Monday, April 23, 2012

Cocaine [An Unauthorized Biography]

Cocaine [An Unauthorized Biography]
Dominic Streatfeild
England and USA

“Over 50 percent of all American crime over the last 75 years has been blamed on drugs, because drugs are the single most convenient scapegoat for a society that is unable to blame itself.”

            I didn’t need to read this book to know that individuals alone don’t create reality, but that systems made up of multitudes of individuals do. I did need to read the book, though, to learn the specifics behind one such system – that of the production, sale, and use of cocaine and, more specifically, the state of affairs in South America today because of it. I needed to know that because I’m going traveling in Colombia soon, and before I read this book I didn’t even know who Pablo Escobar was. I am much better informed now.
            Cocaine [An Unauthorized Biography] begins with the Incas, who found the leaf of the coca plant, chewed with an alkaloid to activate the stimulant, extremely useful in developing and sustaining their incredibly advanced civilization. From here the book goes on to document the lengthy history of cocaine in the West, from  its discovery by Freud, then other doctors as a “cure” for morphine addiction, to the birth of crack and the narco states in Colombia, Peru, and Beliz, and every step in between. At every point the author consults the primary sources – drug traffickers in the US, England, and South America, historians, doctors, and DEA agents. This is a biography in the fullest sense of the term, and cocaine has had a long life and varied life.
So what’s the takeaway of these 499 pages on cocaine? Mostly Streatfeild’s purpose is to inform, and at first I found his casual, intimate tone at odds with this ambition, but I soon came to understand why the author chose to relate his findings in such a personal, and often humorous, way: the results of his study are astounding, bizarre, horrific – in short, too much to bear alone. After reading the information Streatfeild collects, as well as what he experiences and observes while doing it, the reader finds that she, too, is now responsible for figuring out what it all means.
While Streatfeild withholds his judgment until the end of the book, the massive amount of suffering linked to the “success” of cocaine compels him to eventually take a stance. His thesis, inevitably, is that cocaine is not good for the world, but not for the reasons you think. Streatfeild is no anti-drugs crusader proselytizing about the “evils” of the drug. Instead, he argues that cocaine should be legalized, positing that if it was legal coke’s price would go down, thus lessening the allure of selling it and slaking the frenzy of corruption and violence that has in our time surrounded its production. The “war on drugs,” according to the author, has been misguided at best, idiotic and corrupt at worst. Streatfeild accuses the American government and international agencies of everything from “helping” poor South American farmers by offering loans with outrageous interest rates to switch from growing coca to far less lucrative crops, to dumping a species of fungus engineered to attack coca plants (but later found to mutate and attack other crops as well) on Peruvian coca fields, to, through the Contra scandal, effectively creating the crack “epidemic” in the US. He doesn’t make these accusations hastily or in anger and, once the evidence is presented, the reader, at least this one, finds it hard to disagree with him.  
If you want a simple story about how drugs are bad, drug dealers are evil, and the government has your best interests at heart, you should look elsewhere. If you want in-depth reportage that gets closer to the complicated nature of the reality of drugs and the "war" against them, then this book is for you.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch

The Chronology of Water
Lidia Yuknavitch

At times I wanted to hate this book because it was a memoir that reminded me of me, and I didn’t get a book deal. And no one gave me an award. No, my dad didn’t abuse me, and my mom wasn’t an alcoholic, and I’m not a swimmer. But they did do some pretty messed up things to each other when I was a kid, my parents, and I was a basketball player, and I was an angry, drunk, numbed, death-seeking girl, too, just like Lidia Yuknavitch. But nobody gave me a book deal and I don’t write whole paragraphs that consist of nothing but “goddamn it” and if I did no one would give me an award for it.
I guarantee you.
I wanted to hate it because everybody loved it. And because I’ve loved women, too, you know. You’re not the only bisexual crazy girl out there. You’re not the only fucked up one. And I wanted to hate it because she claims that writing saved her, when half the time it feels like writing, this guilt I have about not-writing, or the shame I have about how bad the writing I do get down actually is, is what’s pushing me further towards the death-drive. How I would just chuck it all and forget about it if I could, if I thought there was anything else. And I wanted to hate it because it was sad and scary and tortured and not even in a pretty package like a novel, just all hanging out there, like real life.
I wanted to hate it but I couldn’t because of the truth and ache of it. Because of chapters like “Distilled,” where she relays the story of her second marriage in what amounts to one long sentence “distilling” the essence of an 11 year relationship, beauty, pleasure, and pain all mixed up in every phrase. And then, from the chapter “Conversion” onward, things get better. That’s when I started to really like it. Okay, I’ll be honest; that’s when I started sniveling with gratitude, sobbing into my roll of toilet paper while I sat outside on an unusually sunny day under a cloudless sky. Because I already know things are fucked up, that people are awful, that we do horrifying things to one another and to ourselves. I’m well versed in that, thank you. Didn’t need somebody else’s memoir to tell me that; I’ve got my own (unpublished) one all about it. What I wanted, what we all want, is the redemption. The moment things start to turn around. And that’s here too. Love, and peace, and “resuscitation.” If this author, this Yuknavitch woman, can accept that a new chance at life is what’s happening to her, maybe I can too. The hard part is it’s not something you accept once and then be done with; happiness – “learning to live on land,” as Yuknavitch puts it – is something you have to come to terms with again and again, every day, until you die, and maybe even after that.
So this book is a memoir, not a novel, and I’m okay with that now. I’m okay with the mess of it particularly because the overarching metaphor of water, swimming, drowning, and floating holds the thing together so, well, fluidly. It seems natural and obvious and perfect. Unlike life, and yet exactly like it, too.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, trans. Thurman

The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Padma Sambhava
Translated  by Robert A.F. Thurman
8th or 9th century

What did I think The Tibetan Book of the Dead would be like? Well, not like what it is, that’s for sure. Yet if I had to say in a general way what I thought before reading it I guess I expected it to disclose some secrets or insights about what happens when we die, and it definitely does do that. According to The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between, as it is known in Tibet, dying is extremely weird, scary, and dangerous. Unlike in Christianity, where it’s what you do before you die that determines what will happen in the in-between (and if you’re Protestant, like I was, then there are only two possibilities) in Tibetan Buddhism the real work of deciding the fate for your next life begins after you’re physical body is dead. That’s not to say that what you do before you die doesn’t matter; it does, but mostly because it either prepares you, or leaves you dangerously unprepared, for what comes after. 

Though Tibetan Buddhists believe that life is “boundless,” and that, since we do not come from nothing and therefore cannot become nothing, our lives must go on in some form, they are nonetheless quite worried about dying. Indeed, because the in-between stage, when a being passes from one life to another, is so fraught with choices, Tibetans are probably even more concerned about death than we are. Thurman tells us, “But the core of Buddha’s discovery was the essential reality of freedom – that underlying the lived reality of existence is the immediacy of total freedom, especially freedom from suffering, from bondage, from ignorance. This essential freedom can be realized by the human mind as its own deepest and most true condition. This realization makes it possible for freedom to prevail over the habitual suffering of personal experience. So the realized individual is thenceforth held apart from suffering; not held in anything, but held out of binding patterns” (14). The death point is one of the opportunities to separate oneself from suffering, but it is also a time and place where “binding patterns” are more comforting and tempting than ever before. Enlightenment realization doesn’t just happen. One has to condition herself in order for non-suffering to become reality. How to do that?

The Great Book of Natural Liberation has a few suggestions. The first, naturally, is to prepare for death during your life. This means, among other things, practicing personal mind control. “In order to create something, first you have to imagine it. And imagination can be extremely powerful in life-between reality,” as well as in this life (14). If one is practiced in imaginative meditation, then he will be better able to deal with the powerful images his mind presents to him in the in-between, and be more prepared to fend them off with calculated ideations of his own.

The second part of the book is the readings and prayers that the living read to the deceased person in order to help them navigate through the six realms of the in-between and make the best choices possible. “For at the death point every being, especially a human being, has the ideal opportunity to discover real freedom from addictive habits, delusive perceptions, and misleading conceptions. Therefore, in Tibetan culture it is considered important to help a loved one through the actual process of death, to avoid distracting and frightening places such as hospital emergency rooms, and to arrange circumstances where the assistants can stay with the body at least for some hours” (120). Though in our culture crying and showing our sadness over death is expected, in Tibetan and other Buddhist societies this type of behavior, at least around the dead person, is frowned upon because it distracts the deceased from the crucial work of navigating the in-between, and may make them cling to the life they’ve left, which is counter-productive in the quest for enlightenment or, if complete freedom cannot be attained, then the best possible rebirth in this or another realm.

The deceased needs her full concentration at the death point because as she traverses the in-between realms beautiful and terrifying images of deities, light, and demons will appear to her. What the prayers in the Book of Natural Liberation remind us is that all of these – pleasant and terrifying – are emanations of our own mind, and it is our reaction to them that will determine our next phase of being. One thing I found really interesting about the translation I read was that while the author described the images of the Buddhist deities and figures in precise detail, he also mentioned again and again that if one was from a different religious background then they should practice becoming comfortable with the gods, angels, and demons from their own tradition, as the images that will appear to you are those that are already in your mind.  So if you’re Christian you will want to spend time visualizing and becoming comfortable with the distressing imagery in the book of Revelations, as well as with the comforting spirit of Jesus Christ as, according to Thurman, these figures can help you find your way to a place of peace and liberation rather than fear, aversion, and clinging when you realize that they are merely images from inside you, and not real in any other way.

I’m very glad I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I feel I have a stronger understanding of Buddhism itself, and have plenty of new ideas about death to process. But I also recommend the book because its central message is one that is useful well before we die, and can be summed up in a single question which I would like to remember to ask myself, and answer honestly, when my mind begins to attack me in my waking, daily life: Is this (problem, image, fear, worry) real, or is it all in my head?