Archive for June, 2008

Santorini 4: Vourvoulou

June 14, 2008

This morning in the early cool Quan and I turned away from the dramatic caldera view where all the pricey hotels are perched like birds (or guano, viewed from afar), and walked down the long apron of farms on the far side to the Aegean where the mountain of Anafi floats in the sky some miles out to sea. Oh, how I’d love to sail these islands! A few observations:

The old CD’s hang on strings and flash in the breeze to scare away the birds from the farmers’ crops.

The donkeys have stalls that are pumice caves into the sides of the cliff. The donkeys work all day carrying the tourists up the steep side of the caldera from the ferries and cruise ships to the tourist towns on the lip (“Asses for the asses”, quips Quan). With no natural water on the island, all the tomatoes and grapes and figs – as well as the donkeys – look dry as can be – and we wonder how they grow.

A large flat empty Go-Kart park filled a forest of every driving sign known to Europe, where they obviously teach the island kids how to drive (too bad so little of it sticks – we are honked at, swerved by, and it’s a miracle more accidents don’t happen). The ‘streets’ are very small; I imagine they use the numerous little dune buggies and ATV’s that are lying fallow tourist-free months of the winter.

After an hour’s walk, we cool our feet in the velvet sea, and meet an old widow gathering the red volcanic stones on the beach backed by badland formations of water-shaped pumice. I really have so little Greek, but as soon as I speak one word, she assumes and is off at 60 miles an hour, so I soon am at a total loss, but the gist is Obama up, Clinton down, Bush way down, and everything is expensive and going downhill. I am ashamed – I couldn’t carry on one coherent sentence in any language about current Greek politics, and this woman – certainly neither educated nor cultivated nor English speaking – knows more than many Americans about our election.

In the little harbor next to the beach, only two traditional caiquies remain; the rest are all fiberglass motorboats. Though the nets look the same as they ever did.

It was a long, hot walk back up the mountain, a couple of thousand feet up the squiggly road, back from the women sweeping the front terraces in their ‘jammies, back from the mustachioed men on their mopeds, back from the gangly children shuffling to school, back from the shady figs and hard green grapes, back into the indulgent world of the island visitor – the poolside sibilance of the Italian, German, and French sybarites taking showers on an island with no natural water.

Later, back in the tourist town, the Americans from the ships shuffling through the narrow streets among the Tag Heuer watches and €2000 gold chains and tacky Santorini fridge magnets have plastic stickers with numbers stuck to their chests designating what? Their boat? Their bus? Does it get any worse than this? Could they be any more like cattle?

Quan asks me what I will remember most, and the answer is the process of buying some religious icons in Oia, involving several trips to the dark below-street shop with its arching roof sheltering the angels and archangels, madonnas and apostles. We share coffee with the muscular painter with the ravaged face while both the art and the relationship are weighed, as that all figures in the final price in this negotiable culture. Another high point was sharing an hour of songs – trading back and forth between the English pop and the Greek traditional, using guitar and the tiny bouzoukis in the Mad Greek Michaili’s taverna served by the Californian who is a dead-ringer for Misty – hair, body, carriage, attitude. Bless her and keep her safe.

Within a few years, it will be difficult to find someone who speaks good demotic Greek, and the old signs, with the old Cyrillic alphabet, will be on sale in the shops as novelties. I suppose it is a good idea for world understanding that we are headed for one world culture, but in the particular, it just seems sad and demeaning to the establishment of centuries of individualized points-of-view.


Santorinii 3: O Kyrie Georgios, filo mou

June 13, 2008

George and Patty

George Kousaleos – head of the Core Institute, a ‘competing’ Structural Integration school, our host for this trip along with his wife Patty, and my co-teacher for the course part of it – is a large man. Not tall, especially, but broad and expansive, with an Old Greek smile that widens to take in his cheeks, and then his ears, and then the whole wide world. George has a flexible agility (he runs the morning stretch class, comfortably encircling his foot with his bear-paw hands where my thin artisan fingers are fighting my short hamstrings and bound hips to claw for my ankle), belied by his stocky legs and almost ponderous movement through his daily life. I feel like a darting hummingbird beside his calm ursine warmth.

His large head is necessary for all those brains; his bull neck was forged in rugby and football; only large ribs could encircle such an expansive heart. His girth probably started with a Greek’s love of food drenched in olive oil, but additionally I recognize a brother: he has been playing the role for a long time that I took up only a couple of years ago – that of padrone. He is literally a grandfather, with a Greek’s eye on the extended family of cousins, nephews, and assorted associations. But he also has his school, his employees, his students, and the bodywork community under the umbrella of his generous care and intelligent concern, and after a time this responsibility begins to induce a gravitas inside that expresses itself in a belly-centered heft outside. Or so I’ve found.

George and I have just discovered we were both at Harvard at the same time. He completed his degree in the famous Soc Rel (Social Relations) program that was sweeping Harvard at the time, which combined psychology with sociology in a world-saving reach. The real opportunity at Harvard, besides Widener Library, was that one could get close to truly great people, leaders in their field. While I was being inspired by the sonorous tones of the playwright William Alfred in Mem Hall and Shakesperean actor Dan Seltzer and learning evolution from Ernst Mayr, George was across Prospect St. in the William James building, riding the elevator with B. F. Skinner, and learning how to bring people back from addiction with Erik Erikson. What a playing field!

But the late ‘60’s was a rebellious time. George’s rebellion was not to complete his doctorate, a sin with which his father (“I’m only thinking of you and your future!”) beat him about the head. I was an English major (what you did in those days if you didn’t know what else to do, though for me it was a way of getting credit for what I would have done anyway – hang around the Loeb Theater), a year ahead of George.

In the ferment of ’68, when the ‘revolution’ was in full swing and the cops in the baby blue helmets clubbed us out of University Hall, I dropped out – not because of the heavy-handed response to the war protest, but because in the aftermath there was suddenly a socialist revolution, with all these classes on Fanon and third-world farming that I, television revolutionary, found unutterably boring. My father, a Republican WASP, kept his counsel with only a disapproving look on his face that well I could read. I went on to a minor college to study with Bucky Fuller and never went or even looked back to Harvard. George, however, is still associated with the Harvard Admissions, and says he could help me complete my undergraduate degree based on my book and other work – tempting.

What George and I both share from that time, more than any intellectual snobbery or revolutionary fervor, is a deep and abiding conviction that the body means something more than a vehicle for the mind, that this rise in massage and somatic education is more than just an upper-middle-class indulgence in sybaritic excess.

Both of us were inspired into this field based on an intuitive flash, and only later realized the fuller social and evolutionary – essentially anthropological – implications of the ‘Me Decade’, better named at the time as the Human Potential movement. Both of us stayed in it despite the re-appellation ‘New Age’ and the population of well-meaning but needy do-gooders who tend to populate the associated professions. Both of us conform to the laws and rules of schools, buffeted by market forces and everyday business realities rather than hiding in the tenured womb of academia.

George got his SI training from Bill Williams, one of the first of Ida’s ‘buds’ to feel the frost of the Rolf Institute’s exclusivist attitude that lasted 30 years until the formation of IASI, though it still remains in some hearts and minds. I confess to having the same thoughts myself – that CORE and Soma and Hellerwork were ‘cheapening’ the work by teaching it … what? Too short, not high concept enough? not in the direct line from Ida? – some such bullshit until in 2000 I myself was outside the pale and the scales fell from my eyes. In any case, George combines a massage school and the SI program, and has had deep ties with the development of massage as a whole and is a leading light in the AMTA, sports massage for the Olympics, and school standards – but his heart remains with the structural work. I lay on the table for him to demonstrate his take on Logan Basic, and I defy any Rolf-trained teacher to do a better job of freeing the back.

We are all doing our best to revivify and re-incorporate a society gone mad into somatic alienation, where physical education and remedial medicine daily walk ever closer to the robotic, disembodied way of doing things where human beings are just adjunct pieces to be used for the good of the stockholders, whoever they may be. George’s intellect, coupled with his intuitive sense, is a force for re-inventing our society in its fully psychosomatized form, where we prepare our children for the demands of the 21st century, where we teach the Neolithic bodies our children are born with to live fully, successfully, sensually, sexually, and autonomously in this electronic world. Thank God for his intelligence applied to this problem, for his calm warmth, and for his steady, water-like pressure on the cold logical machine of maximum profit and minimum involvement. George is a human, in the sense the Greeks invented them.

Santorini 2: Volcano

June 8, 2008

We have our first view of the Santorini caldera exactly at sunset (I am sure George engineered it this way).

Easy enough to find pictures; hard for those pictures to convey the drama of emerging from the close little alleyways of the town (almost Arabic in their coolness, though totally cruise-ship oriented in their contents – good jewelry, bad painting, “We ship anywhere” on crockery) to a sudden view of the whole circle of the volcano – raw, edgy, dipped into the sea opposite us, but clear in its crescent moon-like embrace of 24 square miles of ruffled water dotted with ships, bigger than Haleakala in Maui, with us perched on its highest point above the absolute black cliff straight down a couple of thousand feet into the harbor far below.

The explosion of this volcano, around 1600 BC, shook the Mediterranean world. The ash has been found in the Greenland ice, and in the rings of fallen sequoias in California. It produced a tsunami of 500 feet (the Javan tsunami of a couple of years ago was 60 feet). The island of Santorini itself was of course obliterated, and the island of Kriti (Crete) to its south took the full force of the tsunami and earthquake, and these two islands were the seat of the ancient Minoan civilization, that of the House of the Ax and the Labyrinth, the bull dance and the mosaics of Knossos, which ruled the whole of the eastern Mediterranean and perhaps beyond before the rise of the Phoenicians, the Athenian states and the whole Platonic school (Plato himself, writing many centuries after the event, theorized that the earthquake and volcano sank Atlantis, placing Atlantis here in Santorini), and way before the Roman triremes ruled the waves. The mighty Minoan empire was wiped out in a matter of days, never to rise again. See Mary Renault’s The King Must Die for a fictional but brilliantly realized tale of this time.

And oh yes, one other minor effect of this huge cataclysm: the initial pull of the tsunami drained the water around the head of the Red Sea, allowing a small group of escaping slaves from a minor tribe on the Levant to cross to safety from Egypt to the Sinai, while the pursuing army was caught in the returning water of the tsunami itself. “Pharoah’s army got drownded, Oh, Mary, don’t you weep.”

Santorini 1: Oh, Greece

June 8, 2008

“Oh, Greece”, I cry with my arms outspread in prodigal welcome and heartfelt love of your wine-dark Aegean under your flawless turquoise sky, love of your good-humoured folk with their seductive gift of gab fronting for their fundamental generosity of spirit.  My cry is tinged with despair and nostalgic regret at the invasion of American music and Anglophonic Europeanism into your unique corner of the world.

We are but a mile or two from our arrival spot, a jetport on the ancient island of Thira, known to all now as the island of Saint Irene – Santorini.  I have never visited here before, but I have visited dozens of islands just like it here in the Cyclades, so it feels like a homecoming.  And a homecoming one both welcomes and holds one’s hands against – the tiny fishing village of the 60’s that would have had a pension with a couple of rooms for the few Germans intrepid enough to cross the island by donkey is now a distended strip of tourist restaurants, with menus in English and French, everything written in the Roman alphabet.  Restauranteurs solicit the tourists like touts, with a bit of the old Greek insouciance, but a tiredness and desperation that speaks of a Johnny-come-lately to the European Union grasping for euros in place of the old drachma, no longer the proudly independent inheritors of the cradle of Western civilization.  Now they’ve inherited the printed towel maps and the crappy tourist dreck that follows the money everywhere.

This morning I stirred at 7 to find a cloudy day.  I slipped from our bed and put on my sneakers to climb through the village to the switchback road that led up through the olive groves to the pass between two mountains. It was an hour’s upward walk, getting wilder and windier as I rose above the beach and town.  The winds were flaring down off the slopes across the sea, cat’s paws and williwaws among the few caíques moored offshore.  By the time I get to the crest of the pass, the tops of the mountains on either side are shrouded in swirling cloud, the wind so strong that I am being pelted with small stones as I stood leaning into it and looking down to the similar beach town far down on the other side of the island.

On the way down, loath to take the same route home, I followed a little path across the steep slope just to see where it would lead, and ended up at one of those ubiquitous Greek shrines – a little building of blue and white so small I had to duck as I entered.  I cross myself not in homage to the Olympian gods or God of the Book, but to the Greeks and their orthodox faith.  The tiny building is full of icons to St George, St Nicholas, and the Virgin Madonna, and incense and candles and spent matches and little burners for the faithful who make the climb to this altar nestled into the rocks in the side of the cliff.  A little more investigation and I find out why it’s here in particular – a cave snakes into the hill from behind the building, and deep within, my eyes adjusting to the trickle of light, is a trickle of water that has made, over centuries, strange-lipped pool formations in the cave.

The water is presumably consecrated in some way; people use it for offerings.  I suspect, as in England, this little church is a Christian overlay on a pagan sacred site, an intuition later confirmed: this was a sacred source of water for the ancient Thirians priests who had their acropolis fort at the top of the hill. Putting thoughts of bat-shit and snakes aside, I scramble into the dark, following the sound, and drink the sweet water, tangy with the mineral earth.

As I descend the smaller switchback path, braking myself with my jelly-like quads, the peculiar heaviness, almost grief, that comes from descending back into the human world from an accomplished height accompanies me back to the sea-level hotel.  The town of Kamari is now up and moving – cleaning the streets, opening the stores, setting out the racks of postcards, and the early tourists out to get their sun cream and plan their days, overfilling them as they do at home, spreading their endless money indiscriminately among these ever-more impoverished people – in my opinion, having known them when they were really poor but still rich in culture.  Blessed, sayeth the Lord, are the poor in spirit.


June 1, 2008

One of the most vexing questions in evolution is why and how we got up off all fours and started to walk on two legs.  The plantigrade human posture is quite unique in the mammalian world, and no other primate adopts it for long, let alone as a lifetime strategy.  Owen Lovejoy posits throwing (rocks at stationary or moving prey, or indeed predators, as the baboons still do today, standing on three legs and bravely seeing off a leopard with a hail of stones) as the basic impetus for getting up on two legs, and even for developing calculation and language.


Don’t tell meine freunde Simone, as she is quite wedded to another controversial theory – the aquatic ape theory that we went through a period of being aquatic (and therefore lost our hair, gained fat, and a number of othet things that can be explored via the articles of Aliter Hardy and the books of Elaine Morgan, et al.) where we learned to stand, hold our breath (and thus initiated the impetus to speech), lost our hair, stood up in the bouyant environment, and came back to land a changed monkey.

The throwing theory has a lot going for it, though it does nothing to explain how we lost our hair, but then the aquatic ape theory does nothing to explain why our eyes moved around to the front of our head.  The bicameral mind that results is certainly different from the whales, dolphins, seals, rabbits, and squirrels (for instance), who kept their eyes on the sides of their heads, the better to spot attacks from the side and behind (lions and tigers and bears, oh my).

Bringing the eyes around front – generally a hunter’s strategy – allows for parallax, which is useful in catching a branch while brachiating, and it also allows the calculations for a ‘launch window’ and trajectory for a stone thrown now to collide with it’s object somewhen and somewhere later.

Whether we stood and walked from throwing, or stood and walked in the water and later put our new-found hands to throwing may be put to rest in our lifetime, or it may remain part of the wonderful mystery that surrounds our origins.  But there is no doubt that throwing is an art we have taken to, developed, and finally perfected in a big way.

The image that ends the first scene in 2001 – A Space Odyssey, of the ape throwing the bone-tool into the air and it becoming a space station (cue the Strauss waltz) is an accurate one.  We have become so good at throwing that we can throw cars down the highway at 120 km/hr.  We have become such adept hurlers that we can hurl an airplane at 1200 km/hr.

But the real test of throwing comes in our ability to throw small ‘stones’ at other planets.  After a couple of trial runs, the folks at NASA have just succeeded in throwing a half a ton ‘rock’ at Mars.  Not only are we good enough at throwing that we can accelerate a rock fast enough to escape the Earth’s gravity, we can then aim that rock at a planet that is 35 million miles at its perigee, which means it takes more than 3 minutes for any light-borne electromagnetic message to get to the ‘stone’ of the satellite for any course changes we might initiate.

Anyway, not only can we throw this stone out of the Terran pull, but ‘hit’ a planet more than three light minutes away.  Not only can we hit Mars, we can just miss Mars at precisely the right angle so that our stone goes in orbit around it.  Not only can we go into orbit around it, but we can take a half-ton piece of it and so calculate our throwing such that this 1000-lb piece will land where we want it, within one degree of the angle we planned, and with such a soft landing that the machinery inside the stone will still work to take pictures, dig, analyze the results, and report back to Earth over the vasty spacingness in between.

This is what has happened with the Mars lander:

I salute the men and women of the team that accomplished this refined form of throwing, which may help us know whether life is easy or difficult to start in this universe (and thus whether God is a K-related or r-related species –

I suppose I should salute those who are throwing bullets and shells with a smaller but deadly accuracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I find it hard to justify this aggressive or defensive throwing, as it seems just one step above the murderous ape in 2001.

But our ability to throw extended into space seems not a waste of money to me, as war does, but a very refined development of a basic ability.  If we were to look at the same thing applied to swimming, we can certainly point to the development of the aqualung and fins, and maybe sailboats and navy ships, but nothing up against this wonderfully precise application of throwing we call the space program.