Thursday, April 17, 2014

back to prison, thank God!

Bank surveillance photo
Walter Unbehaun has spent nearly all of his adult life behind bars, so it's not surprising that he faces sentencing Thursday for yet another crime, a bank robbery last year. His reason for robbing the bank is surprising, though: He was homesick for prison.
The 74-year-old high-school dropout and part-time bathtub repairman probably isn't the first long-term convict to find he prefers being barked at by guards to life on the outside, which has its own demands. But living alone and feeling unhappy, Unbehaun decided to change his situation by committing a crime in order to get caught.
The state faces a conundrum: Meting out punishment for what the defendant considers a reward.

old age, sharp mind

Passed along in email:

As we slowly move through retirement, we need to keep ourselves occupied with small projects. Like this guy.

I know, I saw it right away too. No safety glasses or hearing protection. And I caught something else that is really important: he has no gloves on.

I am a little older now but still sharp as a tack.


Though not so addictive as when I first watched it in 1983, still it is addictive enough so that I watched several episodes again yesterday -- a British TV serial with the somewhat tinny title, "Reilly, Ace of Spies."

Sidney Reilly (né Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum) was a real man who may have been Britain's greatest spy ever. Exceptionally little is known about him, which gives the TV serial considerable latitude. The TV tale is based on a very poor book with the same title as the series. Reilly is also credited as providing inspiration for the comic-booky-y James Bond adventures.

As depicted on the TV series, Reilly is a magnetic and unscrupulous man operating in an entitled and scrupulously refined world of the early 20th century... a world that is desperate to paper over its own unscrupulousness. Everyone is impeccably dressed (I do love costume dramas) and impeccably well-spoken and impeccably distressed when Reilly crosses the boundaries of perceived decorum: How could that man hope to make money when matters of patriotism were at stake?! Women, perhaps because they are less blinded by the kind of philosophical tom-fooleries men can get up to, throw themselves at Reilly's feet ... decorously, of course.

In describing this series, I do it an injustice. It is rich and layered and stately. It takes the viewer to Baku, to the Sino-Japanese war, to Germany, and of course to bonny England. It is shot through with power plays and cruelty and a sexiness that is the sexier because everyone is so covered-up ... so decorous. Its most astounding assertion is that after the Russian Revolution of 1918, Winston Churchill dispatched Reilly to Russia to rally an anti-Bolshevik constituency which would overthrow the newly-installed revolutionaries and make Russia ... wait for it ... another part of the United Kingdom. Another servant. If true, this certainly fits with the smug assurance of the times -- rule Britannia! -- but the sheer, idiotic balls of it is remarkable. The series suggests Reilly died in that one last adventure.

Tangentially to all of this, it occurred to me that socially and individually, there always seem to be mores -- the socially-acceptable habits that are internalized and expressed and hold out promise for a peaceful and satisfied life. Don't chew with your mouth open; discover and depict a realm of honor; bring up the children you sire; grab what you can while you can; find and exemplify the religion you choose; cut off the thief's hand ... the list goes on and on. Whatever they are, there are mores.

There are mores and, like the British Empire, there is probably an endless scrambling, whether gross or subtle, to elevate these touchstones ... and to paper over failures. A peaceful and satisfied life depends on such mores -- or anyway that's the lesson that's taught.

But of course it doesn't work. There is always a Sidney Reilly knocking at the door. If the adopted mores actually provided a peaceful and satisfied life, why then would this sense of being held back assert itself? Why would the devoted mother or father feel moments of desperate longing to escape the mores that guide the familial trek ... to be in Timbuktu or anywhere else except shepherding these mindless tots? Why would the very opposite of the best-configured more assert itself as a distinct and distinctly free possibility? Is a peaceful and satisfied life constrained or even informed by well-pressed mores? Who does not wish, in idle moments when the mores take a break, to fly?

It may be scary to challenge the mores of a lifetime, but the only thing more scary is NOT challenging them... of leading a dulled and dulling life in which "acceptable" is good enough. Challenge means to investigate. It does not mean dismissing mores like some fractious teenager who feels a rush of joy when uncovering the "hypocrisy" of adults. It means going back to square one and reviewing what everyone else may say is in no need of review. 

It can be grueling work, but the payoff may be worth it -- the discovery of what it is that actually constitutes a peaceful and satisfied life... of what it's like to stop propping up the proper and dismissing the Sidney Reilly impropernesses out of hand.

Mores are a choice, that's all. Nothing special about choices -- they're just choices. But there is some usefulness to assuming responsibility for those choices. Naughty or nice, it's just this life, isn't it? And isn't that a bit more peaceful and satisfying than being peaceful and satisfied according to the accolades or catcalls of others?

PS. And when it comes to keeping 'high' standards, check out Portland, Oregon's decision to empty 38 million gallons of water from a reservoir that some teenager pissed in.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

towel dance

Passed along in email and just for fun:

connecting the connected dots

It hardly requires a rocket scientist to imagine the sort of fear, horror, anger, vulnerability and helplessness that erupted after last year's Boston Marathon bombings. The bombings, which killed three and injured something short of 250 others on April 15, 2013, erupted towards the end of a peaceable gathering. Some were running the race, some cheering them on, and some just watching. There wasn't a mean bone in its body.

And then ... and then ... BOOM!

The confusion and inhumanity of it all were tremendous. It was viscerally detestable and resulted in one of the biggest -- and to some degree most frightening -- manhunts the U.S. has ever seen. Two men, one of them dead, were eventually pinpointed as the perpetrators.

Peaceably going about your business when all of a sudden, BOOM! The visceral and utterly-human revulsion was palpable and did not require the refined sensibilities of a rocket scientist. If the event were to be stamped with a single word, perhaps that word would be "no!"

It was all too vile for speaking, though there was plenty of speaking to follow, as for example the commemorations that occurred yesterday in Boston.

In such a moment, humanity kicks in. Philosophy is sidelined. No one wants to feel this way. It's all too grotesquely stupid and cruel. Anyone knows that.

And yet the anguish that is so simple and so clear and so compelling at the Boston Marathon ... where is it in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iraq? Does this require a rocket scientist? What is the difference between a woman drawing water from a well who is shredded and then casually designated as "collateral damage" and a runner or onlooker in Boston? Is the visceral humanity in Yemen or Libya or Syria really a separate issue? How is it that the dots that are already connected -- viscerally, in a single BOOM -- need connecting?

Or, if 'them foreigners' allow the mind to keep its distance, how about the young men and women -- fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters -- sent out into a viscerally repugnant environment to endure day after day of what in Boston amounts to a clarion "no!"?

Are my tears to be distinguished from the tears shed where the world goes BOOM?

small snowfall

Like a mama lion swatting her too-playful-and-pesky cub, a small snow reminded the early crocuses today that winter might be a thing of the past, but the past is not without its reproving mechanisms.

Not enough to make a decent snowball, perhaps, but still....

A friend in Maine writes that it is coming down gangbusters in his neck of the woods.

monthly newspaper column

Saved here is the column I wrote on healing/closure for the local paper. It appeared today. After a good deal of squirming on my part, I am willing to accept the somewhat squishy revisions applied by the editor ... and happy to have the damned thing out the door.


NORTHAMPTON — Last month’s disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the mudslide that decimated Oso, Wash., brought sorrow and confusion. As quickly as the search for meaning set in, so too did the words “healing” and “closure.”

When retailed in the midst of crisis, these words strike me as uncaring, spoken by people who claim to know more than those grieving. The hope feels thin.

And yet sometimes healing does seem possible.

I first met Michael Erard several years ago after he hooked up with a veterans writing project hosted at the University of Massachusetts. A compact and gentle man at 72, Michael lives with his wife Jeanette in Belchertown.

Michael had been a Vietnam Special Forces medic in 1969-1970 and was trying to come to terms with memories that flooded back after so many years. In Vietnam, he had taken part in events and been to places where the word “horror” had lost its meaning. Thirty-five years later, the horror returned.

Michael had written about one experience and hoped to get help shaping it. The experience centered on his friend Ed, a big, friendly guy who had a serious girlfriend and wanted to be a boxer when he returned to “the world.” Ed caught a bullet in the thigh, not during combat, but during a stand-down in which the men were relaxing, drinking and horsing around.

Michael had done what he could to save Ed’s leg — worked furiously to staunch the wound and then got his friend on a chopper back to the hospital. Three days later he heard that Ed’s leg had been amputated.

Michael became enraged. Enraged beyond rage. Someone had ignored his best efforts to save his friend’s leg. It was as if all of the horror and fear and tension and inhumanity of his world came to roost in a single infuriating event. Someone was going to pay! He caught a helicopter ride back to the hospital and, with dried blood of the battlefield still clinging to his clothes and skin and with his M-16 in one hand and a .45 at his hip, he stormed into the hospital, a place where weapons were not allowed.

In the midst of his search for Ed, a female major barred his path. This nurse put her hand on his chest, got him to drop his weapons and gently but firmly talked him down. She explained that Ed had been shipped out and that it was either Ed’s leg or his life. Then, gently, she put Michael on a chopper back to his base.

Michael’s story didn’t make me weep, but inside I was writhing. I felt as if Michael had held out his heart and asked politely, “Can you fix it for me?” And of course I couldn’t: Life doesn’t work that way.

The story Michael wrote wasn’t the complete account of the blowback that had consumed him. The complete story was more nuanced. After he was discharged from the army in 1970, Michael almost immediately became a physician assistant — a role he pretty much maintained until he retired from Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield in 2006.

But there had been no time to decompress after Vietnam — no time to assimilate the insanely cruel and sometimes insanely loving world to which he had belonged. He had transitioned from merciful angel on the battlefield to merciful angel as a civilian. It was only in retirement that the horrors hidden were unfurled.

Two weeks ago, Michael invited me to lunch. He offered up some scrambled eggs, pinkie-sized sausages, good toast, home-grown raspberries and orange juice. I brought brownies and grapes.

Over lunch, I asked him how he felt today about the incident that had brought us together in the first place.

I listened to Michael, my suspicions about platitudes invoking “healing” found no confirmation. Michael seemed to be at ease. He could call up the memories when he wanted. Sometimes they came back unbidden but they were part of an accepted scenery now. Vietnam was true — no doubt about it — but now he owned the truth and the truth did not own him.

We talked about what had made this healing possible and were left speechless — two old duffers surrendering to phrases like “time heals all wounds” or “it was the grace of God.” Both of us, I think, marveled that a healing had occurred when there were so many others — soldiers, wives, offspring and kin — for whom “healing” and “closure” were just uncaring words.

Does time heal all wounds? Is the grace of God for real? I honestly don’t know. I do know that “closure” in human events still strikes me as a delusion.

But healing?

I can’t say for sure, but I can say what I came to believe over sausages and raspberries.

And my heart soared.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

India recognizes transgender people

India's Supreme Court has recognised transgender people as a third gender, in a landmark ruling.
"It is the right of every human being to choose their gender," it said in granting rights to those who identify themselves as neither male nor female.
It ordered the government to provide transgender people with quotas in jobs and education in line with other minorities, as well as key amenities.
According to one estimate, India has about two million transgender people.

old fart spiritual life

 Old fart alert!

At 74, it might seem that 40-plus years of interest in spiritual endeavor would lead to some sage conclusions -- conclusions that might be 'shared' to some advantage. If such conclusions or usefulness existed, I would certainly be willing to give it away.

Instead, I seem to sit at some midpoint between wanting to retail adventures that might benefit others (and, oh yes, wink-wink, nod-nod, coincidentally play into whatever need for meaning I might have) and the recognition that such retailing is all but pointless... and I am just another old fart looking backwards because that's what old farts do... another liar basking in the sun of some back porch, musing about fishes he once caught ... and of course they were big fishes.

But what the hell -- this is a blog, a place and exercise whose closest synonym might be "circle jerk." And since no one ever said jerking off didn't feel good, I guess I will indulge myself.

After 40-plus years -- a conversational convention that parses a whole life even if that life cannot be parsed -- I look back and ....

1. I admire people who lower themselves into the shark-infested waters of spiritual life. I do not admire the ichthyologists who sit by the water's edge, elevating or despairing of the environment or purpose or particulars of those waters. I have done the same, but just because I stepped in dog shit once does not mean I want to repeat the exercise. I admire those who choose to live, however ineptly, in a universe of sharp teeth. They may never become ichthyologists, but they will be enriched by what they actually-factually know. And all of this boils down to the threadbare observation made in a hundred ways in a hundred venues: You must -- MUST -- find out for yourself. Any other resolve is bound to fail. Beware the humble man who says "God cannot be known." Beware, likewise, the man who says, "God can be known." Such sharks are a dime a dozen.

2. The door marked "entrance" on one side is marked "exit" on the other. Failure to enter and failure to exit are the same failure differently named. Enter and dive deep. Exit and dive deep. When the extraordinary stops being so extraordinary and the ordinary stops being so ordinary ... well, isn't that enough? I think it is.

3. Be a fool for what beckons. How else could anyone honestly overcome foolishness?

4. Just because a (wo)man doesn't know something does not, ipso facto, make it a "mystery." It's just something s/he doesn't know and not knowing is not that bad. Elevating or despising the unknown is dishonest ... understandable, perhaps, but dishonest. Honesty counts in spiritual life.

5. When Prince Siddhartha -- the one who would later be called the Buddha -- left home, he did so, like so many in spiritual life, in search of another home -- one that would rest easy in the face of disease, old age and death. For six years, he subjected himself, hammer and tongs, to the teachings of others. He was determined. What home could he find that did not fall prey to such sorrows? He worked his ass off, just as any spiritual aspirant might. But finally he sat down alone and dug deeper than the comforts of home ... deeper and deeper until his house hunting came to an end and "the roofbeam" was broken. No house can stand where the roofbeam is broken. And he had broken the roofbeam ... or anyway that's how the story goes.

6. All spiritual tales of whatever sort -- from most revered text to most flimsy gossip -- leave out the juicy bits. I can remember sitting at a tea after an evening of zazen or seated meditation. I was new and would be a liar if I said I was not wowed by the setting, the robes, and the idle chatter that I could barely keep up with. And as I sat there I grew increasingly cranky. Finally, my mind burst into a firm complaint: "Will someone please just tell me what I want to know so I can get the fuck out of here?!" No more wow, no more fancy names for personages or states of mind -- just tell me what I want to know ... you know, the juicy bits. But of course no one could do that. The juicy bits were entirely up to me. To say I hated it would be an understatement. The juicy bits where meditation legs burned like fire; the juicy bits where bright openings came calling; the juicy bits where despair reached from horizon to horizon; the juicy bits where an 'advanced' understanding was neatly tucked under my belt; the juicy bits where vast desire was a minor matter seen only in some serene rearview mirror.... etc. It was like taking an exam in which you had to fill in the blank: "The truth of the matter is __________." The fact that I wanted -- in subtle and gross ways -- to have someone, some authority, fill in the blank for me ... well, shit, shit, shit!!!! I had made the time and made a donation and done what was required: I wanted some quid pro quo payback. Well shit, shit, shit! The juicy bits were up to me. I wanted someone to love me, to take care of me, to mend an often broken heart ... and no one would tell me the juicy bits.

7. I doubt if there was a single day -- not one single, solitary day in all of those 40-plus years -- that I did not arouse some spiritual-life-linked thought. World events, social events, private events ... anger, joy, love, sadness ... all of them and more like them addressed in the days that passed and all of them, little or large, brought into focus through a spiritual lens. Imagine that ... not one day in 40-plus years! I was determined to improve and so brought improvements to bear. I was like a man who had chosen a pair of designer sunglasses, put them on, and hoped that the filtering tint might ease the eye in the face of the bright and juicy bits. Looking back, I can say that this pastime was not much different from the times before I ever grew determined about spiritual life. But that's 20/20 hindsight: At the time I didn't see it. I was determined to find a new home and I worked pretty hard -- however ineptly -- at it. Nowadays, there is an occasional grandmotherly voice that says firmly, "Oh for heaven's sake! Give it a rest, will you?!" And, more than that, there is a sense of things slipping away all by themselves. No need to push the river. Get over yourself. Get over your glasses. The brightness is not all that bright. Put the glasses on the bureau top and enjoy the juicy bits as they arise. Will you end up in Dante's much-revered version of hell? Sure, but the man who distinguishes between heaven and hell has got a very -- very -- serious problem.

8. These days, even the door marked "exit" seems a little extreme. Doorways lead from one place to another and, without waxing sexy, what other place is there? I had a lot of cap pistols when I was little. Now I have none. Is there some reason to suppose that, like all the other things once held dear and then 'outgrown,' spiritual adventure should or needs to be different? It has nothing to do with virtue or lack of virtue. Things walk away ... isn't that the honest truth? There's no rush and no improvement required. Things walk away.... but not before they're ready to.

9. In spiritual writing, usually there is a good-news punchline, some beckoning and enticing bit of "amen" that is placed upon the sentence. There is also the bad news with which to bait the hook. Good news, bad news -- bait the hook. Christianity, Judaism and Islam strike me as pretty ham-handed in this regard, but they are younger and their disarray is more easily forgiven, perhaps. Buddhism and Hinduism are more adult -- literally older and with more experience under their belt. But they too are in business to assuage and improve. None of this is intended as criticism -- it's just how I see things through my life's glasses. I certainly wish others well, but baiting the hook that is already baited strikes me these days as a waste of perfectly good bait.

10. The truth of the matter is ___________ and the sun is setting on this back porch. Here's hoping your back porch is smarter than mine!

11. Bonne chance!

religion photos

Penitents walk on their way to a church before taking part in the procession of San Gonzalo brotherhood during Holy Week in the Andalusian capital of Seville, southern Spain, April 14, 2014.
REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo
A resident, living in building damaged by a previous earthquake in 1972, carries a cross as he leaves the building after an earthquake shook Managua, Nicaragua, April 14, 2014.
REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
A devotee whose face is smeared with vermillion powder takes part in the "Sindoor Jatra" vermillion powder festival at Thimi, near Kathmandu, Nepal, April 15, 2014.
REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
Children stand during rain in front of Saint Michel Catholic church in the town of Boda, Central African Republic, April 14, 2014.
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic