Sunday, July 03, 2016

Earned Oxygen

Welcome. You are now passing into a HighO2 zone. Please pay the toll at the booth, or use your app to send $25 to the municipality.

The sign did not bother to tell you that if you did not pay, you would be hunted down by a drone and you would be forced to pay or leave.

 But, who would want to leave?  The HighO2 zones were lush zones of green trees and vertical gardens (vines and ivy crawling up all the walls), and they were places where you could breathe deeply and feel oxygen fill your lungs, and your mind achieve a strange, hitherto unknown clarity. They were parks and much, much more.

“Michelle. Do you remember when all people cared about was environmental quality?  Water quality? Air quality?”

Michelle turned to Mark. It was hard to tear her eyes away from the unusual scene of lush green oxygenating foliage.

“Yes. But then, the government decided to eliminate its national debt by nationalizing air. Well, to be precise, oxygen.  Oxygen and water are controlled. They have become big business. Buy water. By high-oxygen air, or at least access to it,” said Michelle.

“Do you think things will ever change?” asked Mark.

Frog Prince at the University of Oklahoma. Keeping the "earned oxygen" levels high! :)
Michelle sighed.

“Yes. Things always change.  We have to be architects of that change if we can. If we can’t control it, we can at least envision it and think of how we might respond to it,” said Michelle.

Mark took out his card that showed how much oxygen he had consumed. It looked like the data plan he had for his phone.

“Wow. I have used up a lot of O2 this month. I need to buy a couple of plants and some hydrogen peroxide and manganese (IV) oxide. I’ll produce enough to sell into the system and keep myself off the CO2 lists.”

“Good idea, Mark. Keep your “earned oxygen” levels high.”

They got out of the car and walked down a green trail canopied by the branches of trees and draping vines. The air was cool and fresh.

“I wonder if Eden was like this,” mused Mark. 

A Reflective Moment
Contemplate Michelle's observation: Things always change.  We have to be architects of that change if we can. If we can’t control it, we can at least envision it and think of how we might respond to it.

How would it be possible to respond to a situation in a world where oxygen is owned and your access to it is controlled?  

Comments? contact susan smith nash here

Friday, January 08, 2016

A Perfect Walk on the Beach

We sat on towels on the warm sand.  It was a small beach next to a traditional Mexican cemetery, hence the name "Playa de los Muertos."

We read passages from José Ingenieros and asked each other questions: What does it mean to live your life in pursuit of the "ideal"? And, halfway into your quest, what if your concept of "ideal" changes because what sounded good on paper did not really align with expectations? In Ingenieros's world, the "ideal person" is not particularly flexible.

How strange it is that we can agree conceptually, but then things fall apart when they meet the physical constraints of the body and of nature.

For example, take something as simple as walking barefoot on a beautiful, sandy beach. The sand is natural, and has not, as in the case of so many other beaches, been trucked in from somewhere else. The vegetation is natural, not landscaped as in the case of beach resorts. We are on an actual ocean and not a replica or simulacrum such as Disney World or Las Vegas.

So, it's not perfect, and yet it is perfect.

Walking on the sand barefoot puts me on edge, like the sound of brakes when the brake pads have worn through. For others, walking barefoot in the sand feels like a nice foot massage.

We argue about it. It's not a serious argument, though.

He wins. So we walk along the surf's edge, his face relaxed.

I try to convince myself I actually enjoyed the sensation of a thousand tiny needles. Massage? Sand acupuncture? Pick your poison.

I love sharing moments in nature, so I'm willing to endure the discomfort, and then reflect later that the discomfort was what rendered the moment potentially transcendent.

It's a matter of living in the moment. I embrace the colors of the sun, the sky, the surf, and the scent of the ocean air filling my lungs.  I am alive to the prickling needles in my feet. I'm alive to the flow of words, impressions, shared ideas. I love it all.

The magic that makes this beach truly bewitching is the power of the mind and the untouched natural beauty that triggers human warmth.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tortuga Twilight

The way the sun said goodbye every night, with a pale green explosion upon entering the liquid red of the Pacific west, made me aware that it ushered in the hour of magic. It was the hour when there was still light in the horizon, and yet you could still feel the starshine start to sparkle and the trembling of dreams just about to flood your head and your heart.

And every morning, after witnessing and wishing on the sun setting in the ocean, I awakened to dual, even triple perceptions:

First, I was in the moment, "I'm here and this is my routine; I love drinking cinnamon-infused coffee, eating thick lumpy oatmeal with nuts and raisins, and the tropical fruits that appear in the fruit basket every morning."

Second, I fast-forwarded to the future as I looked back on the moment I'm living now. I will remember always as a special time (although how it is "special" I have not yet determined -- that will be manufactured by the still-life collages and the selfies I'll snap today).

Third, I took an "outside, looking in" approach, "How does this open patio, with its sheer curtains moving like deep inhalations and exhalations in the breeze, the leaves of the bananas and mango trees dipping as geckos and iguanas scamper across in search of fruit, trigger a primordial desire in those who see the scene to come to this garden in search of whatever in their lives they perceive as lost, or at least, riddled with duality?" I am, after all, looking at things from a tourist perspective, and as such, I'm desperate to create meaning (and in doing so, obliterate the interpretive possibilities that make me uncomfortable).

Sometimes I wake up dogged by existential angst and doubt. Don't let it show, I think. But, by not sharing, I further cut myself off, and feel sad and disconnected. 

I dare not say anything. My friendships (precious and few), have been hard-won. Sometimes I think they are predicated upon my power to imbue a space with warmth and happiness. Even my best friend tells me he likes me when my voice is cheerful and sweet, and my eyes radiate joy.

Well, I like myself when I'm feeling that way, too. 

I love walking along the beach in the "magic hour" - the hour when the skies assume pinks, grays, and then indigo tones.

Last night, I watched 30 or 40 newly hatched turtles scramble toward the wet part of the sand where they would quickly meet the tide coming in. Children cheered and urged them on in what had become a heartwarming tradition to combine nature's processes and visiting children's desire to become little guardian angels. The turtles bobbed in the surf, looking all the world like tiny corks, and I wondered how hard their little shells were, and which predators gathered in the darker waters just outside the buoys and the nets and waited for the shower of tiny swimmers.

The skies turned from indigo to a color I could never name, and the moon rose oddly pale and distant. As I continued to walk, I smelled smoke from fires, and the salty warm breeze of a tropical depression far offshore.

The turtles would swim. The waters would move in tides, currents, and waves. And I would return home, my face glowing, my eyes sad, my smile volunteering to be that probably mainly ornamental outer layer to tell the world I mean no harm; I mean to bring joy.

And, I would wonder about what it means to move into the darker waters with only a fragile shell to protect me.

How can we protect each ourselves and each other?  I would do it with memories and beautiful interpretations of the small things we experience every day in our lives. 

Friday, October 02, 2015

A Post-Midsummer Night's Fire Dance

Shredded tissue.  Crumpled silk.  Clouds moving across the face of the moon shimmering as though already full.

For audio, click here. 

Warm breeze on my face, the rustle of leaves. Laughter.  A country band on the River Parks pavilion, festooned with small white Christmas lights, the only backdrop an American flag painted on a wall constructed of somewhat warped 1 x 8 boards.

I walked toward the pavilion, wrapping up an evening walk on the river's edge, where magic and mystery prevail in the level of the water: today up on the banks, tomorrow almost gone except for stagnant pools between the mudflats. That's how it is for a river functions as flood control for an upstream dam and reservoir. Sometimes I spend time counting turtles on the rocks and logs. At other times, I observe homeless sleeping rough on the grass and residents of nearby half-million dollar homes walking their miniature dachshunds and coveted-breed dogs.

It's 8:30 pm. The days are getting shorter. It's warm, but it's already dark, and I feel a bit sad to usher in the end of the summer, although I love the autumn, with its heady temperature changes, gaudy leaves, and robin-egg football season skies.

Lights are flickering in my peripheral vision. I flash-wonder if I'm genetically doomed to lose my peripheral vision. My dad has fought a losing battle with glaucoma, and although my eye pressures are fine, my opthamologist has referred me to a glaucoma specialist, although he says I'm 20-30 years younger than most he refers. Oh. Well. Thank you.  I guess.  I have researched the items that cause eye pressures to increase, and I realize I already do everything I'm supposed to, except I could cut out all coffee and avoid yoga. I find avoiding the Downward Dog does not present too many problems. Coffee -- well, that's another issue.

So in my still-intact peripheral vision, I see flickering lights. I look toward what seems to be people juggling fire, and I mention them to a couple of people standing near.

"Oh yes -- there's a big group that comes out on Tuesdays. Almost 50. Tonight it's just a few. Real fire, except the light on the ground. The circle of light is an LED light."

I approach and I see two individuals -- a woman with what seems to be a hulu hoop with equidistant sources of flame, and a man with two flaming balls on the edge of what appears to be a long jump rope.  It's a chain with two fire sources, and it's called a "poi."  The woman is working with a fire hoop.

River Parks, Tulsa, Oklahoma:  Performer with Fire Hoop

Their movements are fluid, well-choreographed, and I feel I'm suddenly in the woods on the edge of the palace of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. I will never forget the Shakespeare in the Park evenings in Edmond, Oklahoma. My son, then 11, would go with me, and we'd sit on a couple of beach towels and watch the actors. By far, my favorite was their interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, set far in the future, rather than in classical antiquity.

I ask one of the dancers how long she has been fire dancing. She says for 3 years and she runs workshops. I wonder if fire dancing is having some sort of resurgence, with Burning Man vibes.  It merits investigating.

In Chengdu, China, I had the opportunity to go to a Tea House, which was a place you could eat dinner and then see a variety show with acrobatic acts. Juggling was big, and juggling tea pots, ones that actually had water inside them was pretty amazing. There was also a bit of juggling items that could be set alight -- I often wondered what would happen if the flaming items in the air ever collided with the numerous silk scarves one was wont to see in the highly decorated locations.

Others are videoing the dancing, so I suppose it's perfectly acceptable. I take out my phone and capture a few performances, thinking how amazing it is to be able to stand 2 feet from the circle of light, and to be so close that I can smell the fuel, hear the flames. When the lead dancer says "Switch" I watch the movements with delight. I love the way that they incorporate the aleatory yet seemingly perfectly predestined musical accompaniment.

Fire Hoop and Flaming Poi: Performers in Tulsa, Oklahoma

This is not my first close-up encounter with fire and its arts. I will never forget the Novruz Bayram holiday, the first day of spring in Baku, Azerbaijan.  All throughout the city one could see small improvisatory fire art, as people shouted and then jumped over the flames.  The practice dated back to Zoroastrian days, with Mazda the god of light, and a competition between good and evil. In theory, each jump over the fire burned up one year of misdeeds. My curiosity got the best of me and I paid the interpreter to take me to a group with a tiny fire where they would let me jump (for a gift of vodka). I jumped numerous times, but probably not enough to clear the slate. Oh well. It was a start. While I was leaping, I really never felt any fear, or that I’d fall. Granted, the fire was small.

Other fire art could include July 4 fireworks, but I’ve preferred to keep my distance. I, like all other young children, liked sparklers, which I now consider to be good for nothing but mutilations.

Again, my thoughts float back to Shakespeare in the Park and the actors portraying people in varying stages of enchantment. I wonder if someone will sprinkle pansy juice in my eyes and if I’ll be a helpless captive of the first thing I set my eyes on.

Moon higher in the sky. It casts a strangely orange glow. The waters of the Arkansas River (yes, there is water tonight) sparkle and glow with golden moonlight, while the park sizzles and sparkles with the white-light fire whirling in the tender night.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In the City Different: Santa Fe, New Mexico

I'm not sure what to think of a place that seems so light-drenched and enchanting one day, then shadowed with mystery and history the next. It's not the first time this has happened to me in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  It seems to happen to me each time I visit, and it always takes me by surprise.  

audio file here


Santa Fe, New Mexico, was officially established in 1607 by European colonists. Only St. Augustine, Florida (founded 1568) is older. It became the principal city for a large region belonging to the Spain. It was important as a center of commerce, culture and general adjudication. Later, after Mexican Independence, the Mexican-American War, and more, it became a territory of the United States. It was important as a part of the Santa Fe Trail and center of commerce, but it is far from the mining towns of Colorado, and also far from secure sources of water. The system of managing irrigation ditches (acequias) worked for centuries, and water rights were critical for ranching and sheep-raising. But, things declined, and in the late 1800s, visitors commented that it would be hard to imagine a more dismal place than Santa Fe; the people who lived there subsisted on little more than red chilis, onions, and mutton.

Sometime around the construction of the railroad and expansion, wealthy city dwellers discovered Santa Fe, and it became something of an artist colony. In 1912, when the town had only 5,000 inhabitants, visionary planners determined a "City Different" concept, and decreed that all buildings had to maintain architectural consistency, which included adobe and brick, with an emphasis on incorporating native flora, including cottonwood trees, mesquite, sage, and lupine. Pueblo Indians along with the various other tribes in the area contributed culturally unique weaving, beadwork, rugs, pottery, and more.


The result is a charming admixture of influences from Pueblo Indian, colonial Spanish, Mexican, and Old West / cowboy culture, and it feels a lot like an illustration from a 1890s Western dime novel.

That's the part that always charms me. The first day, walking around, feeling the light breeze, the warm air, the smell of sage and mesquite, never fails to captivate me and make me think of myself in the U.S., circa 1910, with a magical sense of expansiveness and freedom.

But, something happens. I'm now convinced it must be physical, but I'm not sure what. In my ramblings, I start to feel the thin, dry air's impact on my skin, and my face starts to feel like a crumpling piece of paper, and the exclusive art galleries and purveyors of artisan items start to seem to fall into mysterious shadows.

Ceramics galleries that should, by rights, appeal to retirees and vacationers who would like to decorate their own ceramics, are filled with hand-painted and fired mugs, plates, and vases. They are quaint, and their Grandma Moses primitivism is charming, but their price tags are not: $120 for a mug; $75 for a plate.  I suppose that one could consider them to be collectibles, but the quirky DIY (do-it-yourself ) and vintage-cowboy vibe is eroded. I can't imagine why the workshop does not let people have classes and then potentially sell stuff on consignment in a gift store.

On Guadelupe Avenue, the oldest sanctuary in the U.S. to the Virgin of Guadelupe is a lovely mission-style church. Unfortunately, it's locked. The statue outside, which is wreathed with with bouquets of flowers, is serene and calming. Across the street, Mexican men gather to seek work for the day. I suppose they're paid cash and under the table. It's a hard life.


My sister believes there are restless spirits in New Mexico. I have to say that it could make sense if it is arising from a violated earth and environment. It's one of those dark edges, a "resource curse" - in Grants, lots of uranium ore, and then, north of Santa Fe in Los Alamos, figuring out what to do with it. We all know the story. Today, the Albuquerque baseball team is named the Albuquerque Isotopes.

For me, Santa Fe offers an icy plunge into wish fulfillment.

Do you think you like nature? A laid-back Bohemian life? Time to write, sculpt, paint? Welcome to Santa Fe. What happens to the flash drives you fill with digital manuscripts?  What happens to the canvases stacked unframed in your garage studio? Or the shelves of painted ceramic mugs, plates, bowls? What happens to your weavings, embroidered pillowcases, cross-stitched guest towels?

The future is unknowable. The midnight-blue shadows behind the pale yellow cottonwood leaves suggest that the present is likewise so.

Do you want to grab onto the American Dream?  In the park across the street from the oldest sanctuary (still locked) in the United States for the Virgin of Guadelupe, the group of Mexican men seeking work has swelled to 40 or 50.

"I'm lost," I say in Spanish. "I just arrived, and I'm looking for downtown."

It's a weak conversational gambit, but it works. I manage to have a nice conversation with a small group, and I learn that work is scarce, and they're worried about having enough earnings to eat and to pay rent.  I thank them for their efforts and tell them I admire their drive and hard work. Several thank me for speaking in Spanish, and I apologize for my accent. I suppose that having an Oklahoma accent makes it clearer that learning Spanish has been a matter of choice, of passion, and of years of dedication (although I've been intermittently dilatory, which I attribute to the fact I have not had the opportunity to travel very extensively, or to live in a Spanish-speaking country.)  Plus, although one might not believe it to see me now, I'm a bit shy about talking to people.

I wander around the church and try to find an open door. All are locked. I encounter younger males - -probably around 18 or 20. They are thin, appear to have a very hard life. One comes up to me later and speaks to me in a combination of Spanish and English, and tells me that he has just washed his shirt. Now he is hungry. I do not know quite what to say to that. His friend talks about the importance of having a stick and a blanket. I think the younger one has probably huffed a lot of glue in his life. Tears come to my eyes. I chat a bit. I do not have any money with me so cannot help them. I'm reminded of the homeless who spend time on the banks of the Arkansas River in Tulsa. They make quite a contrast to the Mexicans across the street who, on the whole, exude a much more positive "can do" attitude. I realize that with these homeless adolescent males, tragic stories abound. It is heart-rending.


It's close to 11 am. I'm feeling a deep gnawing that is partially hunger (I have only had water so far today) but the feeling also has something else. I slept rather late, lost in a world of disturbing dreams and persona from my past and in different time periods.

I want to explore the depths of the shadows behind the leaves.

I am fascinated by this place. Its beauty, pungent aroma, and the quality of light seduce me within the first few minutes of arriving. But, almost as quickly, I'm forced to listen to questions I can't block or eliminate from the voice in my head. What is happiness? That one is too cliché, and it is too easily silenced with endorphins from exercise or a high-pressure presentation. 

The dark, hard questions are the ones that creep in around the edges of consciousness. What happens when the things you've been working toward all your life turn out to be trivial and/or meaningless, or, you're simply not very good and your output is worse than forgettable, it's awkward and embarrassing? What do you do when, compelled by a sense of duty, you assume family roles that are extremely self-destructive? How and why does every goal or desire seem to contain built-in contradictions?

I look at the clock and am secretly relieved that I will need to head to the airport in a few hours. I can flee the light and the thin air before I've had to really probe my inner thoughts, and to hash over the same old turf of self-analysis. If I stayed for a few weeks or a month, perhaps I'd be able to work through the archeoliths of my unconscious.  I must leave, and so will not have time to do so. I have the option to continue to resist change and true transformation.


Perhaps I'm not quite ready to confront my own depths.  Perhaps transformation still gives me pause. Although I do not like to think so, transformation can cut both ways. Instead of ascending to a higher level of consciousness, I can always sink into an abyss; mire myself in a Slough of Despond of my own making.

In my heart of hearts, though, I do not want to stay at the same point. I want to journey between the inner and outer worlds, and I perceive Santa Fe as precisely the place that opens dimensions.

I contemplate a cottonwood branch with its light yellow leaves glistening in the pale yellow light. I see the shadows dancing on the cool white trunk of the tree.

I am ready.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Miners, Burros, Disobedient Robots and Our Cortical Homunculus

We were at the end of the tourist part of the 17th-century silver mine in Guanajuato, Mexico, and the guide would not answer my question: “What kept the enslaved miners from simply running away?”

I repeated it in a simpler way, spoke clearly and slowly to compensate for my accent and potentially odd usage.

He still skirted the issue. A guy next to me commented to me that he liked my question. I did, too, and I wanted it to be answered.

“Now, I’m going to turn off the lights so you can experience absolute darkness.” Virtually every cave tour I’ve ever been on has featured this supposedly compelling experience.  I felt impatience stirring deep within me. How on earth did the overlords maintain so much social control. The conditions in the mine were horrific and people were deeply in debt to the mining company / company store. In fact, the same situation had certainly been replayed in Cornwall, Newcastle, Appalachia, and the gold mines of the western United States.

Burros in Goldfield, Nevada.

Was there really no spark of resistance or rebellion? Did rights only emerge when competing mines decided that having a peasant uprising (in the form of union rabble-rousers)  would be a great way to destabilize the competition (aka, the mine next door)?

In Isaac Asimov’s world, a good, self-respecting robot with outstanding artificial intelligence would disobey. The logic in the software in its controller would eventually find it impossible to continue a series of behaviors that are self-destructive (if it truly has artificial intelligence), and the commands going to the servo would eventually result in the servo will change its positions and with its little motor, trigger “disobedient” behaviors.

I also wondered why the burros in the mine never resisted or rose up against the cruel conditions. I have also wondered that about the big horses that have to wear blindfolds in bullfights. The blindfolded horses are used to run the bull in circles; surely if they could see the bull and the danger of being gored, they would opt for self-preservation. The horse wears padding, but if the bull is able to get his horns underneath, it is a grisly, bloody end.

The obvious answer is that they have no choice, and they are influenced by pain and a knowledge of the futility of escape. It breaks their spirit.

So, there we have the difference between a “wet” brain (human, animal) and a clean, electric brain. Again, to think of Asimov’s rules of robots, the programming that controls the servo in a robot is logical and never fails to be so. Any inner conflicts or logical impossibilities immediately surface because, and the cognitive dissonance can make for amusing, often absurd scenarios.

Robots in a mine or robot horses forced to participate in a robot bullfight that could result in destruction to the robot would not be tolerated. Robots do not know intimidation, servitude, nor do they embrace the concept of sacrifice and/or glory.

And, well, there’s that pesky self-destructive drive, which Freud called “thanatos.” It’s a “death drive” and while one can hardly take Freud at face value any more, the concept / metaphors manifest themselves every time we go to the news and see examples of seemingly senseless violence.  Hooliganism, random attacks, and shear truculence displayed for no better reason than a generalized pique or overstimulation brought on by sleep deprivation or ingested chemicals – all are so common that they no longer surprise, except when yet another talk show host interviews yet another sociologist or medical researcher who claims to have a solution.

I tried to put myself in the place in the miner working in Guanajuato. Life expectancy was low. In fact, one could expect to have silicosis of the lungs by age 30-something. It reminded me of the 19th century English factory conditions described by Elizabeth Glaskell in North and South. Before one’s spirit is broken completely, or the idea of being bonded in a kind of community of fellow-sufferers, one is able to envision freedom, at least in the sense of variety and self-determination.

Even without the idea of shaming, extreme physical punishment, and potential reprisals to family, it’s easy to keep the miners in the mine. At least that’s what I observe. If the doors to the prison are suddenly open, how many people will leave? All, yes, but their mental prisons will stay with them forever.

To really experience freedom, we need to study the programming of the controller of robots. We need to experiment with including behaviors that are mutually damaging and create inner conflict.

For example, we could program a computer to do a task, but at conditions that are too hot or too cold, to automatically shut down. We could also include a random trigger of certain behaviors that would always overheat the robot, and that the task must be done without responding to automatic turn-off subroutines. Which would win? It’s a battle between a digital scorpion and a digital tarantula.

Deep inside the mine in Guanajuato, I feel myself thinking about the gardens, flowering trees, music, and fountains on the surface. The town itself is charming, and it must have been equally so in the 18th century. Living on the surface would be infinitely preferable to working underneath. I would run away.

To do so, I’d need to consult with my little homunculus (as in Goethe’s Faustus) and ask the “little human” to guide me and direct me to resist when things are destructive / self-destructive.

I’d also like to examine the functions of the cortical homunculus, the neurological map of the brain in which the different parts of the brain are connected to the parts of the body. There are two kinds of cortical homunculus: there is the motor and then the sensory. What happens if we rewire that part of ourselves? What if we somehow re-wire the connections between our sensory and motor cortices and our bodies?

Cortical Homunculus
I’d like to think that we can start to have different perceptions, and then arrive at different opinions about what is likely to happen to us. I like to think of a possibility for cognitive and motor freedom.

But, I could be wrong.

A few days ago I saw a man fall to the hard pavement in a convenience store parking lot. He hit his head on a car parked at his side, and then began having a very intense seizure. It is possible that his brain rewired itself, and the seizure was the result. It was very sad to watch, and I moved as quickly as I could. First, though, I went inside the store to make sure that someone had called 911. In fact, I was going to call 911 myself, but then realized that too many calls for the same situation could be counterproductive.

We live inside our own minds, which mediate reality by imposing fantasies, thoughts, aspirations. Plus, we think simultaneously in the past, future, and present. A robot is not going to suffer from such messy and distracting algorithmic “junk.”

But, those contradictions are perhaps what make our lives sweet. But, to really experience the best our minds have to offer, we have to deliberately go about defeating our own minds and mental processes. We have to beat our brains at their own game.

It’s the only way to be a disobedient robot, or be a bullfighter horse recently relieved of his blindfold.

Run! Resist!
In other words, Think! Innovate! Reshape! Recreate!


Juxtapositions -- enchanted garden on the surface above the Inquisition torture chambers below. Fascinating history in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Monday, February 16, 2015

NAPE 2015: Euphoria in the Year of the Vulture

Welcome to a Road Trip of the Mind, as you accompany me in a visit to the North American Prospect Expo (NAPE) 2015, which took place in Houston, TX  (February 9-10, 2015).
NAPE 2015 in Houston, TX
NAPE is the North American Prospect Expo, and it takes place the second week in February in Houston. Although the event is organized by the AAPL (American Association of Petroleum Landmen), it's also attended by geologists, engineers, and people involved in finance. NAPE is the place to buy and sell oil and gas properties, mineral rights, royalty interests, and to find partners and financing. Properties range from tiny little packages in East Texas to massive resource plays that can involve hundreds of thousands of acres.  The properties are onshore and offshore, and there are booths from companies and even countries all around the world. It's an action-packed two days at the George Brown Convention Center, which is across the street from the Hilton Americas, where many of the receptions, meetings, and meet-and-greet events take place.  Last year, it was icy and cold. The year before that, the weather was rainy and cold. This year, the weather was spectacularly beautiful, and the more than 17,000 attendees and exhibitors had an opportunity to walk to the many different restaurants in downtown Houston, ranging from the House of Blues to Massa's Seafood Restaurant. The energy is just absolutely electric. You can feel the racing pulse of Houston, which is the heart of the oil industry.

susan smith nash at NAPE
Susan Nash getting ready for NAPE.
Ready for NAPE
I'm making my way along third floor of the Hilton Americas, getting ready to participate in an all-day meeting of the AAPG Executive Committee.  Because the AAPG is one of the partners behind NAPE, it is important for the members of the EC to attend. So, like clockwork, the events unfold: dinners, meetings, receptions, and more meetings. There is some science and some engineering, but mainly, it's business. If you have a property to sell, this is the place to be because you'll get it out in front of a lot of people. At least that's the hope. There is a lot of competition for mind-space, though.  I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who actually ever closed a deal at NAPE.  But, it's where you connect and initiate communications. I'd like to make a lot of money at NAPE, but I've never had anything to sell. That said, I do find it to be a great place to promote AAPG's activities. I think that my activities at NAPE, when I'm really aggressive and proactive, probably result in additional business to AAPG.  That's in a good year. This year is shaping up to be not merely bad, but potentially fatal to some companies and projects. Nevertheless, I think I need to push myself and try to do whatever I can to find out what people want and need, and then see how AAPG can meet the demand. 

Year of the Vulture?
Because of the the collapse of the price of oil during the second half of 2014 and the first few months of 2015, I fully expected the atmosphere to be utterly apocalyptic. Layoffs at major companies were happening, and the ones I read about already totaled around 50,000.  Worse, Citibank was predicting $20 per barrel oil.  Most companies need $85 per barrel to be profitable. So, I expected fear and avoidance of pain as the dominant or informing weltanshauung, the fundamental cognitive orientation of society. I, myself, have already suffered a number of sleepless nights, or at least nights in which I wake up at 3 am, my mind racing with ideas and possibilities. To my surprise, aoocalypse was not really the overall mood. The mood was enthusiastic, even euphoric. Why?? Clearly it's all about opportunities, and if one is positioned well, it's possible to buy at a price that is favorable. There are short-term, medium-term, and long-term profits to be made. Some of the opportunities could form the foundation of a new, successful company. 
Susan Nash at the NAPE IceBreaker, Feb 2015
Breaking the Ice
The Icebreaker is a great place to hear yourself be utterly drowned out by background noise. I do not have much to say this year, but I would like to listen. I generally attend the Icebreaker out of curiosity, just to measure the mood and to see if I run into anyone I know. This year, I saw at least 20 people I knew, which surprised me, given that it's really a landman's event, and not so much for geologists. This year's color was purple.  Is it always purple?  I do not think so.  This year's signage seemed particularly elegant and compelling, and the knowledge that this will be a year of dramatic changes, and that change means opportunity gave me a huge surge of adrenaline.

Mini Hot Dogs
The lines were really long for the mini-dogs and sliders. They were also long for the chips and queso / salsa. I always feel relieved that I'm not a fan of hot dogs or hamburgers.  But it's really interesting to me to see what people like and how enthusiastic they are about what is being offered. The convention center food service types are great. None of the food stations ever seem to run out of the food.  I wonder how they chose the items. I know that they're convenient and easy to eat. They also seem ideal for sporting events (basketball games, football games).  Metaphorically, it's perfect. Selling deals and deal-making -- yes, it's a sports event.  How could it not be?  The game requires one to be smart, nimble, and quick. It's also good if you've been practicing diligently, and with an eye for how your competition has been making changes to their tactics and strategy.  It's perfect!

Life is a candy jar ...
Well, not this time. I did not see anyone digging into the candy.  Instead, they waited patiently in line for the chips, queso, nachos, hot dogs, and mini-hamburgers.  Perhaps it was too early for "dessert." This was the first time I had noticed jars of candy, and I wondered why they were there. Candy jars are a staple of the booths. Perhaps it was a way to set up a resonance with what would be taking place tomorrow -- what people would be seeing. It was a smart move, in my opinion.  It was an unconscious reminder of what would people would be seeing in the booths - generally big candy jars and other give-aways (pens, etc.).  So, it helps whip up excitement (and a sugar high) for the next day.

Drink the KoolAid
The lines were very long to the ION / TGS booth where fur-hatted baristas handed out purple "on the rocks" something-or-other served up in giant plastic martini glasses. I was offered one, and I took a photo of it. I was afraid to drink it. What was in it? There were absolutely no indications.  I know it has been more than 20 years since Jim Jones,  but is there really so little memory of the purple KoolAid? I recalled reading about the "white nights" when the followers drank KoolAid they fully expected to be laced with cyanide, meaning that they would most certainly die. I had to ask myself, have we forgotten the entire impulse behind the different Doomsday cults that suffused our culture with horror and a realization that uncertainty drives people to security, no matter how insane....?  My dissertation was on the use of the apocalyptic narrative to manipulate people (including in doomsday cults), and so I was quite impressed by the elements of this booth. It was very stylish and laden with multiple interpretive possibilities. In times of dramatic change and uncertainty, there is a tendency to create cultural enclaves of "true believers," usually headed by a charismatic leader who offers his followers security and a sense that they will be protected from the battering waves of change. So far, I have not seen the emergence of a charismatic leader. I believe that the oil industry is too cyclical for the formation of cults and mad messiahs. Further, it's possible that a short-lived downturn could actually lead to improved overall health of the industry. It's too early to tell. At any rate, I appreciated the multi-level semiotics in this booth. It strikes me as quite intelligent. Later, after reviewing my photos, I wished I had taken the drink. I would not have drunk the purple brew, but the enormous plastic martini glass was dramatic and it made me smile.

The Booths Are Big
So you want to know what NAPE looks like?  Here it is. Check it out. Lots of large booths by companies who want to make a statement and also open the floor for new ideas and opportunities. Devon is from Oklahoma City, and they've been a huge presence. So has Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake and America Energy Partners. Linn Energy and SandRidge were solid this year. It's all very strange for me to realize that after Houston, Oklahoma City is probably #2 in terms of US oil centers. I would not be surprised if OKC has eclipsed Denver. If so, that's interesting -- why? I attribute it to environmental issues in the Rockies and the fact that the cost of doing business in Colorado is very high. And, it's very clear that OKC's entrepreneurs are bold, visionary, and even messianic. I like it. I think that there is a very good chance that Oklahoma City's entrepreneurial spirit will help weather the storm. Let's hope the price rises to something reasonable soon, that Europe's economies find a way to recover, that China transitions from an investment-driven economy to one that can sustain itself on its own markets.  Let's also hope that new investment capital becomes available.

Where Deals Happen
NAPE is for the big guys. It's also for the little guys. So, NAPE also looks like this: lots of maps, lots of terms of trade. If you're exhibiting, you've got to find a way to capture the interest of the passersby within about three-tenths of a second. Then, you must communicate your value proposition within a space of 3 - 5 seconds.

Here are my favorites:

Theme 1: The Bargain.  Buy low, really low, and sell high. The message is that the property is being sold because the company is in a distressed situation, or consolidating their approach / properties / focus. The message is palpable: "We are a bargain. Buy low, and in a year or so, you'll sell high."

Theme 2:  Revitalizing Mature Fields.  Usually, there's an opportunity cost in taking a producing field offline. Now, with the price of oil at a 7-year low, there's no opportunity cost. Here is the message:  Buy this field. Take it offline. Waterflood it. CO2 flood it.  Drill the stranded pay. Buy the time you've done all that, the price will have gone back up. Of course, there are risks with mature fields, which include tricky production problems and potential environmental issues. 

Dreams of Flying High
Another smart and vivid "tactile metaphor" of NAPE.  All the guys who were touching the small plane were talking more or less in the same vein. "You know, the last time the industry went in to a tailspin and extended downturn, I was in my 20s and I did not have any experience or any access to capital. So, I saw big opportunities pass right in front of me. I tried to grab them, but because I had no capital, they slipped through my fingers. However, this time, it will be different! I'm smart, or at least, experienced, and I know how to work within the industry! I'm going to jump right into the game this time, and I'm going to win. I will win big. I know it. I will be flying high!" I listened, felt their enthusiasm, but decided that I would not try the same approach. I'm very conservative, so although I could understand the narrative, I still could not help but think of some of the challenges.

Snakebite Kits
These are actually business card holders. However, it was not at all clear what they were, and as people wandered in and out of the Southwestern Energy booth, they all had the same question: "What are they?"  I could not resist. I said, "They are snakebite kits." This response never failed to elicit a laugh -- often a pretty loud horse laugh. I even approached the engineers manning the booth, held one out in my hand, and then politely inquired, "Are these snakebite kits?" They laughed and had a great response: "We did not think so, but who knows? However, we do not warrant their efficacy in combatting the consequences of being bitten by a snake."  I loved it. So, I went back to lurking next to the pile of mysterious blue packages, and I continued to be helpfully responsive to all the passersby who posed the "What are these?" question. One guy had a great comeback: "Whoa - that's perfect," he said. "After all, we are ALL feeling a little bit snakebit these days!"  I liked his response.

susan smith nash
Offshore Nova Scotia
It's not the best time in the world to be promoting a very high-risk venture in drilling offshore Nova Scotia. But, what can you do? You have to think long-term. The government of Nova Scotia has invested in a massive study, which includes geophysics, geology, and a petroleum systems study, which was positive enough to entice a few super-majors to obtain concessions and to file intents to drill. If they have positive results, the entire world will be turned upside down -- at least offshore Nova Scotia. The beauty is that this is a great time to be drilling. Prices of services are leaping off cliffs and plunging into really low territory, just to keep people busy with the hope of riding out the storm, and the emerging stronger than ever, like a lizard after accidental exposure to radiation. We all know what that is: GODZILLA! Perhaps we do not think of Nova Scotia in the same mindspace as Godzilla, but it's high time that we open our minds to power in unexpected places. I know that I like thinking that underdogs can emerge as major players. 

Wells Fargo
There's magic in this artifact, and seeing the replica of the "Wells Fargo Wagon," brings a number of thoughts immediately to mind. First, it's the perfect symbol for Wells Fargo financial services, which are based in San Francisco. One can't help but think of San Francisco's gold rush and the eagerness of people to move west, especially after the Civil War, when Wells Fargo offered it's "Best of Class" transportation system from 1866 - 1869.  The wagons were the best around, and were constructed in Concord, New Hampshire, where they had springs and suspension systems which gave them a great ride. Even fully loaded, the averaged 5 miles per hour, with a team of 6 horses. I have to say though, the idea of having to travel from, say, St. Louis, to San Francisco, at 5 miles per hour, is a bit scary. How many days, or months is that?  1500 miles / 5 miles per hour means 300 hours. Let's say you can travel 10 hours per day, that's 30 days. Good grief! How tough our ancestors were! And, when I think of the lyrics from the Broadway play, The Music Man, I can understand the energy and enthusiasm with the arrival of the Wells Fargo Wagon, laden with packages.  Here at NAPE, Wells Fargo delivers valuable financial services, and they've made many of the capitally intensive resource plays (mainly shale) possible.

The Decameron and Waiting out the Plague / Low Oil Prices
I was a bit shocked to see a booth that had nothing but antiquarian books and comfortable leather seats. It was provided by Frost and Associates, an investment banking firm, and my sense was that the old books were supposed to provide an "old school / old money" sort of cachet. I think that is good. However, did they actually take a look at the books they included? I was amazed to see a Charles Reade volume -- I have an extensive collection of antiquarian books and Charles Reade is one of my favorites. I do not have a single volume of Griffith Gaunt, but I think I have it as a part of a set. It's a psychological study, and it probes the most extreme of emotions. In the case of Griffith Gaunt, it's jealousy.  I was also amazed to see a 19th-century printing of Boccacchio's Decameron, the collection of stories which are a bit like those told by Sheherazade, not only in the fact that that it's a collection of short stories, but also in the fact that they are all about telling stories to stave off death. In A Thousand and One Nights, Sheherezade has to tell stories to buy a new day of life. In the Decameron, it's all about a group of people thrust together because of the horror of plague, and the strategy of doing a self-imposed exile in the countryside to distance oneself from the walled cities where plague, desperation, and random death created a toxic miasma of desire, horror, and rage. Is that what this small little "reading island" within the current chaos of the oil industry reflects?

My Buddy, the Brontosaurus
Yes, you guessed it. This was the Sinclair booth. They were giving out blow-up dinosaurs - the kind we used to call brontosaurus, but now, I think have been renamed as apatasaurus. I ask myself, "Why?? oh, why, oh why???? I love the "brontosaurus" sound in a way that "apatosaurus" just does not do anything for me. The Sinclair dinosaur is very "Old School" and a symbol of individual creativity and entrepreneurship. This dinosaur is the same size as the ones you'll encounter all across the western U.S. in the front of locally-owned gas stations that purchase their gasoline from Sinclair, and also offer oil changes and basic maintenance. In this booth, the big "give-away" is a blow-up miniature Sinclair dinosaur.  I remember taking a small green Sinclair dinosaur home a few years ago. I inflated it and put it on my mantle, where it stayed as a cheerful reminder of the power of ideas and hope for the little guy.   

No Unauthorized Photography
I had already taken 20 or 30 photographs by the time I left the NAPE exhibition floor, when I encountered this sign and became aware that my smartphone snapshots might have been "unauthorized." I quickly retraced my steps and pondered whether or not I had taken photos of anything that could possibly be considered confidential or proprietary, or even potentially embarrassing. The answer was an unequivocal "no," so I emitted a sigh of relief, and proceeded on my way.  The positive energy of the event continued to envelope me, and I wondered how many of the individuals who stated that they were determined to "profit this time" or "buy low, sell high," would be successful. I am sure that many would be. On the other hand, some could soon be unemployed, and a certain percentage would prefer a steady paycheck.