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Life and Death on Mount Everest

“…the highest of mountains is capable of severity, a severity so awful sand so fatal that the wiser sort of men do well to think and tremble even on the threshhold of their high endeavor.”

— George Mallory

Life and Death on Mount Everest

The path to Everest in 1921 and 2006

No matter how immovable the many mountains may seem, the recent earthquakes in Nepal have illuminated to the world how fragile the ground beneath our feet truly is. Epicentered between Pokhara and Kathmandu in central Nepal, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake has killed and wounded thousands, left homeless many hundreds of thousands more, and decimated the infrastructure of the mountainous country. Many more casualties are expected as aftershocks continue to set life on edge. And while officials slowly respond to the isolated communities of villages dotting the Nepali countryside, locals do what they can to help on their own. Climbers in the Himalayan mountains have felt firsthand a small portion of what the creation of the globe’s youngest mountain range may have felt like when the Indian Plate collided with the Eurasian plate. That collision is still happening. The earthquake triggered several avalanches, one of which poured through Everest Base Camp like a 20-story tall tidal wave of snow, killing 18 in the process.

Apart from the tragic loss of life, the damage of cultural capital is devastating. Irreplaceable sites of archaeological significance have been obliterated. It will take years and billions to recover from the disaster (unless we forgive their debt). Unqualified aid workers streaming into the country (ala the 2010 Haiti earthquake) are not what the Nepali need. Claire Bennett suggests handouts in the short term and rebuilding sustainably in the long term. Perhaps it is too early to comment, but this horrible event may provide an opportunity for just that kind of change. The Nepali disaster seems similar to many other Asian countries that have suffered earthquakes in that an abnormally high number of deaths occur where poor infrastructure and high poverty are the norm. The average Nepali salary is roughly equivalent to $750. The most lucrative job belong to the Sherpa who are the designated guide to the Himalaya, earning several thousands of dollars per climbing season. With the advent of adventure mountaineering, climbing Mt. Everest has become a reality for people whose only qualification is the thousands of dollars for a permit, especially since the government slashed the permit price in order to attract more climbers, most of whom have no business climbing the Santa Monica Mountains let alone the most dangerous mountain range in the world.

But to what end? Merely to be the first western men to stand atop a mountain that the Nepalese and Tibetans hold sacred? Click To Tweet

The Siege on Everest

While it seems idiotic to say that karma has anything to do with the recent tragedies on Everest, there are surely some who have thought about it. Many believe that Miyolangsangma, a Tibetan Buddhist “Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving”, once lived at the top of what the Nepali call Sagarmāthā, Mt. Everest. According to Broughton Coburn in his article on Sherpas for National Geographic “to Sherpa Buddhist monks, Mt. Everest is Miyolangsangma’s palace and playground, and all climbers are only partially welcome guests, having arrived without invitation.” The mountain may be a playground for the gods, but it remains a dangerous and dirty reality for all parties involved in the new economy coming to Nepal.

In his book Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, Wade Davis reveals the reticence of the Tibetans and the outright denial of the Nepalese to allow the British into their country. Decades of failed attempts involving stealth, subterfuge, and the cold-blooded slaughter of monks by the British finally saw the door to Everest open. But to what end? Merely to be the first western men to stand atop a mountain that the Nepalese and Tibetans hold sacred? Perhaps that ultimate quest, so nobly started, has since been taken too far. Our World, the UN University’s online magazine published a story in 2013 concerning Vanity, Pollution and Death on Mt. Everest and National Geographic offers 6 ways to repair Everest. But more than the pollution that the western world brings with it, recently the mountain has been taking tribute back. Outside Online looks at 2014, Everest’s Darkest Year, in which 16 Sherpa died when a 31 million pound serac broke off of the western shoulder and plummeted onto the Popcorn Field of the Khumbu Icefall. Little did the author know that just one season later, in 2015, would his title need to be revised to Everest’s 2nd Darkest Year.

Alongside being an award-winning anthropologist, the author of fifteen books, Wade Davis, is National Geographic’s Explorer In Residence. In Into The Silence, he shows the British expeditions of the Himalayan Range—and much of the conquest of the third world—are characterized by the dualism of Britain: the manifest destiny of a deserving upper class to deliver the world from savagery and the romantic notions of misanthropic lower-middle class dreamers to be useful. The rest are just more cannon fodder for the colonies. Somewhere in the quagmire of imperialistic desires and day-to-day reality there is argument that despite the massive culling of the “savages” in the process, that there is a kind of noble sentiment, much as the Japanese continue to argue about their erstwhile Asian colonies, in the British mapping, modernizing and laying the framework for much of the modern world. In the decades leading up to the first world war, the British Empire was continuing very much in a business as usual manner in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, New Guinea, much of Africa, and of course, India.

Mercantile zeal, severe military reprisals and the subversion of the local elites all played a role in the maintenance of the Raj. But what really held it together was the audacity of the venture, the sheer gall of a small island nation that had never set out to rule the world but did so with such flair.

–Wade Davis

As George Mallory and the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition searched for a route to the summit from the North Col of Mt. Everest late in 1921, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, was waiting for publication. Central to The Waste Land is the medieval Grail adventure of Parsifal, and the Fisher King, “he who is too ill to live but not ill enough to die”. The tale of the knight who seeks his own path on the pilgrimmage for wholeness mirrors on a minor scale Mallory’s own Himalayan quest, and on a major scale the search of a continent for meaning in a post-war world. Eliot was able to synthesize the hopes and fears of the western world—a world of people living inauthentic lives—in a beautiful and esoteric 64 page poem. Mallory was able to do this by pulling himself and a team of ragtag amateurs, so close to the top of the world, he became what the world needed most, a new Arthurian legend.

Life & Death on Mount Everest

Wade Davis – Into The Silence The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

A part of this subconscious desire to conquer and yet be the benevolent rulers, for the British, was to discover the unknown. For more than one hundred years the cartographers of the Survey of India had triangulated and established every measurement of the subcontinent, save the youngest and tallest set of mountains in the world, the Himalaya. The biggest difference between the initial forays into the Himalaya frontier with those of today were that they began in Darjeeling rather than Nepal, a country that remained closed off to the British until after the second world war. In fact, the largest initial obstacles, other than getting to the remote northeast corner of India and acclimatizing to the severe altitude of the mountains themselves, were political considerations. Tibet wanted nothing to do with the British, and Nepal, a more established state at this time, was completely unwilling to to allow a survey team carte blanche to roam its valleys and peaks. Still, somehow the British made inroads into Tibet, with Brigadier-General Cecil Rawling, the Brit that had first explored the Himalaya and the foothills of Everest in 1903, who along with more than 500,000 others died at the Battle of Paschendaelle in 1917. There is the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband, who led a de facto invasion of the country and massacred hundreds of the monk militia at Guru. Despite this unspeakable act (which helped lead to Chinese control), Younghusband had become mystically entranced by the beauty of the country and wrote eloquently about it for the rest of his life. He became the president of the Royal Geographical Society in 1919 and, together with the Alpine Club, championed the reconnaissance of the Himalaya as the Chairman of the newly created Mount Everest Committee. When permission was finally granted by the 13th Dalai Lama for the 1921 expedition, it was an extremely unpopular decision with the other highly placed monks, who thought the British partly crazy for uselessly seeking to climb into such a dangerous scenario, and partly believed them to be a gang of spies. This paranoid belief eventually barred any member of the Survey of India from future inclusion on the climbing team, which with their surfeit of expert mountaineers became one of the reasons why the first campaigns resulted in at least some kind of failure.

Just having emerged from World War I, the career militarists who led the expeditions favored a militaristic siege style of expedition. This was to be an assault on the mountain and they needed a plan of attack. Almost the entirety of the team involved had miraculously survived the hell of the Great War and as such most were searching for some kind of meaning to make out of all the death. Davis calls conquering the tallest mountain in the world (and mapping yet another the unknown frontier to boot), a “gesture of imperial redemption” for a country that, despite it leading to no tangible result, except as Mallory famously put it when asked while on tour in the U.S., “because it is there,” could be what both the men involved and the British public at large very much needed to revive the old English pluck.

Yet ignorant of the impending danger lurking at every cruelly beautiful rise and somehow flailing through the journey without completely destroying themselves, the first campaigns led by General Bruce could be likened to infants toddling about in a minefield. The naïveté of the ingenue Brits, who didn’t know that they should all be failing horribly and so actually merited a measure of success, even as the bureaucracy of the Everest Committee committed mistake after mistake, turns out to be something of an asset, and is exemplified by the absent-minded dreamer George Mallory, an idiot-savant of a mountain climber who almost single-handedly pioneered the northern route to the summit. It was only the lack of understanding the nature of the Himalaya connection with the subcontinent’s summer monsoon season, and the onset of winter, that prevented a serious attempt. So blinded by their own westernized hubris the team thought merely missing the winter snows would be sufficient and so didn’t depart for Darjeeling from England by steamer until early April 1921, and didn’t begin the arduous trek through the Chumbi Valley until May, spent June and July stumbling around the Rongbuk valley and its glaciers, were stalled by the monsoon in August and September, finally reaching the path to Everest, deranged and bedraggled, sometime in October.

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Everest Panoramas by Howard-Bury, C.K. The Mount Everest Expedition.

Yet it was not Mallory who found that path, but Edward Oliver Wheeler, Canadian surveyor, who in stealing away on his own to photograph found passage through the East Rongbuk glacier below the Lhakpa La pass. It wasn’t until September that Mallory, Bullock & Wheeler used the Lhakpa La pass to become the first westerners to reach the North Col of Everest and set the modern route to the mountain. Though considered a mere surveyor by many, Wheeler was an accomplished climber, having grown up ascending the Canadian Rockies, as well the chief photographer of that first expedition. Apart from the capturing the minds of subsequent climbers and the British public, his photographic efforts may have more rapidly brought about the development of the modern portable camera:

He carried the camera, a supply of eleven glass plates, as well as notebooks and pencils in a stout leather case in a knapsack that weighed some thirty pounds. The theolodite broke down into to parts, each stored in a protective wooden box. Together with the tripod, this added another twenty-seven pounds. The leveling base for the camera, spare plate holders, measuring tapes, three-cornered canvas bags to fill with dirt or stones to steady the tripod, and other miscellaneous items brought the total field kit to nearly 100 pounds. In addition, there was the supply of glass negatives, which Wheeler had packed himself, wrapping each plate in dry botanical paper, then placing them individually in one-inch protective sleeves in tin-lined boxes, which he personally sealed with solder. Each of these boxes weighed thirty-two pounds. He would secure and develop 240 images.

Having reached the North Col and been turned away, yet still miraculously alive (save for Keller) the team, defeated but not dismayed, through the Everest Committee, quickly geared up for a second expedition in the spring of 1922. Though they were much earlier than in 1921 the group were still disadvantaged by several key factors:

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Self portrait of John Noel, filming the ascent from Chang La, the North Col in 1922

E.O. Wheeler, the Canadian surveyor who found the path to the North Col, was discluded due to politics rather than talent. The team would miss his variety of skill. The 48-year-old Colonel Strutt, was made new “climbing leader” by General Bruce largely due to him being a highly decorated military commander. The team still had little idea of the true route to the North Face and wasted precious time between the end of winter and the oncoming Monsoon Season searching various paths. Though they had the use of oxygen tanks, this was the first time a human had climbed above 8,000 m (26,247 ft), and all involved had little idea how lack of oxygen affected humans at high altitude. Many preferred to go without, to their detriment. The attitude of “real men don’t use bottle air” likely still holds some kind sway to this day. All this in addition to insufficient equipment (clothing, tents, food) and equipment failure (those damn oxygen tanks), as well as the lack of any decent idea about how the monsoon rains affect weather at the top of the world. They would not make the peak. The wishy-washy method of finding a route in time plus the unpredictability of the monsoon made ascent impossible and put the climbing team in more unpredictable and dangerous situations where making life and death decisions too casually caused the death of seven porters in an avalanche on the descent from the North col.

Despite the unrealistic pressures of the militarists for success at all cost versus the mountaineers more realistic view yet equally deranged undertaking, the addition of the photographer John Noel was crucial to the future of the mythical Mount Everest in the eyes of the western world. He would go on to make two documentaries about his experiences in the Himalaya and be key in fundraising to get the team back to the mountain in 1924.

There is a way to remove the perversion from our once honorable acts of exploration--to cease the destruction of the natural world to our financial profit and physical and spiritual deficit. Click To Tweet

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Life & Death on Mount Everest

Mallory’s Route up the North Face

While the remainder of 1922 was reserved for soul-searching the Everest Committee was committed to another shot at Everest. Despite bankruptcy that delayed them an entire year and a continued military style leadership that was more political than practical, it had become abundantly clear that Mallory was the only one who could attempt and truly have a shot at the peak, but he needed more than just an adequate team, he needed to believe. The mountain had changed Mallory in ways he had never suspected possible. Despite all of his newfound fame at home he was almost destitute, still away from his family for the most part, having to work as a teacher for disagreeable men, yet enjoying no sense of the exhilaration of exploring such a place as the Himalaya, where men dared not go. After having been so close to the top, one can only imagine the solitude he felt at the bottom, where he was just another regular joe amongst the rest of the lowly rabble of society. It was for his wife that the decision cost him any sleep, for soon enough he was neck deep in preparations for the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition.

The elderly head of the expedition Charles Bruce was soon struck down with malaria and succeeded by Edward Norton, an officer and a capable climber. On finding the route and establishing camps higher and higher along the way to the North Col, Captain Geoffrey Bruce (the brother of the General) along with Mallory made the first summit attempt. Abandoned by their porters and having to set up camp themselves in torrents of icy wind without the use of oxygen, they soon descended to a lower camp and met Norton and Dr. T. Howard Somervell on their way up. It was here that Norton set the confirmed world record climbing altitude of 8570 m which was not surpassed for another 28 years until the 1952 Swiss Mount Everest Expedition. But he too was turned away due to climbing difficulty and lack of oxygen, while his partner Somervell nearly died on top. On the way down, he passed Mallory and the engineering student Andrew Irvine, who had decided to give it one last attempt, this time with oxygen.

Mallory and Irvine disappeared from the visibility of John Noel’s cameras a mere 800 feet from the summit. A sudden storm rolled in and they were never seen alive again. Could they have made summit—exhausted and with little oxygen left—in the whipping wind and stinging snow? Separating them from the peak at a height of 8,610 meters (28,250 ft) was the Second Step, a prominent upwelling of rock jutting 40 meters into the air–a very difficult, if not impossible free climb. Since a Chinese climbing team attached a ladder in 1975 this step has not had the significance it would have had to a team climbing without modern technology in the midst of a sudden storm, such as Mallory could have faced.

Mallory’s wife Ruth was waiting patiently in England for her husband to conquer the mountain and come home to her. That never happened. What did happen is up for supposition. The central question to The Wildest Dream (Anthony Geffen, 2010), the story of Conrad Anker going back to Everest 8 years after discovering George Mallory’s body in 1999, to revisit the 1924 expedition undertaken by Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine: was George Mallory the first to summit Mt. Everest? Anker is a compelling protagonist and an expert mountaineer, who drags a youthful and adept climber Leo Houlding along with him to retrace the steps of the infamous pair—often employing the same clothing, shoes and equipment—in their trailblazing ascent. We learn that when Anker found Mallory’s body he did not find the picture of his wife Mallory had promised to place atop the summit should he make it. It was also not among his papers in his breast pocket, yet a recently penned letter to Ruth was. So where did the photo go? Did Mallory achieve summit and place the photo where he reported he would, or did the well-known absent-minded mountaineer merely lose it while shuffling last-minute through his papers?

It is an understandable passion, to see a mountain and want to scale it, for good or ill, we will never stop the quest to explore our world. Whether it be the honorable act of mountain climbing corrupted or one of profitable oil drilling gone bad, the world will not wait for permission. Come what may, we act now and beg for forgiveness later. In the rush to outpace death we often invite it to our own–and those less advantaged’s–doorstep. But what is the alternative? To wait for life to snuff itself out, whittling away at a lump of wood on the porch, or to seek it out, even to the extremes and damned be the costs, for the glory of humankind? There is a way to remove the perversion from our once honorable acts of exploration–to cease the destruction of the natural world to our financial profit and physical and spiritual deficit. Beyond whether man’s desire to attain the peak of Everest (or any other absurd activity) at any cost merely “because it is there” is right or wrong, should we not rather look toward the plight of the many and spend our precious time and limited energy on fixing our homes and neighborhoods? Or as Sogyal Rinpoche says:

All too often people come to meditation in the hope of extraordinary results, like visions, lights, or some supernatural miracle. When no such thing occurs, they feel extremely disappointed. But the real miracle of meditation is more ordinary and much more useful.

Sources:

Mount Everest the Reconnaissance, 1921, by Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury and George H. Leigh-Mallory and A. F. R. Wollaston
Climbing Mount Everest, 1922, The Epic of Everest, 1924, by John Noel
Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, 2011, by Wade Davis, Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Mount Everest Fight Raises Questions About Sherpas Broughton Coburn, National Geographic (magazine).

The Spires of Watts Towers

Watts Towers – Nuestro Pueblo

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

                                       — John Augustus Shedd (1859 – ?), Salt from My Attic (1928)

Cities, more and more, represent waste, inefficiency and indentured servitude within an unnatural and unhealthful setting that is inhospitable to humans. But what can you do? You were likely born in one, raised and currently live and work in one, and probably see no problem at all with this situation. You have been brainwashed by police dramas on cable television and fashion magazines and 24-hour news cycles that need and fear are the primary human emotions. Indeed you most definitely enjoy being surrounded by the Energy of the City, the buzz of traffic and hum of electrical lines criss-crossing the grid, beneath which strangers just like you search out on their smart phones the newest restaurants and bars, go to 3D movies and shop at miniature stores in shopping malls nested atop concrete parking lots, where you chomp on foodlike substances and slurp down overly sugared coffee drinks before getting into whatever vehicle the carsalesman convinced you you couldn’t live another day without to drive back to the apartment/condo/townhouse/duplex/highrise/brownstone you live in to unpack your new gear before adding another nth of unbiodegradable rubbish to the invisible pile of garbage on which our foundations founder.

But this is a must for most. We don’t know any better. And if we do it doesn’t matter. We have to work to survive, to pay the bills, to afford some little comforts and conveniences in otherwise unexciting stomp to the grave. As Emily Haines of Metric disdainfully sings in Handshakes, “Buy This Car To Drive To Work / Drive To Work To Pay For This Car.”

Start a farm and grow your own vegetables? Impossible! Buy a boat and sail around the world – HA – Pipedream!

Watts Towers – Nuestro Pueblo

Andy Warhol may have asserted that everything has been done and there is nothing original left, and all of life’s new days are full of government regulation and legalese, but within the life of duty to work and family and country and local football team and softdrink, there are chances to aspire to more. Between each breath there is the specter of death, driving us to grasp the manic and surreal images from within our dreams and blow life into them. The effort to create something from nothing but your only slightly intelligible mindscape is called visualization and one of the things that make humans special.

Simon Rodia, the diminutive Italian immigrant who constructed the Watts Towers by hand —alone— out of steel rods looped with spoked circular hoops rising to over 100 feet, who had no formal architectural training, once said, “I had it in mind to do something big and I did it.” Yet the towers, under construction from 1921 until 1954 and often the target of civic demolition campaign, have been proven more structurally sound than many modern edifices. The towers are more than the sum of their structurally sound steel reinforced rods. Artistically composed of a mosaic of blue and green glass bottles, various kinds of seashells, shards of pottery, multicolored tile and other locally found materials, remarkably, they are not merely towers at all. Viewed from within, one can see that the towers that poke into the often blue sky of south central Los Angeles are instead the masts that stem from the hull of an unsailable ship, one supposedly pointing toward Rodia’s homeland. in a way the towers represent both a dream come to fruition as well as a dream unfulfilled. From the mind of one man sprang one of the only culturally profound sites in the southland (other than the La Brea Tar Pits, which perhaps represent the yin to Rodia’s yang–the inward breath of life rather than outward aspiration–the sucking in rather than the blowing out), and yet it’s very shape and meaning are one that will never come to pass for Mr. Rodia, who passed away in the mid-60s. It is symbolic that to get to Watts Towers, the brave traveler must venture through some unsavory and potentially dangerous terrain, but what trip that means anything is not fraught with peril? What ship is meant to stay in harbor?

Beneath the Surface – What Is In The Water at Seaworld?

Two killer whales off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska By Robert Pittman via Wikimedia Commons

Two killer whales off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska By Robert Pittman via Wikimedia Commons

BENEATH THE SURFACE by John Hargrove with Howard Chua-Eoan (Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2015)

BENEATH THE SURFACE by John Hargrove with Howard Chua-Eoan
(Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2015)

Beneath the Surface

The question needs to be asked, what do retired whale trainers do? Especially once they have skewered the private industry whence they came. Write about it.

Such is the case of fourteen year veteran Orca trainer John Hargrove who, in the course of working with 20 different whales on two continents and at two of SeaWorld’s U.S. facilities, came to view the practice of holding large mammals in captivity, as well as the pain of mother-calf separation, as unsustainable. It was Hargrove’s childhood dream to work with the Orcinus orca, the so called killer whales. Yet as he spoke on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he said that as a rookie trainer he didn’t know what he was getting into–no trainer does–when he stepped into the pool. “You don’t know normal from abnormal and healthy from unhealthy…are all of the dorsal fins collapsed in the wild…are all of their teeth worn down like that in the wild…? These are the damaging effect from captivity.”

The distinction “in the wild” is an important one, because, well, that is the central tenet to the question Stewart later asks, “Is it possible to have this in a humane way?” This being, Orcas in captivity. Which is to say, are we slowly realizing that animal captivity–zoos, circuses, aquariums, et al–is not only morally wrong, but environmentally destructive? At least Seaworld is against the drive hunts in Taiji.

What Is In The Water at Seaworld?

Hargrove, featured at length in Blackfish–the documentary exploration of orca-related deaths in marine parks– eventually came to the conclusion that “SeaWorld’s wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and ultimately unsafe for trainers.” Seldom has a documentary film become so popular with the mainstream culture in the U.S. and abroad that it has caused the corporation featured to not only acknowledge (and disavow all accusations) the film, but create a point by point attack of its own, attempting to discredit the film makers and all involved in the movement to free orcas from captivity, creating a new website Seaworldcares.com, and a twitter campaign (You Ask. We Answer.) to do so.

In response to Stewart’s telling Hargrove that the Daily Show received a barrage of tweets calling him a liar, Hargrove responded that Seaworld has a “cult-like mentality,” adding, “they will go after you viciously…they will try to silence you. This is how they have gotten away for decades with silencing trainers.” Speaking about one of Seaworld’s main statements, that they do not separate calves from mothers, Hargrove says, “I know of 19 calves we have taken from their mothers.” He goes on to mention the mental capacity of the people running the site, “They are so stupid. They have a photo Takara and Kohana on that page. Takara is in Texas. Kohana is in Spain.” It seems the definition of calf depends on who you’re asking.

Semantically tricky, Seaworld’s version reads, “SeaWorld’s successful development of its population of killer whales allows us to manage a healthy population of animals, while keeping young calves with their mothers and respecting the whales’ social structure.” The below photo went semi-viral on Twitter–with addendum–and the original (on the left) has since been removed from Seaworld’s page.

Unfortunate as the continued controversy is for Seaworld’s shareholders, Conan O’Brien has announced that, true story, in its first ad campaign since Blackfish, SeaWorld wants you to know it’s still a cool place for orcas.

Johnny Cash - Man In Black

Johnny Cash – Man In Black

The Beard – EP 9 – Man In Black by Beard Radio on Mixcloud

Johnny Cash - American IV: The Man Comes Around (American Recordings / Universal, 2002)

Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (American Recordings / Universal, 2002)

“Folsom Prison Blues” Johnny Cash
“I Walk The Line” Johnny Cash
“When It’s Springtime In Alaska” Johnny Cash
“Girl From the North County” Bob Dylan
“Highwayman” The Highwaymen
“Sunday Morning Coming Down” Kris Kristofferson
“Why me Lord?” Ray Charles
“I Hung My Head” Sting
“Cocaine Blues” Johnny Cash
“Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” Johnny Cash
“I See A Darkness” Bonnie “Prince” Billy
“Hurt” Trent Reznor
“Solitary Man” Neil Diamond
“Redemption Song” Bob Marley
“A Boy Named Sue” Shel Silverstein

Intro: “Folsom Prison Blues”

Johnny Cash – Man In Black

Though it had nothing to do with him, the image of the young guitar player walking down an empty road somewhere in Mexico in Robert Rodriguez’s 1992 cult classic El Mariachi, always reminded me of Johnny Cash. The name Johnny Cash conjures up a number of archetypal images: The Rebel. The Solitary man. The guy that comes from a mysterious and troubled past, plays a few funny and sad tunes, maybe shoots a few bad guys, and wanders off down the highway.

I guess in a way you could say the tough talking, deep voiced man in black is my unsung hero. Could be, he’s the unsung hero for all underdogs. Johnny Cash, the infamous American singer-songwriter, is readily accepted as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Despite the fact that Cash is primarily remembered as a country music icon, his twangy voice and passionate lyrics spanned many other genres including rockabilly and rock n rollas well as blues, folk and gospel. In my eyes, John R. Cash will always be remembered as Elvis Aaron Presleys older rough around the edges brother, however I have never had a thing for older guys.

“When It’s Springtime In Alaska” Johnny Horton
“Girl From the North County” Bob Dylan

Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison (Columbia, 1968)

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (Columbia, 1968)

Cash is famous for his collaborations. Having shared a stage with (and paving the way for) Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and other new Rock and roll stars, he spent the better part of his career crossing the genres of rockabilly, country, gospel and blues. Some of his more famous (and surprising) collaborations are with Bob Dylan on “Girl From the North County” from the 1964 Nashville Skyline, with U2 on 1993’s Zooropa (The Wanderer), Neil Young (A Little Drummer Boy), John Denver (Country Roads), Roy Orbison (Pretty Woman), even the Muppets and Sesame Street. While his most memorable collaborations are with his longtime wife, June Carter Cash (& the Carter Family) and the country supergroup The Highwaymen (consisting of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson & Kris Kristofferson).

Here’s a Kris Kristofferson penned tune featuring Cash, “Why me Lord?” performed by Ray Charles followed by “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”, a song he used to perform regularly by his longtime friend Kristofferson, and the infamous Country all-star Highwaymen’s “The Highwayman”. But first we need a little bit of Muppets to help us get to Jackson.

Cash was known for his distinctive bass-baritone voice, for his signature Tennessee-Three “boom-chicka-boom” sound, for his rebelliousness, which eventually culminated in an increasingly somber and humble demeanor. Although Cash was a devout catholic, he battled drug addiction and had run-ins with the law throughout his entire life. Likely this is where his connection to the darker and somewhat unaccepted members of society comes from and Cash sings, especially in his later career, of failure and redemption.

Here is a cover of Sting’s “I Hung My Head”, followed by “Cocaine Blues” and “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”

Solitary Man

By the time that Cash released the boxset of much of his discography thematically reimagined in 2000’s Love, God, Murder he had already begun his collaboration with reknown hip-hop-heavy metal producer Rick Rubin on the American Recordings series, which numbered 6 albums and ran from 1994-to the posthumous American VI in 2010. This was his third posthumous album, all of which ranked in the Billboard top ten, a feat he hadn’t been able to reach alive. The American Recordings series is a collection of mostly covers and a few original numbers, all performed by Cash playing his stripped down acoustic guitar and accompanied by his gravel rich baritone.

Here are his stark renditions of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man”, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I See A Darkness”, and Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”.

Johnny Cash - At San Quentin (Columbia, 1969)

Johnny Cash – At San Quentin (Columbia, 1969)

In this the modern era of the single, of portable music, Cash will most likely be remembered for his most recent work, the American Recordings, but it is his early prolific production that will endure longer than anything else. Like the iconic live recordings At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin in which he, along with Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers and June Carter & The Carter Family, performed to inmates for free.

Cash took real life experiences, often the darker and morally questionable, and wrote songs about them. As Cash suggested through his lyrics, the only thing you can do when life kicks you down is pick yourself up, dust yourself off and don’t bring your guns into town. We will finish it off tonight with the Marley classic “Redemption Song” with Joe Strummer and a Shel Silverstein song you might’ve heard once or twice.

Ginkaku-ji - The Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji – The Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺) has so many names it’s best to keep it simple. Translated as Temple of the Silver Pavilion, it makes more sense once you know its official name: Jishō-ji (慈照寺) or the Temple of Shining Mercy. Because for one, where’s this so-called Ginkaku-ji – The Silver Pavilion? you may wonder to yourself as you stroll through the serpentine garden pathways. The two-story building located at the far end of the labrynth dedicated to Kannon, the Japanese version of the East Asian deity of mercy, …well, looks brown to me…but maybe it’s one big zen koan–find the silver lining within, not without, right?.

Located off the Philosopher’s Path in the Sakyō ward of Kyōto, it remains one of the best examples of harmonious confluence of natural and manmade elements. It didn’t start out with much harmony though, for although Higashiyama culture begins wafting the essence of wabi-sabi throughout the country during the Ashikaga reign of the late 15th and 16th centuries, developing chadō (Japanese tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), noh drama, and sumi-e ink painting, this era is also known as the Sengoku Jidai — the Warring States Period — of the Muromachi era. And while this pristine sanctuary was being constructed on the still hot ashes of another garden villa, all hell was breaking loose outside.

The Ōnin war

'Squirrel on a Bamboo Stalk', Bearing the Signature & Seal of Sôami

‘Squirrel on a Bamboo Stalk’, Bearing the Signature & Seal of Sôami

Coming after the powerful Kamakura and preceding the Ieyasu ruling clans, the Ashikaga clan was the middle child of the Shogun rulers in medieval Japan, ruling from roughly the 14th – 16th centuries. Throughout the 250-year reign of the 15 shogun, the rulers depended more on the loyalty of the local lords than on military power, and thus were soon exposed as a kind of paper tiger that could not do much if you, say, didn’t pay your taxes. The first hundred years or so see the flowering of Kyōto amidst the rise of the Samurai and the Rinzai form of Zen Buddhism. It is during this time of general peace (and approaching discord) that much of the system of art that Japan is so well-known for was formalized.

The Ōnin War (1467–1477), a dispute brought on by the question of who would succeed the aging Yoshimasa, was most actively waged by the Hosokawa family and its allies, who favored Yoshimasa’s brother Yoshimi, against the Yamana family, who supported the current shogun’s suddenly-born male heir. Sounds like a goddamned soap opera, but unlike good melodrama, where are all the women? There had to have been a few devious and deadly femme fatalia pulling the strings behind the screen. Nothing here but rich old cranks who dig getting high on green tea and raking rocks and completely ignoring the thousands dying all around. Although fighting in Kyōto lasted for only 11 years, the conflict, for all intents and purposes, destroyed Kyōto, ruined the Ashikaga clan, and ignited the slow-burning and widespread revolt which would spread to outlying provinces, lasting for a hundred years, eventually bringing about Oda Nobunaga’s brutal unification.

Portrait of an Escapist

While others in Kyōto mastered Soba and the city burned, Yoshimasa practiced the fine art of tea ceremony, continuing plans for creating a retirement villa and gardens. So enamored was he of his grandfather’s Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and the gardens of Saiho-ji (Koke-dera) designed by Musō Soseki, Yoshimasa made the garden landscape of the grounds a priority above all else. He commissioned the artist Sōami to design the Ginsadan, the Sea of Silver Sand, the rock garden, with its now infamous cone of sand which is said to symbolize Mount Fuji. Nōami, the grandfather of Sōami, imparted his knowledge of the fledgling Zen priest practice of the wabi-cha style of tea ceremony to Murata Jukō. Murata is alleged to have been under the employ of Yoshimasa around this time. When finished around 1490, this villa would eventually be built on the remains of his brother Yoshimi’s temple-residence Jodai-ji. Except for his desire that Ginkaku-ji become a Buddhist temple associated with the Shokoku-ji branch of Rinzai Zen on his death, Yoshimasa was completely oblivious to all except for simplistic beauty of rocks and tea.

But the war had its annoyances as well. Despite his intention to cover the main structure with a distinctive silver-foil overlay, the way his grandfather had done with gold leaf on the nearby Ginkaku-ji, the war delayed the work so long that Yoshimasa died before its realization. Amidst political intrigue, of course. The current brown facade of the structure is likely to be the same as when Yoshimasa himself last saw it. Despite his initial desires to beautify it with silver leaf, he probably came to the realization that such decadence in war time was not just wasteful, but unwise, with a secondary benefit of being “unfinished”, illustrating one of the aspects of wabi-sabi perfectly if not a bit ironically.

Ginkaku-ji - The Silver PavilionDespite the temple remaining quite unfinished, in 1485 Yoshimasa became a Buddhist monk and took the name Jishō. It is said that he passed his days sitting in contemplation in the Dojinsai tea room in his Hall of the Eastern Quest (Tōgudō), taking tea with the key figures in the development of tea culture. Situated as it is at the far end of the Hōjō, it demands perhaps the most excellent view of the garden path, the various waterways and the growing moss that must have reminded him of better, more peaceful days, even as the war waged on around him, and enveloped more and more of Japan. During his reign as Shogun, Yoshimasa may have funded and formalized a large part of the traditional culture by which Japan came to fame, yet he was an administrative nightmare.

Nightmare perhaps, but fascinating to live in such a fiery time, and to be at the center of it all, yet instead of addressing it head on and jumping into the war, Yoshimasa got Zen and zoned out. Maybe somewhere in all of the daily manicuring of those beautifully raked rocks he knew that his legacy would outlive him–that despite the fragmented and bloody society that threatened to tear itself apart before his eyes, Japan would survive, and thrive even, and in that new land of the rising sun, would find hidden strength in the quietude and solemn ritual of the simple, imperfect art of brewing, serving, and enjoying tea within the confines of perhaps one of the most perfectly polished contemplative rock gardens ever conceived.

Lazy Bread Recipe

Roasted Garlic Fennel Wholewheat Ciabata

Here’s you: It’s Saturday or Sunday, Monday maybe even, you don’t know, but you’re hungry. Not that idiotic snickers I must have instant satisfaction now! kinda hungry, but some kind you haven’t felt for a long time. What the hell, eat some almonds, be done with it, move on.

No nuts, no chocolate, not even teriyaki salmon jerky for chrissakes. But what’s that? A pristine triangular package of French Brie sitting lonely in the lower recesses of the fridge. Cheap, of course, but still, cheese. This goes that deep. Suddenly this is about Stinky French Cheese. Someone should do some goddamn shopping around here, you say aloud, to no one in particular. Because you live alone. You are talking to yourself, yelling at the walls again. You are alone. Pathetic.

Splashes of Dreamlike Food Memories Are Haunting You

Splashes of Dreamlike Food Memories Are Haunting You

Head slumped, still digging in the pantry, shaking a bit now from low blood sugar, hallucinating last week’s bruschetta, willing to give a kidney – hey, I’ve got two! – for anything to pair with the Brie, eyeing the week-old open bottle of cheap red wine a bit too long, you see an abundance of one thing and one thing only: flour. Don’t know what kind of flour as you decided, for some goddamn reason, flour packaging to be passe some time ago, also apparently opted for the non-marking-with-sharpie-of-flour-type-on-generic-ziplocs. Ooh, whimsical me! So grab the 3 or 4 semi-translucent flour-filled bags, a couple bowls, the brown misshapen package marked yeast & then you begin.

Lazy Bread Recipe

First, don’t really clean the cutting board from last night’s dinner, the extraneous crumbs & sauces will add zest to your bread. Since the flour could be tainted with rat poison, mix dutifully, though no sifting. Who the hell actually owns a sifter? Do you? Pussy.

Next add a teaspoon of seasalt, a tablespoon of sugar – oops out of sugar – so some honey, maple syrup, sweetened chocolate, lemon drops, (miso?) will substitute well. Anything to get that yeast activating. Alternatively, if you can muster the energy to break into your neighbor’s apartment, do it, but under no circumstances should you actually go to the store. Might as well buy bread while you’re out. And get me a 40oz. of OE while you’re there. Widemouth.

All the while of course you’ve been blooming your 2 teaspoons of yeast in 1 3/4 cup warm water (You like that? “Bloomin’ your yeast” Totally made that up right now), but since you don’t have hot or even warm water you’ve got to either wait for the kettle to boil or go take some from the bathtub, which seems to be the more efficient, more of a French solution to the problem. Eh, pourquoi pas!

Soon Your Knife Hand Will be So Busy Smearing Cheese Here it's Not Very Funny At All

Soon Your Knife Hand Will be So Busy Smearing Cheese Here it’s Not Very Funny At All

So you’re yeast is blooming, and you’ve got your four cups of flour, throw in some olives if you’ve got some, and mix it already dammit! The thing is you’ve probably not added enough flour so choose a handful or so from mystery bag A, B or C and toss it in while stirring with some grizzly old whisk that breaks! Fearsome God of Goats Cheese! I curse your ill-born mother’s dollar whisk. I’ll break you! What the hell does that even mean? I did break you. Alright, take a break. Smoke a cigarette. Play some online poker or something. Actually doesn’t air help mix the flour & yeast molecules better? Yeah, so this is good for the bread. Cool. We are in control.

Being in control is the thing. So do it. Quit half-heartedly thinking about masturbating to softcore Tumblr sites and get up off your ass and finish the bread. Get your hands in it. Reach in there dammit! Oh, you washed them didn’t you? Oh well, write it down as “zest” in the recipe. “Schlooge” that too wet dough up and get residual flour everywhere on you so much so you’re hoping the cops don’t bust in mistaking you for some damn Colombian, to make it – your lazy dough – oh so like the Beatles, come together. When you’ve done enough kneading to change the chemical composition from liquid to semi-solid, go ahead and kick back bro, or sis. But maybe first you’d better grease up that bowl – nah, don’t clean it first – with some of that chili-garlic infused olive oil you made up last month. Damn, you hot sucka! and then, yeah, go ahead, take a seat, but wash your damn hands first before you get wet doughy wannabe man goo all over the damn couch like I did, making all manner of moths and the like come bombing down on you nipping at the crust of wheaty rosemary goodness hardening around the hair on your hands that’s gonna feel like a wax job getting it off later.

You should let it rise for an hour or so and then wrap it and refrigerate it overnight, but did you forget how damn rumbly your tum-tum is? Damn Geena! You a forgetful fool ain’t’cha?

Bake that mug up at 450C for 40 minutes, flipping and spritzing it with water. Little Bitch.

Damn Excellence in Amateur Baking

Damn Excellence in Amateur Baking

But, wait before you do that, slice the top in some geometrically intricate pattern with some sharp steak knife you probably stole from Outback making it look all professional so when your friends come over they’re all, “Yo, B, dude, which completely unreal bakery you get this buttery madness from already?” Nod your head, grinning wicked. Wake up bitch, we ain’t done! Crust that badboy up with some more of your slavoringly savory olive oil infusion and toss some the good herbs on top of that, you know the ones. You know you wanna let it sit out on a raised aerated surface like some country momma’s apple pie you know you’d steal too, but you ain’t got that kinda time, do ya cowboy?

You know what you just did? You just made the goddamndest tastiest bread in whichever tri-state area you hail from (Don’t pretend you don’t either. I know you!) and you didn’t even try did you? You might also consider cutting it in cute triangle-shaped quadrants and wrap it in a decorated cellophane with ribbon you curled with the scissors and give it away to the hottee down the hall, but on second thought, what’d she think of you giving her so damn cute bread? Probably she’d thank you all flirtatiously, go straight to your best friend’s house (even though she don’t know the fool) and screw his brains out, telling him as she slams the door on her way to Pilates class to tell you that she just cut out the middle man and cheated on you early before you could give her any more of that damnly delicious bread. So, in pre-retrospect you might as well just eat it all yourself. I heard in Russia kids are brought up well and oxen-strong like on just bread and vodka. Try it out!

Fresh Bruschetta Is What You Make Of IT

I Nuovi Antipasti Italiani

Fresh Bruschetta on homemade Ciabatta

Fresh Tomatoes on homemade Ciabatta

Winter Strawberries. Tomatoes in Spring. Summer Sanma. Persimmons in Fall. Season is everything. And seasonal cooking is big, especially in Japan, where when any kind of produce stops occurring naturally, the hothouse prices set in and flavor takes a dive.

So after a slow(er) then usual Friday night, an early Saturday rise to make the dough for my weekend whiteman ciabatta, I found myself upon my bike heading towards the local farmers’ market where I found a box of the most provacatively-shaped red-as-the-Japanese-sun tomato-fruits to perfectly complement some mouth-wateringly cured Prosciutto Toscano I had found at a gourmet grocer. What began as a morning experiment in breadmaking turned into an entire day of feasting and tasting, laughter and gaiety, all thanks to the serendipitous alignment of weather, food, drink, people and the all-important Lazy Saturday Afternoon.

How To Not Cook Like An Average American

Prosciutto is ham, of course. But when I hear “ham” my body reacts differently than when I hear “prosciutto”. Upon hearing the latter I picture cured legs dangling from hooks in ancient tavernas of wood and smoke where men in hats come for a glass or two of house wine before work. When I hear “ham” my knee-jerk reaction is to picture two slabs of pasty no-name white bread slathered in cheap mayonnaise layered in overly processed slices of “cheese” and some nasty homogeneously flesh-colored square of Oscar Meyer obeisance to fat men with cans of shitty beer on Football Sunday.

A box of just picked organic tomatoes

A box of just picked organic tomatoes

You’ve probably heard of Prosciutto di Parma, which is ostensibly the most popular kind, or at least the most well-known outside of Italy. The truth is not many varieties ever even see the sunlight outside of Italy. To know Italian ham, one must go to Italy (on the way, one would be smart to taste Jamón Serrano in Spain for a true comparison of cured European ham). My idea of Prosciutto leans toward savory so I prefer Toscano (Toscano Prosciutto is cured using rosemary, pepper and garlic) to Parma, whose hams are sweeter and therefore go better with your typical (boring) melon.

Balancing 20 tomatoes on a bag-laden bike is not only fun (and good practice), but tends to remind me of college and bringing home cases of the Miller Hi Life in just the same manner. At least I know I am progressing. I get home, crank the oven up to 250 C, reshape my sticky, frothing dough into a fatty ball with black truffle olive oil and a dusting of herbs, stick it in and crack the wine for a bit of breathing room. If it’s not yet noon, you’re looking good.

I Nuovi Antipasti Italiani

Before the bread’s done, call up a friend or two (females are best). Any reason will suffice. I usually say, “Let’s have a mural painting party!” or something mysterious like, “be at mine by one with a salami, 20 water balloons and a bikini.”

At this point the sun is past its zenith, you should have roasted a few bulbs of garlic, have plucked the best and brightest leaves from your basil plant, 5 or 6 tomatoes should be mandolined and plated and your bread should be done. Open the door, let the fun young creatures of beauty and smiles into your breezy kitchen pour a couple of glasses of a nice chilled white to start it off good.

The Bruschetta You Love:

Fresh tomato on your Roasted Garlic Fennel Wholewheat Ciabata

Fresh tomato on your Roasted Garlic Fennel Wholewheat Ciabata

For Sauce – Refer to the Old School Pesto post or simply drizzle some extra virgin olive oil. The key is not to realize you don’t even own a can opener due to all the fresh stuff you’re using. You feel me? Also, don’t be afraid to chop. Embrace your knife and your whet stone. It’s the Sabbath somewhere so let the Cuisenart rest today.

The secret to good bruschetta is originality. Everyone’s is different. Some are main courses while others are meant as antipasti. Go crazy and try different combinations. Use cheese sparingly, though be generous with tomatoes. Add some balsamic vinegar, squeeze a lemon or better yet, use the zest. Seasalt and fresh milled pepper are great accoutrements. Basil is a must. Goat cheese is sublime. Camembert is subtle. Olives go well with most anything, as do bikinis. And wine. And lip gloss. And crumbs everywhere.

Originally posted on Eat Me Drink Me, several vintages of wine ago.

Mix Tape - An Effort of Love in Vain

Mix Tape – An Effort of Love In Vain

“A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with ‘Got To Get You Off My Mind’, but then realised that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straight away, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs, and … oh there are loads of rules.”

― Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

The Beard – EP 7 – MixedTape by Beard Radio on Mixcloud

PJ Harvey - Four Track Demos

PJ Harvey – Four Track Demos

The Mix Tape is one of a handful of enduring legacies of the 80s and early 90s. It is a janisary audio note to would-be lovers, coveted exes, and cohorts alike that has danger and duplicity hand-written all over it. On the one hand it can be street cred, instant cache, can’t-buy-me-cool cool, if the selections groove and rock and funk toward a central theme–sex, drugs, & rock n’ roll perhaps..? It is also Nerd Home Study course in solemn investigation and quiet consideration 101. But put one foot wrong with a bad track somewhere that kills the flow, and you’ll’ve lost that delicate elevated precipice of cool in the mind’s eye of the desiderata.

Mix Tape – An Effort of Love In Vain

This happened to me ensconced in the mid-90s college scene with a girl I already had interested in me. Her name was Jenny (of course it was) and she had perfect 19 year-old breasts and a dyed-tattooed-punk-aesthetic about her and so there I went, pushing my luck with a mixtape (mix cd actually) after dating off and on for three months. My approach was good, as we had hung out several times and listened to music together and bonded over sharing our own personal great live show experiences, so (I thought) I knew what I was doing. My lineup was solid counter-culture and a bit esoteric (there were two bands she had never heard of). I had her roller-coasting until I got cocky and put the much-overused David Bowie track, “Young Americans”, on to close the set. I was the ultimate over-confident music nerd passing it to her nonchalantly with the diffidence of the pony-tailed douchebag in Hornby’s film version of High Fidelity. It was pretty much over at that point. What did I need to prove? Why didn’t all my nerves scream STOP!? It’s purely academic at this point, but it would be interesting to see how long it would have last if Bowie hadn’t’ve fucked my life up (like he’s done so often in the past…). Sure, we had to have an actual “event” happen that we could place the blame on for why it couldn’t-wouldn’t ever work out (I think I was a few minutes late to our romantic walk on the beach at sunset date), but that was just so much diversion from the fact that our once hopeful pop love song’s melody had turned out to be a one-hit wonder.

The truth is that the mixtape is an overt act of sex, albeit a pointedly individual one, a masturbatorial act of immense self-gratification. Unfortunately one only occasionally fun for the other party. But who doesn’t masturbate? Who doesn’t self-gratify to the expense of others, their lovers, their other-brothers’-milfy-mothers? I don’t so much anymore, and definitely not to get anyone in the sack, but once in a great while, I’ll hear a song that I know ENTER NAME HERE would love and it’s on: the search for 17 songs that make me look really cool. But I have a radio show, so who needs to look cool (I’m still working on sounding cool)?

I Got Loaded – Little Bob & The Lollipops

I Got Loaded – Little Bob & The Lollipops

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