30,000 Years Lost, 20 Years Found

vitruvian_man-001Twenty years ago this month, archeologists discovered Cave de Chauvet Pont d’Arc in southern France, with paintings more than 30,000 years old. Scientists from around the world have digitally mapped the cave, built raised walkways above its floor, and established protocols that limit access to 12 people for eight hours during two 15-day periods each year. These constraints are designed to minimize man’s effect on the site, while accommodating our human itch to explore and comprehend. We cannot know with certainty how our interactions affect a cave that was sealed for thousands of years – there’s no sister cave we can submit to double-blind testing. But I fear these safeguards are an illusion that salves our conscious while enabling us to poke around. Humans cannot simply leave something alone.

images-1Werner Herzog filmed “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” during one research cycle. The 2010 film begins with a sweeping view of Pont d’Arc, leads into the cave, and alternates between illuminating the remarkable images and describing ongoing research taking place there. By film’s end, we understand these paintings through a dual lens: as extraordinary ancestral art, and an exquisite demonstration of our scientific ability to reconstruct the past.

imagesJulien Monney, an archeologist in the film relates the story of a 1970’s Australian aborigine; a man who’s my contemporary age-wise, but the Chauvet Cave painters’ kin in his habits. When the aborigine encounters a faded rock painting, he mixes pigment and rejuvenates it. To him, the painted rock is not a fixed entity with a unique author. It’s a human contribution to the natural world that can deteriorate and be refreshed within nature’s rhythm.

Our response to the paintings at Chauvet has been exactly opposite. Through the researchers interventions, we preserve the cave floor we deem valuable, while violating other areas by erecting a walkway. We collect and analyze charcoal fragments. We chip away and stabilize, but we do not contribute, add or embellish.

images-2Dominique Baffier, Curator of Chauvet Cave, explains what she considers important research findings. She attributes a pattern of red dots on a prominent rock to one specific man, six feet tall with a distinctive thumbprint, yet determines that other paintings contain elements that span five thousand years. A five thousand year timeframe is akin to me, in 2014, contributing stone to an ancient ziggurat.

imgres-2The cave paintings resemble contemporary compositions. Horses with multiple legs and a female pelvis embracing a bull’s head are Picasso and Duchamp’s spare, elegant forebears. I’ll never see them in person, and I never should. But, thanks to the digital age, I can appreciate them through Mr. Herzog’s film, 3-D mappings or the replica constructed a few miles from the cave.

I don’t understand the film’s title, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The cave is not forgotten – it’s found. And forgotten dreams are not accessible to our consciousness, while we’ve spent twenty years applying scientific ‘how’ and ‘what’ to scratch at the spiritual question that plagues us: why.

imgres-1The true cave of forgotten dreams is yet undiscovered. Once found, it will be subjected to the fashionable human prodding’s of that time. If Chauvet Cave had been pried open 5,000 years ago, it might have provided shelter; 500 years ago, an opportunity for plunder; five decades ago, a bonanza for tourism. Instead, the cave was found during a period fixed on preserving and replicating. We revere ancestors by freezing them in time. We coopt them by recreating their 30,000-year-old sanctuary in three years. Are our preservation efforts a tribute to our ancestors, or do we set ourselves above them by refusing to contribute to their collective expression?

We are also left to ponder Herzog’s central question: What is time? We’ve known these paintings for less than one-one-thousandth of their existence. We determine that they’re ancient, yet consider them new because we measure existence from discovery. What is time when more than a thousand generations lapsed between Chauvet Cave ancestors and us, yet aborigine cousins touch up similar paintings in our lifetime? Why do we care that a single man painted red dots while other compositions evolved over millennia? Are our preservation efforts a tribute to our ancestors, or do we set ourselves above them by refusing to contribute to their collective expression?

 

imgresMy gut response to research in the Cave de Chauvet Pont d’Arc is to cease our meddling and seal it back up. But we cannot pretend the cave away; it is found, and humans are compelled to explore. Our constant push to achieve, obtain and understand drives progress. That’s why we dominate this planet, even to the point of endangering its natural balance.

 

What bothers me is our pretension of preservation. Cave de Chauvet Pont d’Arc is a phenomenal example of early man’s capabilities. Our analytical bent and technical prowess dictate that we study it rather than add our hand to it. But we’re only kidding ourselves in believing that our walkways and lasers and simple presence don’t alter this remarkable place. We make our mark by keeping our hands off, but future generations will know we were here.

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This essay was published December 18, 2014 by WBUR Cognoscenti under the title: “Ancient Cave Drawings, Modern Science, and the Pretense of Preservation”.

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Return to Haiti: Saint Boniface Hospital Infectious Disease Pavilion

haiti-001I am off to Haiti early Monday morning, taking a familiar trip that I haven’t made in over a year. I’ll be traveling with Conor Shapiro, Executive Director of Saint Boniface Hospital in Fond des Blancs, the largest hospital in Haiti’s southern peninsula, and acute care center for children from Be Like Brit orphanage and Mission of Hope School.

I’ve been working with Conor and others from Saint Boniface for several months designing a TB and infectious disease pavilion as well as an expansion of the their emergency department / operating suite. We received funding from USAID for the infectious disease pavilion, and so are making a site visit to coordinate design details with site conditions and local clinicians. We hope the ED/OR expansion will be funded soon.

images-2This is an exciting project that will offer improved health care for the two million people in the southern peninsula. But it also represents the changing face of design and construction in Haiti – at least in my personal experience.

These projects, funded by international aid agencies rather than local initiatives, are organized along the lines of design and construction we have in the United States. I’ll develop the design, but won’t be doing direct construction work as I did in my projects after the earthquake; there are local and American construction teams for that. This reflects more sophisticated project delivery for Haiti, but less hands-on work for me.

DSCN2136I am also going to have two days in Grand Goave; a chance to visit Dieunison and Dieurie and other friends there. Fortunately, Lex and Renee have a list of things for me to do. They know how I hate to just sit around visiting. I love Haiti, but I lack the social gene so common among Haitians.

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Seeking Fives from a Machine that Spits Twenties and Hundreds

usa-001I needed a bunch of fives and tens to make change for a yard sale. My local Bank of America had closed, replaced by a new Express Banking Center down the road. A cheerful woman in a tailored suit greeted me as I walked in. One shiny red wall boasted two ATM’s plus two clunky protrusions jutting into the lobby at counter height. I withdrew $200 from the ATM and received ten $20 bills, as I expected. I walked to the reception desk and asked a second woman if I could get change.

“We don’t have any money in this bank, except what’s in the machines.” She pointed to the bigger machines. “If you use the remote teller, it can distribute fives and tens.”

images-1I followed instructions to make a withdrawal from the cantilevered machine. I anticipated a screen command to request my preferred denominations, but it never displayed. Out came five twenties and a hundred dollar bill. Now I had four hundred dollars but no small bills. I returned to the woman at the counter.

“You have to talk with the remote teller. He or she can distribute smaller bills.”

“You might have told me that before I took out another $200.” My voice must have notched up, because a third woman emerged from the back, eyeing me as a problem customer. Now, the counter woman rose from her chair and escorted me to the machine. I pushed the remote teller button and told the smiling face I wanted five and tens. He explained only fives were available. Fine by me.

I added forty, five-dollar bills to the stack already in my hand and a trio of electronic receipts. The three gracious women eyed me from arms distance.

“Can I get you an envelope for all that cash?”

“No”, I replied, stuffing it into my wallet, now too fat to fold.

“You can redeposit the extra cash you took out.”

At that moment, I was more inclined to remove all my money from Bank of America rather than give any back. I certainly didn’t want to confront another machine. “In the future, better customer service would be to explain how the machine works before people make unwanted withdrawals.”

The woman smiled robotically, but didn’t apologize or acknowledge any value in my comment.

When I leave the bank with money in my pocket I usually feel rich, light-footed and flush. This time, my engorged wallet weighed me down, stuffed but unsatisfied.

Yet how unsatisfying it must be for the three women standing in that pristine, so-called bank. Cashiers with no cash, relegated to directing customers to a disembodied head for simple transactions. Transactions they could surely perform themselves, if only Bank of America would let them.

Who is being served in this machine-centric facility staffed by humans neutered of their purpose? I do most of my banking electronically, but when I need a teller I want a live person, not a face on a screen. Although they might have offered better direction, I felt sorry for the attendants, vestige ornaments of a time when humans actually performed functions rather than loitering in service to the machine.

imagesMaybe my Express Bank is more secure for Bank of America. Maybe it’s more accurate than having human tellers with pesky cash drawers. I can foresee that once the new ‘bank’ is open for some time the three staff people will be reduced two then one, and eventually the facility will operate without any human interface.

 

POSTSCRIPT

The next day I received a survey from Bank of America about my experience at their new Express Banking Center. It included ten specific questions about my interaction with the machine. Not a single query about my experience with the actual people they employed in that space.

 

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Yoga: Practice and Teach

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I have two regular teaching yoga gigs!

 

 

imagesEvery Tuesday night at the Cambridge YMCA I teach 75 minutes of Form and Flow. The class is free to YMCA members, but my guests can come for $10, and use the rest of the facilities as well.

 

 

Alternating Sundays, starting December 14, and continuing January 4, January 18… I am teaching a 90-minute men’s vinyasa class. This by-invitation-only group was where I took my first yoga class almost ten years ago! Most of the practitioners are middle-aged men, though men of any age and condition. Spoiler alert: a naturist founded this group; we practice naked. If this sounds erotic, it isn’t. However, it really helps practitioners to align their body.

I am still aimages-1s novice as a teacher, finding my own voice, as they say. I lack the confidence of people who’ve been teaching ten, even twenty years; and the certitude of teachers who adhere to a particular discipline. I find that teaching enhances my own practice – I concentrate on the particulars and logistics of the classes I take in a fresh way. And the feedback I get from students reinforces that my teaching – very structured and high energy, like me – is improving all the time, as I find it easier to align my class with the yoga experience in the studio.

If you’re interested in coming to a YMCA class, contact me at fallonpaule@gmail.com. If you’re interested in the Sunday men’s group, contact Bob Sparling at yoga4men@comcast.net.

 

 

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10 Gay Sensibilities on Parade Over Thanksgiving Weekend

usa-001Over the four day Thanksgiving weekend I recognized gay sensibilities integrated into every aspect of our culture. After six decades on this planet, I’m thankful that, for many of us, being gay in America allows our fullest expression. My dream for next Thanksgiving is that everyone can enjoy such latitude.

 

imgres1. High Kicks and Show Tunes. The Macy’s Day Parade plays on the television while I put the turkey in the oven. I stop basting to watch Broadway snippets by Tony Danza (really?), Idina Menzel, and the Rockettes kick line. Love those silver shoes.

images2. Grandmother’s Dishes. My housemate and I have a cupboard full of china and silver that none of our siblings wanted. Our Thanksgiving table sparkles with crystal candlesticks, flower embellished china, and curlicued silver. We use the Greek motif set for dessert.

IMG_10843. Mix and Match. Hosting Boys in the Band style all-male events is passé. Three gay men join us for dinner, along with a pair of female friends and a few straight guys. What none of us share are blood relations – everyone at our Thanksgiving feast is a transplant from somewhere else.

images-14. Let Them Eat Cake. The ethos of the skinny gay guy is kaput. We are as thin and fat, grey and gravity worn as everybody else. Seven pies and a gigantic red velvet cake spread across our Thanksgiving dessert buffet. We indulge in every one of them.

imgres5. Antiquated Homoeroticism. On Friday I take in Foxcatcher. Channing Tatum’s lumbering, inarticulate jock reminds me of guys I admired and feared in high school. Steve Carell’s creepy John DuPont makes me squirm; I recall inhabiting skin that provides no comfort. The erotic dissonance of their wrestling relationship is palpable, but dated as Mark Ruffalo’s aviator glasses.

images6. Yoga Sculpt. Saturday morning I take my usual yoga sculpt class. I lay my mat before the front mirror, wear only skimpy compression shorts, pump the heaviest hand weights, and drench my towel in sweat. The thirty young Lululemon women arrayed behind me are accustomed to my deep squats in their midst.

images7. Sing Along Time. Saturday afternoon, two friends and I invade the balcony of an old vaudeville theater for the Mary Poppins Sing-Along; the only grownups without a toddler in tow. Then again, no one is really at grownup on a jolly holiday with Mary. I tear when the family runs off to fly kites while Julie Andrews rises to the clouds.


imgres-18. Liberal Guilt Trip
. On Saturday night my housemate and I attend Eve Ensler’s new play, O.P.C., at the A.R.T. Less a play than a polemic; it suffers from too many judgments against a world of too much trash. When the lights come up we shake our heads among the middle-aged couples who wonder what we did to deserve such a scold. Eve needs to learn that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

images9. Gym with Guys. Sunday afternoon is Gold’s Gym time – stretching and a triceps workout followed by twenty minutes of cardio. Unlike yoga women who exercise toward the back of the studio, gym boys strut and pose in front of their mirrors. I run my paces on the treadmill with the best view of the free-weight floor and enjoy their grunts and presses as much as they do.

images-110. NFL Time. I wind up my weekend like most Americans – watching football with buds: Patriots versus Green Bay. True, we have hors d’oeuvres rather than chips, wine as well as beer, and spend as much time analyzing physiques as play action. But when the Pats go down 26-21, we’re just as despondent as any fans.

 

With so many gay sensibilities infiltrating our society, I can foresee a time when so-called ‘gay sensibilities’ will disappear. Being who we are without wearing a gay label is not a loss I fear; it’s a dream I embrace.

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Past Peak

vitruvian_man-001Fall foliage peaks around these parts in October, when hillsides display New England’s calendar splendor; giant arcs of brilliant red and orange leaves holding firm to their branches. But I prefer November’s starker beauty, when more leaves lie underfoot than hang overhead. The stragglers still clinging to their life-source are too few, too fragile, too sallow to conceal the dark trunks and branches silhouetted against the slanting sun. They remind me of myself: past prime and, by most economic measures, practically past purpose. Yet, in their diminished form and number, these leaves reflect autumn’s weak light with greater dazzle. They are also all that stand between us and full-on winter.

IMG_1051I am not old; it will be years before I’m the gaunt silhouette of a winter human. I’m middle-aged; a term that our youth-obsessed culture only applies when our middle years have, in fact, already passed.

Just as global warming pushes peak foliage deeper into autumn, so too our longer life spans change our perceptions of age and time. I grew up in the era when we distrusted anyone over the age of thirty; everything worthwhile belonged to the young. A recent survey reports that we don’t achieve optimal happiness until the age of 33. But the reality of aging is more complex than a single year can connote. The Atlantic Monthly reveals the magic of the U-Curve, while Britain’s Daily Mail contends that happiness dips in our thirties and forties, only to tick up from age 50 and peak at age 85!

I’ve never laughed as long or hard as I did during my teens and twenties, but I prefer the more balanced happiness – call it contentment – that arrived in my forties and fifties. Most of my friends are in their sixties; soon, I’ll join their ranks.

We still talk about bigIMG_1057 issues: the state of our economy, the direction of our nation, the health of our planet. But our personal health demands more discussion, dissection and diagnosis than before. Traditional career satisfactions are behind us; we’ve either retired or moved into holding patterns pending Social Security. We speak in the past tense more than in the future one. A decade ago, we juggled careers and children and aging parents. Now, our parents are deceased; our children are grown; our grandchildren have yet to arrive. As those immediate demands diminished, then evaporated, life became more leisurely, open-ended and satisfying.

It’s been almost a year since I left paid-work. My son was the first person to label me retired, but I’ve come to embrace the word. Freed from pursing a paycheck, I’ve published a book, become a yoga teacher, taken up massage, joined a gym and tutored immigrants. I have the time to visit any friend who lands in the hospital, but I can relax into a novel whenever the urge strikes me.

I’m not as actively engaged in the world as when I battled downtown traffic every day and lent my hand to designing hospitals. Six hours of sleep was the norm then. These days, I always get seven or eight, sometimes 10.

IMG_1058I am like that November leaf[, depleted of the chlorophyll that once made it verdant, but full of carotene, the less robust but more stable pigment in yellow leaves. My contributions, like the faded leaf, are subtler than during the mid-summer of my life, but they are more gentle and personal, too. A golden leaf dangles from its withered stem. The sun shines upon it, and I feel splendid in its fleeting light.

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This essay was originally published in WBUR Cognoscenti titled ‘A Starker Beauty: Embracing the Autumn of One’s Life’, on November 29, 2014.

 

 

 

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Giving Thanks for the Unexpected

haiti-001Of the many, many things I have to be thankful for today, Dieunison stands out as the most unexpected blessing in my life. When he adopted me in 2010 I could not have realized how much he would personify everything fantastic and tragic about Haiti. He became the narrative thread of my Haitian adventure described in Architecture by Moonlight and its most popular character. He’s captivated readers of Boston Globe Magazine and was the featured essay this month on Medium. Today he and his brother Dieurie are heads taller than when I first met them, live in a secure house, have regular meals and education (thank you, Lex and Renee Edme and everyone at Mission of Hope). They may be awkward 13 and 14 teenagers still grappling with third and fourth grade, but their opportunities have never been brighter.

Fortunately, none of these ‘improvements’ have altered Dieunison’s fundamental character – he is still a mischievous cut-up and natural heart breaker. He charms and confounds everyone who crosses his path. Dieunison recently captivated Sean Collins, a Mission of Hope volunteer, with a studious side I have never seen yet always knew existed within his clever spirit. Using yet another derivative spelling of this chameleon’s name, Sean writes in his blog:

141010 Dieunison on Library FloorSome of the kids have definitely been a big inspiration too.  With the class of younger kids most of them just want to play math games and take pictures.  But one kid in particular is too fascinated by the world around him to be caught up in that sort of mindless entertainment.  Dionson (pronounced Jenson) is a 13 year old boy whose bright mind and thirst for knowledge has truly amazed me.  All class he sits and reads the French Wikipedia pages.  He’s on a new topic every day and never stops asking questions.  Together we’ve explored sounds, light, the stars, the planets, force, and a few other aspects of the natural world.  After the second day of class he begged me to let him keep the laptop out a little longer.  I of course said yes and he went with me to the room where I charge the laptops.  A few minutes later one of his friends appeared and asked if he could use a laptop.  I told him he could only use one if he used it to read.  He agreed to my terms and booted up his own machine.  After about 30 minutes I had a group of 5 all laying on the carpet eagerly exploring Wikipedia.  Dionson is a brilliant young mind and I hope the other kids continue to follow in his footsteps.

I never take for granted the many gifts in my life. But Dieunison infiltrated my soul so unexpectedly he is a unique gift. I have promised him and his brother Dieurie that when they graduate high school, I will bring them to visit the United States. That is years away, but I can already envision what joyful chaos he will create at our Thanksgiving feast.

DSCN2136Dieunison and his brother Dieurie

 

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