Thursday, July 29 Nine Circles of Hell!

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The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Thursday, July 29, are:

Obama continues backing off promise to enhance civil liberties

“Tax-cheating boor” got millions in expenses from body armor maker

Fear sparked by Arizona immigration law hurting state’s economy

Does our ‘deadly mismatch between predator and prey’ doom fish?

Shell’s CEO defends offshore oil drilling as profits nearly double

Russia says new sanctions undermine Iran nuke program settlement

Fires, smoke, heat devastating Russia

Deadly Iraq war continues

What’s all this about ayahuasca, ‘The Vine of the Soul’?

Obama continues backing off campaign promise to enhance civil liberties
The Washington Post
(7/29/10)

White House proposal would ease FBI access to records of Internet activity

The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual’s Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.

The administration wants to add just four words — “electronic communication transactional records” — to a list of items that the law says the FBI may demand without a judge’s approval. Government lawyers say this category of information includes the addresses to which an Internet user sends e-mail; the times and dates e-mail was sent and received; and possibly a user’s browser history. It does not include, the lawyers hasten to point out, the “content” of e-mail or other Internet communication.

But what officials portray as a technical clarification designed to remedy a legal ambiguity strikes industry lawyers and privacy advocates as an expansion of the power the government wields through so-called national security letters. These missives, which can be issued by an FBI field office on its own authority, require the recipient to provide the requested information and to keep the request secret. They are the mechanism the government would use to obtain the electronic records.

Stewart A. Baker, a former senior Bush administration Homeland Security official, said the proposed change would broaden the bureau’s authority. “It’ll be faster and easier to get the data,” said Baker, who practices national security and surveillance law. “And for some Internet providers, it’ll mean giving a lot more information to the FBI in response to an NSL.”

Many Internet service providers have resisted the government’s demands to turn over electronic records, arguing that surveillance law as written does not allow them to do so, industry lawyers say. One senior administration government official, who would discuss the proposed change only on condition of anonymity, countered that “most” Internet or e-mail providers do turn over such data.

To critics, the move is another example of an administration retreating from campaign pledges to enhance civil liberties in relation to national security. The proposal is “incredibly bold, given the amount of electronic data the government is already getting,” said Michelle Richardson, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel.

The critics say its effect would be to greatly expand the amount and type of personal data the government can obtain without a court order. “You’re bringing a big category of data — records reflecting who someone is communicating with in the digital world, Web browsing history and potentially location information — outside of judicial review,” said Michael Sussmann, a Justice Department lawyer under President Bill Clinton who now represents Internet and other firms.

“Tax-cheating boor” got millions in expenses from body armor maker
The New York Times
(7/28/10)

At Military Contractor’s Trial, a $100,000 Buckle

Several years ago, David H. Brooks, the chief executive and chairman of a body-armor company enriched by United States military contracts, became fixated on the idea of a memory-erasing pill.

It was not just fanciful curiosity. A veterinarian who cared for his stable of racehorses said Mr. Brooks continually talked about the subject, pressing him repeatedly to supply the pill. According to Dr. Seth Fishman, the veterinarian, Mr. Brooks said he had a specific recipient in mind: Dawn Schlegel, the former chief financial officer of the company he led until 2006, DHB Industries.

There is no memory-erasing pill. And so Mr. Brooks sat and listened this year as Ms. Schlegel, her memory apparently intact and keen, spent 23 days testifying against him in a highly unusual trial in United States District Court on Long Island that has been highlighted by sweeping accusations of fraud, insider trading, and company-financed personal extravagance.

DHB, which specialized in making body armor used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, paid for more than $6 million in personal expenses on behalf of Mr. Brooks, covering items as expensive as luxury cars and as prosaic as party invitations, Ms. Schlegel testified.

Also included were university textbooks for his daughter, pornographic videos for his son, plastic surgery for his wife, a burial plot for his mother, prostitutes for his employees, and, for him, a $100,000 American-flag belt buckle encrusted with rubies, sapphires and diamonds.

The expense-account abuse, the prosecution has said, represented a pittance compared with the $190 million that Mr. Brooks and another top employee are accused of making through a stock fraud scheme in which he falsified information about his company’s performance — including significantly overstating the inventory of bulletproof vests — to inflate the price of the stock before selling his shares in 2004.

As a whole, the accusations might present just another cautionary tale of excess and entitlement in a powerful individual, but Mr. Brooks’s story stands out because of details and characters that give it the strange and sordid depth of a long-running soap opera.

“What makes it interesting isn’t that there is anything novel legally about it, but just how egregious this guy’s alleged behavior is, how gross the abuses are and how much greed is involved,” said Meredith R. Miller, an associate law professor at Touro College in Central Islip, N.Y. “Add in what the company does — the fact that this is a military contractor — and the facts are really interesting,” she said.

Lawyers for Mr. Brooks have repeatedly pressed for a mistrial, accusing the prosecution of highlighting irrelevant evidence to portray Mr. Brooks “as a sex-obsessed, tax-cheating boor.”

Fear sparked by Arizona immigration law hurting state’s economy
CNN
(7/29/10)

Specter of Arizona immigration law slowly drains economy

Firm numbers illuminating the economic fallout of SB 1070 are hard to come by as the bill has yet to take effect. Also, summer tends to be slow for business and tourism in Arizona because it’s so hot.

But anecdotal evidence from business owners, real estate agents and community leaders indicates the mere specter of the bill has created a culture of fear among Hispanics in Arizona that’s slowly paralyzing sectors of the economy. Hispanics make up 30 percent of the state’s population.

The state’s unemployment rate in June rose for the third month in a row, to 9.7 percent. Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill in April.

Traditionally, community groups look to indicators such as the housing market, school enrollment and data from utility companies to track economic fluctuations within a certain group, said Edmundo Hidalgo, president and CEO of Chicanos Por La Causa, a community outreach program in Phoenix.

Based on feedback from clients and preliminary data, Hidalgo said his group estimates that rental vacancies in predominantly Latino neighborhoods will be 10 to 15 percent higher than the normal rate of 12 percent.

“People are scared, and they don’t want to wait around to find out what’s going to happen with SB 1070,” said Hidalgo, whose group offers housing, economic and education services to low-income families and individuals, both undocumented and U.S.-born.

“Regardless of their status, people are frustrated with an environment that’s not accepting and potentially threatening, and they’re fed up with being targeted and singled out by law enforcement. It’s driving them out of the state, and not necessarily to better situations.”

The Arizona housing market, which was already suffering from one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, has also taken an extra hit since the passage of the law, according to real estate agents who spoke with CNN …

Not only businesses targeting the Latino community are suffering. Economic boycotts adopted by other states and cities have hit Arizona’s meeting and convention business.

Since groups nationwide began announcing boycotts of the state because of SB 1070, at least 40 meetings have been canceled. That’s resulted in the loss of $12 million in lodging alone, according to Kristen Jarnagin, spokeswoman for the Arizona Hotel & Lodging Association.

Summer is typically the low season, she noted, and pointed out that tourism was up 8 percent statewide in June 2010 compared with June 2009, which was one of the “worst summers ever” because of the recession.

Despite that slight uptick, more telling is the lack of inquiries for future bookings, she said.

“What we’re hearing from meeting planners now is they won’t and can’t consider Arizona for 2011, 2012 meetings not necessarily because of their own stance on SB 1070 or the boycott but just because they want to avoid the controversy and don’t want to risk losing attendance,” she said.

The absence of meetings and conventions not only affects the hotel industry and its 200,000 employees, but also ancillary businesses such as restaurants, retailers and taxis, Jarnagin said.

It seems that not even fast-food joints are immune to the encroaching economic fallout of SB 1070.

Does our ‘deadly mismatch between predator and prey’ doom fish?
The New Yorker
(8/2/10)

The Scales Fall

If the Atlantic bluefin tuna were the first species to be fished into oblivion, its destruction would be shameful. But, of course, its story has become routine. Cod, once so plentiful off the coast of Newfoundland that they could be scooped up in baskets, are now scarce. The same goes for halibut, haddock, swordfish, marlin, and skate; it’s been calculated that stocks of large predatory fish have declined by ninety per cent in the past half century. In 1943, Rachel Carson was a young biologist working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when she wrote a booklet titled “Food from the Sea.” The point of the boosterish guide was to convince American consumers of the delectableness of fish like the wolffish, an enormous creature with a bulbous head, big teeth, and an eel-like body. Wolffish is “one of New England’s underexploited fishes, a condition that will be corrected when housewives discover its excellence,” Carson wrote. Apparently, she was so persuasive—and bottom trawling so wrecked its habitat—that the wolffish is now considered a threatened species.

The sorry state of ocean life has led to a new kind of fish story—a lament not for the one that got away but for the countless others that didn’t. In “Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish” (St. Martin’s; $25.99), David Helvarg notes that each year sharks kill some five to eight humans worldwide; meanwhile we kill a hundred million of them. Dean Bavington, the author of “Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse” (University of British Columbia; $94), observes that two hundred billion pounds’ worth of cod were taken from Canada’s Grand Banks before 1992, when the cod simply ran out. In “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” (Penguin Press; $25.95), Paul Greenberg estimates that somewhere in the range of a hundred million salmon larvae used to hatch in the Connecticut River each year. Now the number’s a lot easier to pin down: it’s zero. “The broad, complex genetic potential of the Connecticut River salmon,” Greenberg writes, has “vanished from the face of the earth.”

If the Atlantic bluefin tuna were the first species to be fished into oblivion, its destruction would be shameful. But, of course, its story has become routine. Cod, once so plentiful off the coast of Newfoundland that they could be scooped up in baskets, are now scarce. The same goes for halibut, haddock, swordfish, marlin, and skate; it’s been calculated that stocks of large predatory fish have declined by ninety per cent in the past half century. In 1943, Rachel Carson was a young biologist working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when she wrote a booklet titled “Food from the Sea.” The point of the boosterish guide was to convince American consumers of the delectableness of fish like the wolffish, an enormous creature with a bulbous head, big teeth, and an eel-like body. Wolffish is “one of New England’s underexploited fishes, a condition that will be corrected when housewives discover its excellence,” Carson wrote. Apparently, she was so persuasive—and bottom trawling so wrecked its habitat—that the wolffish is now considered a threatened species.

The sorry state of ocean life has led to a new kind of fish story—a lament not for the one that got away but for the countless others that didn’t. In “Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish” (St. Martin’s; $25.99), David Helvarg notes that each year sharks kill some five to eight humans worldwide; meanwhile we kill a hundred million of them. Dean Bavington, the author of “Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse” (University of British Columbia; $94), observes that two hundred billion pounds’ worth of cod were taken from Canada’s Grand Banks before 1992, when the cod simply ran out. In “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” (Penguin Press; $25.95), Paul Greenberg estimates that somewhere in the range of a hundred million salmon larvae used to hatch in the Connecticut River each year. Now the number’s a lot easier to pin down: it’s zero. “The broad, complex genetic potential of the Connecticut River salmon,” Greenberg writes, has “vanished from the face of the earth” …

The Great International Fisheries Exhibition, which took place in London in 1883, was a celebration of all things piscatorial. More than two thousand exhibitors from around the world displayed herring nets and salmon ladders, trout rods and eel spears, life buoys and lamprey baskets. Awards—dozens of them were bestowed—included twenty pounds sterling for the best collection of smoked fish, twenty-five pounds for the best model of a sailing trawler, and ten pounds for the “best Apparatus for, or Method of, protecting Young Brood and Oysters against Dog Whelks and other natural enemies.”

Thomas Huxley, who is now mostly remembered for being an early supporter of Charles Darwin, was at the time the president of Britain’s Royal Society, and he delivered the exhibition’s opening address. As his topic, Huxley chose the question “Are fisheries exhaustible? That is to say, can all the fish which naturally inhabit a given area be extirpated by the agency of man?” The answer, Huxley decided, was a qualified no. Although people might be able to wipe out the salmon in a certain stream by throwing a net across it “in such a manner as to catch every salmon that tries to go up and every smolt that tries to go down,” conditions in the ocean were altogether different.

“Probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish,” Huxley declared. To the extent that there was a problem with the fishing industry, it was due to its “relative backwardness.” Fishing, Huxley said, had failed “to keep pace with the rapid improvement of almost every other branch of industrial occupation in modern times” and still lagged “very far behind scientific agriculture . . . as to the application of machinery.”

Huxley’s views dominated thinking about fisheries for most of the next century. In 1955, Francis Minot, the director of the Marine and Fisheries Engineering Research Institute, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, co-wrote a book titled “The Inexhaustible Sea.” As yet, he observed, “we do not know the ocean well enough. Much must still be learned. Nevertheless, we are already beginning to understand that what it has to offer extends beyond the limits of our imagination.” In 1964, the annual global catch totalled around fifty million tons; a U.S. Interior Department report from that year predicted that it could be “increased at least tenfold without endangering aquatic stocks.” Three years later, the department revised its estimate; the catch could be increased not by a factor of ten but by a factor of forty, to two billion tons a year. This, it noted, would be enough to feed the world’s population ten times over. Michael L. Weber observes, in “From Abundance to Scarcity” (2002), that as recently as the nineteen-nineties U.S. policy was predicated “on the belief that the ocean’s productivity was almost limitless.”

In the meantime, “machinery” beyond Huxley’s wildest imagining was being developed. Purse seines were introduced in the nineteen-thirties. These giant nets can be played out around entire schools of fish, then gathered up with drawstrings, like huge laundry bags. Factory freezer trawlers, developed after the Second World War, grew to be so gargantuan that they amounted to, in effect, seafaring towns. In the nineteen-fifties, many fleets added echo-sounding sonar, which can detect fish schools long before they surface. Today, specially designed buoys known as “fish aggregating devices,” or FADs, are deployed to attract species like yellowfin tuna and blue marlin. So-called “smart” FADs come equipped with sonar and G.P.S., so operators can detect from afar whether they are, in fact, surrounded by fish.

In the short term, the new technology worked, much as Huxley had predicted, to swell catches. But only in the short term. In the late nineteen-eighties, the total world catch topped out at around eighty-five million tons, which is to say, roughly 1.9 billion tons short of the Interior Department’s most lunatic estimate. This milestone—the point of what might be called “peak fish”—was passed without anyone’s quite realizing it, owing to inflated catch figures from the Chinese. (These fishy figures were later exposed as politically motivated fabrications.) For the past two decades, the global catch has been steadily declining. It is estimated that the total take is dropping by around five hundred thousand tons a year …

The new fish stories can be read as parables about technology. What was, once upon a time, a stable relationship between predator and prey was transformed by new “machinery” into a deadly mismatch. This reading isn’t so much wrong as misleading. To paraphrase the old N.R.A. favorite, FADs don’t kill fish, people do …

At this point, there are probably no new fishing grounds to be discovered, or, to use Rachel Carson’s phrase, any “underexploited fishes” to start serving for dinner. (In parts of Asia, jellyfish are already considered a delicacy.) After the collapse of so many freshwater fish, migratory fish, oceanic fish, and groundfish, like the wolffish, it might seem that we’ve finally reached the end of the line.

And yet this is never where the new fish stories, or stories about the fish stories, wind up. Just when things seem bleakest, hope—dolphinlike—swims into the picture. David Helvarg concludes his memoir-cum-ecological-disaster narrative “Saved by the Sea” by declaring that, owing to a new attitude in Washington, things seem “to be looking up for the ocean.” Similarly, Roberts closes his chronicle of more than a millennium of overfishing by asserting, “We can restore the life and habits of the sea because it is in everyone’s interest that we do so.”

The way to keep fishing, according to Roberts, lies in not fishing—or, at least, in not fishing everywhere. He proposes that huge swaths of the sea be set aside as so-called “marine protected areas,” or M.P.A.s, where most commercial activity would be prohibited. In “Four Fish,” Paul Greenberg argues that the salvation of wild fish lies in farmed ones, though not in the kind you’ll find on ice at Stop & Shop. (Today, most farmed fish are fed on wild-caught fish, a practice that only exacerbates the problem.) Greenberg is a believer in what’s sometimes called “smart aquaculture,” and thinks we should be eating species like Pangasius hypophthalmus, commonly known as tra. Tra happily feed on human waste and were originally kept in Southeast Asia to dispose of the contents of outhouses. Michael Weber, the author of “From Abundance to Scarcity,” is encouraged by the introduction of new regulatory mechanisms such as “individual transferable quotas,” or I.T.Q.s. The idea behind I.T.Q.s is that if fishermen are granted a marketable stake in the catch they will have a greater economic interest in preserving it.

M.P.A.s, smart aquaculture, and I.T.Q.s—these are all worthy proposals that, if instituted on a large enough scale, would probably make a difference. As Roberts notes, it is in “everyone’s interest” to take the steps needed to prevent an ocean-wide slide into slime. But it is also in everyone’s interest to save the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Still, it is being fished to the edge of extinction, which is why a hopeful ending is not always the most convincing one.

Shell’s CEO defends offshore oil drilling as profits nearly double
BBC News
(7/29/10)

Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon profits almost double

Second-quarter profits at oil giant Royal Dutch Shell have almost doubled after the firm completed a year-long corporate restructuring programme.

The firm reported profits of $4.5bn (£2.9bn) on a current cost of supplies basis, up from $2.3bn a year ago.

Chief executive Peter Voser also defended deep sea oil drilling in the wake of rival BP’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, US oil giant Exxon Mobil reported quarterly profits of $7.6bn.

This was a rise of 85% on the $4.1bn it posted a year earlier. Revenue rose to $92.5bn, 23% higher than the $72.5bn it made a year ago.

The profits are in sharp contrast to crisis hit rival BP who earlier this week reported a record $17bn second-quarter loss. This included a provision of $32bn to cover the costs of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shell’s chief executive said the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April and the subsequent oil spill had been a tragedy.

However, he added: “Worldwide deep water production has an important role to play in the global energy supply equation, with potential for production growth with supply diversity and sustained investment in technology, jobs and services.”

In contrast to BP, who suspended dividends for the rest of the year, Shell said it would pay a second quarter dividend of $0.42 per share …

Richard Hunter, head of UK equities at stockbrokers Hargreaves Lansdown, said Shell’s update underlined the “stark difference in fortunes of the UK’s two oil majors”.

“Whereas its fierce rival BP has been the subject of forced introspection, Shell has continued to drive its own prospects forward,” he commented.

“Refining margins are improving, the restructuring programme continues apace and the proposed sale of assets will enable a more focused strategy in the future.”

Russia says new sanctions undermine Iran nuke program settlement
Reuters
(7/27/10)

Russia says new EU sanctions on Iran “unacceptable”

Russia condemned new EU sanctions on Iran on Tuesday, tempering hopes of closer cooperation between Moscow and the West over Iran’s nuclear programme.

EU foreign ministers on Monday approved a range of extra restrictions on Iran that went well beyond U.N. sanctions agreed last month. They included a ban on dealing with Iranian banks and insurance companies as well as steps to prevent investment in Tehran’s lucrative oil and gas sector.

“This not only undermines our joint efforts to seek a political and diplomatic settlement around Iran’s nuclear programme, but also shows disdain for the carefully calibrated and coordinated provisions of the UN Security Council resolutions,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The use of sanctions outside of the UN Security Council framework is “unacceptable,” the statement said.

The statement also criticised unilateral U.S. sanctions approved by Congress on June 24 aimed at squeezing Iran’s energy and banking sectors. The EU and U.S. moves “display their disdain for the principles of collaboration,” it said.

The comments show that despite a deterioration in ties between Tehran and Moscow this year, significant disagreements with the West remain.

Fires, smoke, heat devastating Russia
The New York Times
(7/29/10)

From Fires to Fish, Heat Wave Batters Russia

Ivan Tyurkin trudged along a pier and surveyed the breeding ponds all around him. He did not need a thermometer to know that the water was treacherously tepid. Dead trout, drifting like buoys, were evidence enough.

Last month, they were flipping and flopping and leaping, and Mr. Tyurkin was readying for another bountiful harvest at the Biserovsky Fish Farm in this suburb of Moscow. But now, after weeks of a merciless heat wave that has found seemingly endless ways of wreaking havoc across much of Russia, the farm was in crisis.

“This is all just very difficult to believe,” Mr. Tyurkin said. “There has never been a summer like this. Never. Not once.”

That is a widely held view in Russia, a country that proudly swaggers about during the most brutal of winters, but can be ill prepared when the sun blazes. All week long, temperatures have been soaring to records, and on Thursday, they reached a new high for Moscow, 100 degrees. July has been the hottest month since the city began taking such measurements 130 years ago, officials said.

Much of Russia has been similarly affected. Forest fires have erupted. Drought has ruined millions of acres of wheat. More than 2,000 people have died from drowning in rivers, reservoirs and elsewhere in July and June, often after seeking relief from the heat while intoxicated. In Moscow alone, the number of such deaths has tripled in comparison with last year, officials said.

Here is how extreme it has become: Oymyakon in Eastern Siberia is considered one of the coldest places on Earth, with winter temperatures dropping to as low as minus 90 degrees. On Thursday, the thermometer also read 90 degrees. Plus 90. In the evening.

New York, Washington and many other cities in the United States have certainly suffered from their own heat waves. But most Russians do not have air-conditioners, reasoning that they are not worth the investment given the typical summers here.

As if the heat were not enough, Moscow has lately been coated with a patina of smoke from fires that have broken out in dried-up peat bogs in the suburbs. Throw open a window in a desperate bid to catch a breeze and the unpleasant smell of smoke bounds in. One of the country’s chief medical authorities estimated that walking around Moscow for a few hours was the equivalent of smoking a pack or two of cigarettes …

When the heat wave hit Russia, agriculture seemed the first to fall victim across much of the country, with officials predicting that grain production could decline by as much as 25 percent. Now, fish farms like Biserovsky are struggling to keep their stocks alive …

Mr. Tyurkin explained that trout thrive in water that is 55 to 62 degrees. In recent days, the water temperature has spiked to as high as 85 degrees near the surface. The trout swim deeper to seek cooler water, but the lower they go, the less oxygen is available. They either overheat or suffocate.

Deadly Iraq war continues
CNN
(7/29/10)

Violence targeting Iraqi military kills at least 21

Attacks on military posts and police stations in Iraq claimed at least 21 lives Thursday.

At least three Iraqi soldiers were killed and eight others wounded when a suicide bomber driving a mini-truck loaded with explosives hit an Iraqi military post in the town of Shirqat, police in Tikrit said. The town is located about 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Baghdad.

Hours later, two parked car bombs targeting Iraqi army patrols exploded within 30 minutes of each other in Falluja. The blasts killed two Iraqi soldiers and wounded 10 others, police and hospital officials said. Falluja is a Sunni town, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Baghdad.

In a separate attack, shooting and roadside bomb explosions in northeast Baghdad killed 16 people, including six Iraqi soldiers and three policemen, and wounded 14 others, officials said.

What’s all this about ayahuasca, ‘The Vine of the Soul’?
Macleans
(7/27/10)

Ayahuasca: that South American drug everyone’s raving about

For a couple of years, I’d been noticing that a bunch of my forty- and fiftysomething middle-class friends were raving, sotto voce, about the transformative and even spiritual aspects of a South American drug called ayahuasca, the plant known in more disinterested circles as Banisteriopsis caapi. It was the Toronto filmmaker Richard Meech, whose documentary Vine of the Soul: Encounters with Ayahuasca is to be broadcast on VisionTV in November, who first brought the drug to my attention, but it was a musician friend who found a place for me at a ceremony that was to take place in a small lakeshore village, now more or less a suburb, an hour north of Toronto.

“For sure, you’ll meet the snake,” said my friend Deborah, an art critic whose curly black locks bring Medusa to mind, when I let slip my plans to try it on the weekend. “No matter your culture, or language, everyone meets the snake.”

“What snake?”

“Quetzalcoatl, the Meso-American vision serpent known to the Mayans as Kulkulcan. Kings and queens would sacrifice their blood through perforations in their tongue and penis and drip their blood onto paper that would then be burned and Quetzalcoatl would appear in the smoke to advise them.”

“They say it’s like 30 years of psychoanalysis in one night,” said Anne, a broadcasting executive who, with shorter black locks, appeared a gentler Medusa.

“What else?” I asked.

“You’ll purge.”

“Purge?”

“Vomit,” said Deborah. “You may have diarrhea, too.”

“It’s a cleansing,” said Anne, as if to soothe. “They say ayahuasca is very good if you have parasites.”

“But you’ll feel great afterwards,” said Deborah, grinning …

We chatted until dusk, and then in the soft darkness Philip (our shaman for the night) sang a prayer and invited the participants, one by one, to imbibe from the couple of bottles of ayahuasca that he’d prepared, drawing from a pipe and then blowing smoke over the rim of the small shooter glass of chocolate brown liquid. It tasted of burnt raisins and had the muddy texture of  leftover Turkish coffee. “You may not feel it immediately if this is your first time,” said Philip, “but soon it will kick in.”

And then, on cue, a few people started to hork and wretch and the couple next to me, Pilates instructors without an ounce of fat on their identical androgynous bodies, started to go through the paces. She moaned and groaned and he launched himself into what turned out to be hours of mounting physical histrionics. As if in insurmountable grief, he would sit upright and rub his eyes before suddenly launching himself forward and on all fours before bolting upright again—all the time, wailing and bucking his slender body. And yet, like Ronaldo’s football game, there was an unconvincing and solipsistic quality to whatever were his agonies that seemed rife with narcissism and the knowledge of just how beautiful his body was.

My observation pleased me, imbued as it was with uncharacteristic charity, even sympathy, before Philip came over and puffed smoke my way. Then he poked at me repeatedly with a bird wing, surely to keep the snake of my conceit at bay.



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Thursday, July 29
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