded by a 7 ft. wire fence, but the bears clamber over it. When I pitched my tent under the oaks and Tom started telling me bear stories, I have to admit I got to feeling pretty nervous. These bears have become accustomed to associating people with food. Over at Parker Canyon Lake they’ve been breaking into cars. At an isolated cabin a couple of canyons north of here one got up on the roof and was tearing the tiles off.

Most of the time the five big dogs here give chase and the bears take off, usually climbing the first big tree they come to. It’s mostly young bears, one and two year olds, that are causing the problems. But there was one big fellow coming in that stopped running from the dogs. When Tom went out in the night to see what was happening, the bear charged him. He had his rifle with him and he shot it. It weighed 350 lbs. When they gutted the bear they found bits of plastic bags and cello wrappers in its stomach.

What people are theorizing is that these bears are coming up from Mexico. These mountain ranges in southern Arizona are extensions of the still wild Sierra Madre. Increasingly the illegal immigrant routes are through the mountains now as they try to avoid the ever tightening border net. The routes are always marked by trash and these bears are probably following the trash trails, maybe also learning they can scare people into abandoning their food. The Beattys found a shredded backpack just outside their fence one morning. Unknown, of course, whether it was snatched or abandoned.

They tell me that ten years ago bears were pretty much unknown in the Huachucas. The handful that were here remained in the wilder parts of the range and kept out of sight. If this theory about how they’re coming to associate humans with food sources is true, it would be yet another unpredictable bit of fallout from the unresolved immigration problems down here.

I can’t help but dream, futile as such dreams may be, about what it could be like if we had political leadership with enough vision and courage to create real solutions. All they’ve been able to agree on so far is Let’s Build A Fence. It just seems like by now our thinking could have progressed beyond that primitive stage. The world cheered when the Berlin Wall came down. Now here we are building one of our own. I guess it goes along with a mindset that says it’s okay for us to torture people, to incarcerate them indefinitely because someone has decided they’re a threat, and to rescind any right to habeas corpus. It becomes inceasingly difficult to discern just where our vaunted Freedom and Democracy can be found these days. We’re supposedly exporting it to the Middle East while willingly giving it up here at home.

Didn’t intend a rant this morning. There’s something about being in these borderlands where the immigration issue is so visible and real that sets me off. The Mexican side of the border cities is lined with American-owned maquiladoras. These companies have already put Americans out of work by moving south for cheaper labor, and then even there they barely pay a living wage, so desperate folks come north looking for a way to sustain their families. Imagine what could happen if the executive officers of these corporations were to take a 1% cut in their benefits package and pass that along to better wages at the low end of the echelon. Imagine what could happen if we all realized we’re inextricably linked to each other. If we knew in our bones that when you deprive people of the basics they need to survive, they fight back and after a while you’re putting all your energy and money into building ever higher walls.

It seems to me that whether it be the Buddha’s words about recognizing our interconnectedness, Jesus saying to love our neighbor as ourselves, or that hopeful 60’s anthem exhorting people to get together and love one another right now—the truth about how things could work, what we are capable of as a species, resides in us whether we wish to recognize it or not. How is it that we allow greed to determine the course of the world?

If I look inside I see the answer to that question. Greed, attachment, desire for more of what I like and less of what I dislike—it’s the Buddha’s first noble truth. The cause of suffering. An intrinsic part of the human condition. Yet all the great teaching traditions of the world point to ways out of these conditioned responses. We are the species with the capacity to choose.

As I write this I’m sitting at a picnic table by a shaded area hung with hummingbird feeders. Anna’s, Black Chinned, and Magnificent hummers are swarming around them, stoking up their tiny bodies after a chilly mountain night. Soon they’ll be migrating south. Monarch, Queen, Pipevine Swallowtails, and Clouded Sulphur butterflies are feeding at a big yellow lantana bush. In the night bears came and were chased away by dogs. Somewhere in the high country above groups of people are hiding, waiting for darkness to travel their dangerous routes north in search of work. Below me clear water splashes and flows over all obstacles filling the canyon with its music. Across the creek a lovely organic apple orchard sprawls up a sunny slope. The trees are not set in straight rows, but are fitted to the contours of the land and all the ground around and between them is thick with sunflowers, morning glories, asters and wild grasses. Chickens cluck softly to each other as they scrabble about after bugs. There are ponds here that provide homes for the endangered Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frogs.

I sit, in short, in the midst of a tangled web of life. This web also has clear threads of connection with the landscapes of northern California that I love so dearly. A Hutton’s vireo is feeding in an evergreen oak; the Anna’s hummingbirds are long-time familiars. Though there are different species of trees here, they bear close resemblance to their California relatives—the Arizona sycamore has smaller more deeply cut leaves, the madrones have a longer and narrower leaf, the manzanitas lack that satin smooth mahogany color but are easily recognized nonetheless as manzanitas. And though I sit in a place I deem wild in the best sense of the word, human hands are also part of it, as am I, sitting here absorbed in and by the intricate interweaving of this beauty.

I was going to say that I forget how crucial time in places like this is for my well-being, but that’s not strictly true. I remember it in my head. What I lose is the visceral reality of what it’s like. The last three months I’ve been too much in tamed places.

I moved this summer. Left the yurt which has been for several years the place where my heart and spirit felt so truly at home, and moved to a little house of my own in Albuquerque. The move has felt from the beginning like the right thing to do, and it continues so, although sadness at leaving the yurt also lingers.

I live in an old neighborhood with mature gardens and trees. My street is only 3 blocks long and it’s quiet and there are neighbors I’m becoming real friends with. There are roadrunners in my neighborhood. One morning I looked out and one was snatching bugs on my front porch. I’m going to be happy living there. What I need to remember to make time for is getting out enough to the wild places. Sleeping under the stars, living with the sounds and the silence of a world more lightly touched by our noisy inventions.

I often think, when I’m in places like this where the interconnectedness is so obvious, that it’s here the power lies; here the sweet deep mysteries at the core of life reveal not their secrets but their very mysteriousness and wonder. Here I am humbled, and I use that word not with any connotations of humiliated or diminished, but rather as a satisfying recognition of being part of a much larger whole. The grand tapestry becomes apparent, and the sense of isolation that seems so much a part of our experience as Americans, disappears.

Could we bring our leaders here, our heads of corporations, our political power brokers, and show them what we destroy with our greed, our short-term thinking, our simplistic expediencies that do not and cannot fathom the full range of destructive ripples they set in motion? Is there some way we can help them/us realize that we, too, are inextricably part of this web, that our survival, too, depends on its overall health?

What I recognize here is a kind of equality of being. A respect for each visible and invisible thread, knowing that each is needed to maintain the integrity of the fabric. When I act from this level of awareness, my choices are very different than when I see myself as a separate and isolated being driven by my own desires. It’s in this way that I feel renewed at the most profound level of being. And it’s from this perspective that the possibility of real happiness arises.

There must be twenty or thirty hummingbirds zooming around here, and more butterflies than I can count arriving as the day warms up. I think it’s time to stretch out my own sun-warmed muscles before I have to pack up the tent and leave this lovely spot. A ramble through the orchard gathering a sampler bag of apples seems in order.

Ah, yellow butterflies on red flowers…

Vicki Dern
Oct. 1, 2006
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This morning -

This morning Jane and I worked with the day my hair fell out.   Even with all the accolades of late, and the thrill of seeing a woman model with no hair, I still experience that day as traumatic, and do everything I can to avoid going in to feel that day.   When I did feel it, for a moment, well, I don't want to go there again, right now.  This is rough stuff, and there are so many levels of it, and I am gratefully alive with lessons, learning, and connection today.

I am planning to order new spices from Penzeys today.  I have cooked so little this year, I know everything is out of date, and it feels like a way to further spice up my life. 

I wish spiciness and flavor and life to you today. 
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Fashion show thoughts -

Driving up the freeway to return the tuxes,  my eyes filled with tears as I realized the gift of this fashion show.  I had been focused on the work of it and remembering my "routines," and feeling grateful to give something back to my doctors, but today, I really felt the gift of having a party, a huge, wonderful, incredible party, given for us.  How many people are given such a gift?   I am grateful today for this experience.   I am starting to feel what we were told.  There is nothing like it, and it is and will continue to be one of my most memorable nights.    Nothing compares with marriage and children, of course, but this is very much up there, and it was shared.   Today is a day of gratitude and ease, despite a litany of things to do.  My list is shrinking,  even as it expands.   Life is blessedly  full.