Thursday, September 30, 2010

fictional worlds

Did anyone familiar with the old sci-fi movie, "The Terminator," ever wonder as I did this morning why the terminator, a very sophisticated and very determined robot, spoke with a German/Austrian accent? True, the actor playing the terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, current governor of California, was born in Austria and speaks with an accent ... but why would the very sophisticated fictional terminator do that when it was made clear in the movie that he could imitate any voice the terminator chose? Fiction is something made up, but it is also careful in its construction so as to mimic non-fiction and thus convince the viewer or reader.

More important than the peccadilloes of a sci-fi movie, I sometimes wonder why people involved in spiritual life need to adorn themselves with paradoxical finery, spewing Alice-in-Wonderland nonsense so as to lay claim to the paradoxical qualities/realities of spiritual life. It's self-centered bullshit, and I remember being called out on it. "You don't have to be crazy to do this stuff," Sasaki Roshi admonished me during dokusan.

And yet it can seem so kool to speak a language others cannot be party to. Soooooo spiritual. Speaking in tongues. In the world of fiction, making up fictions probably seems to make sense if you want to be 'real' and in control.

"You don't have to be crazy," except that sometimes the fictional craziness is the only answer to a world which, if you treated it honestly, might drive you crazy.

In a world where you already have an Austrian accent, why do you need an Austrian accent? OK, you're kool. Now what?


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

free incense

Digging channels on either side of the concrete driveway -- channels to siphon off some of the water from the upcoming season -- there was a lot of free incense in the air.

The earth came up moist and rich and pungent even as the autumn leaves filled the air as if they were roses. Worms still squiggled in the dirt as I dug along and I wondered if, like the squirrels, they had a safe place when times get harder and colder.

No matter, this zendo today is full of incense I didn't have to send away for.

farts in a bottle

Sometimes, she said, her father would come through the front door at the end of the day while she and her siblings were seated around the supper table and announce loudly to his wife, "These children are not farting enough! They need more beans! Feed them more beans!"

The kids would laugh and the mother would frown. Her dad was a gentle prankster, she told me a long time ago as we shared a bus seat, both of us heading north for Thanksgiving. The baby she held in her lap, a child I feared would burst into inconsolable and inescapable and endless tears during the four-hour journey, was soft and quiet as a dust mouse. The woman reminisced and the baby seemed content, as I was, to listen.

And then there was the other fart scenario her father would paint and to which all the kids would listen with a scowly seriousness. This was a money-maker ... if they could just get it right:

What they must all do, her father said, was to capture their farts, each in its own bottle. Once the lid was on tight, they could send the bottle to Ireland where a man would send them a dollar in return. The woman said that for the longest while, each of the children saved their bottles assiduously and imagined the wealth that might be theirs if only ....

If only....

If only the last requirement could be met. That requirement was that before the farts could be shipped, each of them had to be painted green. Hours and hours passed as the children imagined ways in which to open the jars without allowing the fart to escape. It had to be possible -- why else would the man in Ireland be offering a dollar apiece? The kids pondered and thought and the bottles stacked up around them -- so much wealth and yet no way to access it.

I wonder how many things in life are like that -- bits and pieces and knowledge and emotion preserved carefully in our bottles against a time when, somehow, we will be enriched and elevated ... by God or friends or enemies or situations. And yet, when it comes to collecting the wealth we long for, the whole artifice is gone like a puff of smelly wind. There's just no way to paint things green without losing the things themselves. The wealth slips through our fingers ... again.

And the question arises, why were we saving in the first place? Who is the man in Ireland? Was there ever a time when painting a fart green was possible? It's a wonderful story for children, but how useful is it for an adult, embroidering what might be at the expense of what is? Hold on, and things disappear; don't hold on and things come and go like farts around the supper table.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

salivation and no food

If you are anything like me, then there has been a time when you were enthralled by mystics. These were the men and women who beckoned convincingly from the page or pulpit. Somehow they had a bead on things that excelled my own and simultaneously made me long for that wider understanding, that wider stance, that peace that eluded me.

A mystic is partially defined by an internet dictionary as:

noun:  someone who believes in the existence of realities beyond human comprehension
adjective:  having an import not apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence; beyond ordinary understanding ("The mystical style of Blake")
The deliciousness of such an understanding was by turns profound and confusing and magnetic. Something in my life responded like one of Pavlov's dogs. Yummmmmy!

And so it began -- that willingness to seek out in very grounded ways some essence that was not yet grounded in my life. Jesus, Mohammad,  Buddha, Tao ... hell, even Rasputin. At first it was an intellectual believer's search. Follow the yellow brick road of ritual and belief; store up explanations as a squirrel stores up nuts; fill the mind with text and encouragement. Later it would segue into a literal practice -- something you actually did instead of something you actually praised or memorized. In my case it was Zen practice -- a sit-down-shut-up-erect-the-spine-and-focus-the-mind exercise that wasn't quite so yummmmmy, but had the advantage of bringing experience, to bear. No doubt others learn to really pray or sing or dance.

Just thinking this morning that the mystics of our lives, the exemplars I may have constructed out of my own need and hope ... how useful they were and how thankful I am to them: Men and women who, often as not, had no sense of anything 'mystical' and yet encouraged others who longed for mysticism, longed for something 'beyond,' longed for something 'else.'

I feel pretty fortunate not to have gotten mired down -- ritual, religion and the like -- in the wonders of it all. Or rather, to have gotten mired down and yet found a practice that washed off the very-useful mire. Experience trumps belief every time and yet belief is an inspiring starting point. It only falls on its face if that is the best anyone can do -- believe, conceive, go mystical... what a hellish life that would be... not as a starting point, but as a destination.

Religion ... imagine that! Salivation and no food.

But for starters, all those mystics, all their pointings, all their holiness and serenity and peace ... thank you very much.

Monday, September 27, 2010

this is it

Sitting on the porch listening to the rain slap the next-door maple's leaves, it occurred to me that too much brevity might not work very well, even if it worked perfectly -- perfectly! -- well.

The brevity that crossed my mind -- the one-liner that simply said it all -- was this:

This is it.

No discussion, no improvement, no holy-roller adjectives or adverbs, no snarling certainties or uncertainties, no deeeeeep Buddhist meaning. Just easy-peasy and complete. Past, present and future go begging and yet prove the point:

This ... is ... it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

better than the blow of a stick

In times of hyperbole, when times are tough and everyone's longing to be heard, a little modesty wouldn't hurt.

My father used to be fond of the phrase, "better than the blow of a stick." He was also, in a time before TV and the internet, impressed with the radio advertisement for Dodge: "Dodge -- it's a pretty good car."

In times of hyperbole and uncertainty, "pretty good" gets overwhelmed by an imagined excellence or perfection. It's as if, by reaching for the perfection of any thing or action, somehow that perfection will be in hand... push, push, pushing the boundaries until somehow the dream will come true.

On TV, the clothing becomes more and more provocative and the language with it. But if all the women with plunging necklines simply ran around naked, would things be less uncertain? If the encroaching use of cuss words simply had no boundaries -- if all TV language were simply language that incorporated cuss words -- would things become more honest and relaxing? If all the "heroes" were simply people who did things I haven't done ... what then?

I guess everyone has to get real about his or her expectations and longings. It's personal and it isn't easy, but it's probably closer to the truth ... a little modesty wouldn't hurt. Aside from anything else, it would give immodesty a much-needed face-lift.

It might be better than the blow of a stick.

without debate

If there were nothing to improve, nothing to critique, nothing to become an activist about ... would the sky still be blue? Or would that be too scary?

I was thinking about writing and the requirement, give or take a little, that there be some sort of conflict or debate. Where would the writing go without dissatisfaction? And, wherever it went, would it be a good or a bad thing?

Here, it is a cool day. It feels as if the sky may be blue when the sun comes up, but perhaps it won't. Either way, I'll have to clean the zendo a little before sitting this morning.

Maybe there will be a surprise.

Or is that assured?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

it isn't just sex

Vatican to investigate lay community

Extracts from story:

The women belong to the order's lay wing, Regnum Christi, a global community of some 70,000 Catholics in more than 30 countries who have families and regular jobs yet participate in the mission of bringing people closer to Christ.

Only about 900 are consecrated - nearly all women, but also a handful of men. They give up possessions and ties to their former lives much in the way nuns or priests do. They adhere to Vatican-approved statutes that require them to "voluntarily renounce the use of their capacity for decision-making" - pledging unswerving obedience to their superiors.


Such inquiries have been carried out only rarely, including the probe of U.S. seminaries after the sex abuse scandal exploded in 2002. While there have been no sex abuse allegations within Regnum Christi, the problems uncovered in the Legion - abuse of authority, suppression of dissent and a power structure built on unswerving obedience - are also rampant in consecrated life.


With the rest of the family visiting my older son at his college today, I took a micro-vacation and went to the bank, the dump and then drove out to a nearby pond where I could wade in the water, examine footprints on the unpopulated shore, watch autumn leaves float towards a dam downstream and wonder if that raptor-like bird floating on the high updrafts were a hawk or a turkey buzzard.

The place was quiet and clean and as refreshing as the clouds floating across the blue skies. Most of my family likes swimming pools. I like the surprises and lack of limitation.

Reminded me a bit of the line from the old movie, "Little Big Man:"

"My heart soars like a hawk."


Will someone explain to me precisely why things have to have a meaning?

I'm not being flip or annihilationist.

But what's the matter with things as they are? Are they too scary? Are they too confusing? Are they too threatening?

When I whined to the doctor yesterday that I was feeling somehow overlooked in the process of trying to find a remedy for my ailments, he finally said what no diagnostician had said before -- that the relative importance of my specific ailment was not a high priority among those who had similar ailments. From the point of view of medical triage, I was not important enough for attention.

Naturally, I wanted to get fixed NOW. But the doctor's honesty was somehow more reassuring than all the polite verbal dancing that had preceded it in other doctors' offices. No more bullshit -- wait your turn.

I guess in one sense, that had some meaning.

Buddhist nudge

Having run into An Inquiry Into Master Xuyun’s Experiences of Long-dwelling in Samādhi
by chance yesterday, I read some of it and recognized that I probably never have been or would be a Zen or any other sort of Buddhist.

I gather that people came from miles around to visit the man who was said to have entered and remained in samadhi for 18, 9, and 9 days without a break. It doesn't sound as if Xuyun were uppity about it. It was just what happened and others were touched by these experiences or feats.

In another time, it might have been upsetting to recognize or even deeply suspect that I was not "Buddhist" material. What a lot of time had been spent warming myself by the Zen Buddhist flame. In another time, I would have wanted the support, the name, the awe, the family.

But not yesterday. Yesterday, it was a gentle breeze that refreshed the skin and mind. Even Ikkyu's soothing assertion that "I am not a Buddha. I am just an ordinary fellow who understands things" seemed like a protest-too-much overstatement in my case.

How then was I to account for my halting efforts of the past? If I put it into words, I guess I would say that profound understandings and etched experiences come and go. They are encouraging.

Encouraging and yet, honest injun, there really are dirty dishes in the sink as I type.

Friday, September 24, 2010

sources of truth?

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad created a diplomatic stir when he suggested Thursday at the United Nations that the U.S. had been complicit in the Sept. 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Towers and other U.S. property and the ca. 3,000 citizens who were killed. America's U.N. representatives and a number of its allies walked out in protest. Ahmadinejad's remarks were within a wider speech that addressed Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Ahmadinejad also defended his remarks at the U.N. a day earlier (Thursday) in which he claimed most people in the world believe the United States was behind the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and again challenged the United Nations to set up a commission to probe the attacks.

"I did not pass judgment, but don't you feel that the time has come to have a fact finding committee?" Ahmadinejad asked.

I'm not much of a conspiracy buff, but I did see a very good documentary on the topic which now, of course, I cannot find. Yes, it had a position, but the female voice-over was quiet and the facts adduced made a compelling case. I will keep looking for the film, which was shown on television, but had no big names attached. The demolition-like collapse; the burning steel that suggested thermite explosives; the problems/costs related to insulation in the towers; the $8 billion insurance policy; the security cameras turned off for two days before the destruction and the workmen doing enough to create dust in office; the ownership of the security company ... well, I'll keep looking for it.

What interested me in all this was the notion that a man as roundly condemned by the United States as Amadinejad should suggest something that, on review, might have some truth at its core.

A man frequently accused of lying suggests the truth? Why not? Naturally, there would be an outcry from those seeking to put the tragedy in the past if there were an investigation. But if the questions are meaty enough, isn't the death of so many a cause for review?

PS. I am posting this without the documentary because perhaps the film will come to someone else's mind quickly. To see the essay/documentary would allow people to judge for themselves.

small wind

A small wind billowed up onto the porch this morning and twined around my legs like some fluffy, friendly cat. It was good to have a credible friend, someone with news to impart ... and not just regurgitated news, but fresh-scrubbed news.

It was like talking to a (wo)man who kept you spellbound with his/her understanding of some topic you never considered ... salamanders, perhaps, or bottle tops or the seriousness of some hidden tribe or the colors that cannot be seen. Something fresh.

Funny how the term "brand new" invariably refers to the one uttering it and not so much to the event or item considered. Lately, I have been visiting doctors. It is a profession I admire and yet the promises of the profession and the delivery are sometimes disappointing ... and there are excuses and reasons why the promise in my mind cannot or will not be fulfilled. It's all stale news on the human front, but because it concerns my own welfare, the disappointment is brand new ... not.

The small wind billowing up onto the porch makes no promises ... and then keeps them. It is nice to have such a friend.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

praise and blame

Funny --

Where slander and liable and insult are involved, a lot of people can get on their high and virtuous horses: This is the kind of stuff that sows hatred and unkindness, so we examine it carefully, write laws about it, and build barriers to keep it in check. We do this in a social context. Some are even willing to do it within themselves.

But when it comes to praise and elevation, there is seldom the same acuity brought to bear. It's as if praise in an of itself were given a little extra leeway ... because ... because ... well, maybe because it's nice to be nice and the social wheels are oiled. Or maybe something is desired, some praise-worthy and possibly holy goodness.

But why should the one be given more elbow room than the other? True, it's pleasant socially or within my own walls to praise what I like, but at some point maybe it would be necessary to ask, "Is this praise any more true than the calumny I might likewise employ?"

Is a piece of wood any less or more a piece of wood because it stubs my toe or because it is said to be a piece of the 'one true cross?'

Praise and blame ... something to consider.

losing importance

Last Sunday, because my body was not all it might be, I missed a zazen sitting in the zendo, a very rare occurrence when measured against the 10-plus years since I first built the place.

Zazen was important enough in 1998 so that I built the place. I guess that qualifies as serious intent ... money, time, sore muscles and a hundred mistakes, only some of which could be rectified.

It's a nice little house in my eyes, but the importance has somehow bled out. Sometimes I just can't remember all that importance or, if I can, it feels like someone else's importance. There is a place to sit and I don't like to skip Sunday sittings, but the why's and wherefore's and importance are unnecessary extras ... sort of like tassels on loafers.

Who knows -- maybe I'll get out there next Sunday.

full moon

Just now, at 4:30, the full moon has moved around to the back of the house, though I doubt the full moon sees it that way. Fall has arrived, with equal amounts of night and day ... I think it was yesterday, but maybe it's today. It's cool, but the forecast is for a day in the 80's -- a summer reprise. October (and its environs), like May (and its environs) is a time when you're not sure whether to keep the windows open or not, whether to take the air conditioner out or not, whether to turn on the furnace or not.

Yesterday, there was a snippet on the news about obesity in China. Once short of goods and food, China is now booming and so is its waist lines. It reminded me of a Russian woman I once met, a language professor in Moscow. During World War II she lived in the Ukraine, the bread basket of the U.S.S.R. But at Stalin's insistence, the food in Ukraine was diverted to other parts of the country: Ukraine had had unacceptable contact with the Nazis and there was retribution to be meted out. Food was very scarce and the woman grew thin together with her fellow Ukrainians.

But once the war was over, there was more food. The hungers of the previous years could be assuaged and the language professor, like others, ate up a storm. She grew fat ... and, at 60 or so when I met her, she still regretted it because before the war she had been an athlete, a track star ... thin and swift as a whippet.

I can still see that sadness on her face ... to have lost the elations of swiftness to something as ordinary and unglorified as eating. It was a rock and a hard place in her life and she felt the pressure and the loss and the regret.

I don't doubt that others have felt a similar regret and a similar yearning for a time when the moon was full ... the same, but different. Time passes and the moon passes with it ... out beyond the back of the house.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

world clock


feeling lucky

Reading over this historical timeline for the growth of Zen Buddhism in America, I find no references whatsoever to my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi.

It makes me feel extremely lucky.


Around here (Massachusetts, U.S.A.), it is a good time of year to see what is sometimes called the intertwining of all things.

I am thinking of my backyard.

There, the grass is still a lush, emerald green. But sprinkled on that lawn, like some delicious salt and pepper, are orange and yellow and brown leaves that have started to trickle from the nearby trees.

Summer is obvious.

But so is autumn.

Where is the line between the two seasons we so casually separate with our adjectives and nouns? In words, there are two things. In smarmy realms, everything is one. But neither approach brings any real peace of mind.

The whole matter is so simple that our minds and lips are comfortably sealed. Every blade of grass and every leaf giggles like a school girl: "Shhhhhh! Shut up! Don't be a twit! Enjoy yourself!"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

reliable sources

This entry is likely to be boring, so you can stop now. It concerns what I think of as a creeping idiocy I do not wish on anyone ... and yet many if not most people will find it acceptable because, roughly speaking, they are lazy and want to snuggle up with others. I do not wish this kind of idiocy on my children.

Here's what caught my eye after reading a posting that took Wikipedia to task for its editing policies:

Wikipedia articles should be based on reliable, published sources, making sure that all majority and significant minority views that have appeared in reliable, published sources are covered; see Wikipedia:Neutral point of view. The word "source" as used on Wikipedia has three related meanings: the piece of work itself (the article, paper, document, book), the creator of the work (for example, the writer), and the publisher of the work (for example, The New York Times or Cambridge University Press). All three can affect reliability. Reliable sources may therefore be published materials with a reliable publication process; they may be authors who are regarded as authoritative in relation to the subject in question; or they may be both.

No one can research everything thoroughly, but when it comes to things that are attractive or compelling in anyone's life, it behooves us one and all to consider: 1. all published works rely on someone else: there is a break between the actual truth and what is written. 2. Reliability is not based on how much I agree with you or you with me -- it is based on actual research that will bring the researcher as close as possible to the facts on the ground. 3. "Reliable published sources" must be questioned when it comes to what is compelling or beloved. The alternative is to open the door to a fabrication that goes on and on because no one takes the time to find out. This is cozy, but it is lazy. Just because there is an authority positing a particular position does not make the position authoritative. Just because the New York Times publishes something does not make it so.

As I say, no one can research everything. But not to research what is compelling or beloved is a lazy man's life. And not just lazy ... but also stupid and likely to backfire. I don't care if Wikipedia does it or Harvard does it or some genius does it or Sarah Palin does it ... just don't you do it. Find out about what you love. Find out about what you abhor. Quit kissing someone else's ass and find out.

Without finding out -- even about just one thing -- what sort of stupid wimp do you become? Six million people who are wrong may provide company, but that doesn't mean they are right or authoritative or authentic.

What you love. What you find compelling. Get to work. It'll make you happier.

End of discombobulated rant.

yesterday's self meets today's

What do you think your reaction would be if the person you were when you first grew interested in spiritual endeavor ran into the person you are today?

I'm not sure I would be entirely pleased with my 'future' self: Undisciplined, prone to dirty jokes, suspicious of religion and its outriggers, crabby from time to time, sure as hell not 'enlightened'... the list is pretty long.

On the other hand, I would be inclined to lend my earlier self a hand, as long as he didn't get too smarmy or correct.

"the real religion"

In the email in-box this morning was something whose subject line read, "The Real Religion." Because it struck me as ludicrous, I opened it up.

There were several paragraphs (maybe more -- I didn't scroll down) in English and what looked like Chinese telling me what the real religion was ....

As distinct, I gathered, from all those other unnamed religions. I scanned the paragraphs quickly. It wasn't anything someone hadn't heard before ... the moment, the mindfulness, the clarity, the ... whatever all else.


And who, in their spiritual wanderings, wouldn't just love to come upon something that qualified as THE one true cross or something equally metaphorically complete. I know I used to be keen on that stuff ... THE Tooth Fairy. THE god. THE ....

And even before I deleted the email, I could see that this was, indeed, THE one true religion, the real deal. All that was missing was the fact that it was also THE one false religion. Nobody likes the fake stuff. Everyone's hot for the true stuff.

But not me. Not any longer. "True" or "false," don't speak to me of "the." "The" anything is barking up the wrong tree.

The end.

future history

Funny how no matter how hard anyone tries not to, still they become history. It happens in every moment (no lectures in that department, please), but at the time of experiencing, it seems unusual that experience will become our own or someone else's history.

You go to the amusement park on a particular Thursday night and 10 years later, the adventure becomes part of a jigsaw puzzle someone is trying -- in vain -- to complete.

All of this came wisping around in my mind today because I got a note from a college student wanting to make a documentary about a mystery my mother wrote 50 years ago -- "The Horizontal Man." The book was thought of as a roman à clef about a murder on the Smith College campus. My mother went to and my father taught at Smith and readers were at pains to guess which fictional character represented which non-fictional person. I always thought it was my mother's way of expressing the pent-up-ness of an academic world she found suffocating.

But her feelings, whatever they actually were when writing the book, were alive and lively in their time. There was no need to translate or interpret or find meaning in them because they were already on the front burner ... right now. I seriously doubt that my mother thought of her efforts as 'future history.'

But future history -- the trip to the amusement park, the wonderful wedding, the sunset in Nevada, the truly great joke, the reading of a blog -- is how things seem to go. Experience is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of sass or sorrow, and yet turns into a furrowed brow of memory ... and not at all as full of electricity as experience itself.

Soldiers fought in wars and can remember with searing clarity ... but the books written about those wars or even those first-hand memories cannot be transmitted or encased. And still there is something inside that does not want experience to be relegated to the dust-bin of history -- a second-hand, lifeless and inaccurate realm at best.

It's just odd ... and I'm just prattling.

Monday, September 20, 2010

giggling seriousness

For those inclined towards spiritual life in some serious way,I wonder where all that energy, all that accumulated, furrow-browed 'truth,' goes when death claims the scene.

Where does death go, for that matter?

There is a lot of red-hot seriousness that people can bring to any beloved topic. Does death, on arrival, tickle their ribs and enforce a world of giggles?

I just wonder.

yesterday's news

Sic transit gloria mundi.

The internet news site I used to frequent most regularly -- My Way News -- has apparently fallen prey to the poverty of other news outlets. In this case, the poverty expresses itself as running stories at 4:57 a.m. today that were first reported Friday, 2-3 days ago. There is no news on the weekend if there are no reporters in the news room.

A couple of examples:

Sep 17, 12:05 PM (ET)

Shareholders of United and Continental airlines voted Friday to approve a combination of their companies that would create the world's biggest airline and could have far-reaching effects on where they fly and how much they charge passengers.

Sep 17, 2:51 PM (ET)

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama named Wall Street critic Elizabeth Warren a special adviser Friday and tasked her with setting up a new agency to look out for consumers in their dealings with banks, mortgage companies and other financial institutions.

Calling Warren "one of the country's fiercest advocates for the middle class," Obama said she would ensure the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ends abusive practices.

I realize that fewer and fewer people read and fewer and fewer think critically, but the idea of not covering (not blogging or opining about)the news strikes me as dangerous stuff.

Last night, my son had to write a short homework assignment on who was more responsible for the American Revolution -- England or the colonies. A history program on TV once said that the tea 'tax' that acted as part of the reason for the colonies' declaration of war was rescinded by the Crown and its documentation was en route to the colonies ... but before the news could arrive, the war had begun.

I guess we all have to go through a stupid period before it occurs to us (when we're lucky) that being smart is more sensible and less painful. Smart people are not exempt from stupid periods -- they're just smart. The question remains, what do they actually know?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

exciting times

A young woman whose job it was to clean the hospital room not only told me she was taking a class in religions, but also brought in a copy of the Bhagavad Gita ... I'm not exactly sure why but I thought I could sense the excitement people sometimes feel when they allow themselves to spiral into new realms and questions: This fascinates me, ergo it is fascinating and must fascinate others.

It's a youthful approach and as bright as a new penny -- to find something to which to offer an attention and, for a while, almost addiction's worth of fascination.

This young woman -- late teens, early 20's? -- was trying to get her head around some sort of tolerance: Yes, there were Hindus. But there were also Buddhists and Christians and Jews and ... oh, my, the list was very long and being "open" to each was her mission.

So she studied. And in so doing, found outlines she could both enunciate and tolerate ... or, if she couldn't tolerate, at least she could do her best to look tolerant.

But when I asked her in one way or another if she had actually tried any of these tolerable religions on for size -- whether she had lowered herself into the Jacuzzi of experience and practice, whether she had felt the heat or chill -- well, she was not yet in the mood to tolerate that ... she was too busy becoming tolerant.

The young woman took me back to my own sweeping bits of understanding and hope and belief. How exciting! How confusing! How delicious! How wonderful to see the world in a new way and then mold it like clay ... with deep meaning, profound meaning, enfolding compassion, sharp brightness, etc., etc. It was damn near better than chocolate for me and, looking at this young woman's face, I think it may have been the same for her.

But lying in the hospital bed making idle conversation, I realized after a while that I had had enough of her delights. I didn't feel critical -- just out of social graces and somewhat feigned interest. I sort of hoped she might take a step off the cliff she had constructed for herself, but all that was really visible was the hand-rails of safety. It was all OK ... but I guess I just wasn't in the mood. Bouncing on some spiritual trampoline really was good exercise ...


Go ahead and exercise. Make strong muscles and shape a strong mind. Who knows when such things might come in handy ...

As for example when the hand-rails of this life can no longer bear your weight.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

down time

Hospital for a couple of days.

Be well, all.

stacking wood

I floated into that waking-up, half-awake cloud this morning and felt somehow relaxed that one man's mediocrity was another man's excellence. Not sure why or how or apropos-what this thought arose, but it was comfortable as an old slipper.

It seemed to be linked somehow to a couple of guys who came to stack a couple of cords of wood yesterday. Both seemed to be in their 40's and both worked for a nearby lumbering company and stacked wood on the side to make something extra. Shane and I missed the other guy's name.

Both were cheerful and hardworking and it was a pleasure to have them doing the work -- getting it done neatly and efficiently and getting over my own sense that having someone else stack your wood is somehow not right ... stack your own wood. But I am weaker now, so having someone do it makes sense and these two helped me to see through my own judgments.

Basically, I told them what I wanted, they understood, and off to work they went. Periodically I would go out to chat and see how things were coming. Shane, it turned out, had five kids and one grand-daughter ... all of whom delighted him. The other fellow had raised two sons single-handedly. Neither of them made a big deal out of their lives and accomplishments, but they enjoyed talking about them and then passing on to another subject, easy as two peas in a pod.

But when, in my mind, I stopped the conversation they so easily shared, I was filled with amazement. FIVE kids? That's a lot of work, a lot of love, a lot of energy. "Eventually," Shane remarked off-handedly, "you learn it's not all about you." And the other fellow, the one whose name I missed, concurred light-heartedly: He had had to switch his jobs around so he could work days and watch the kids at night ... year after year after year. Single parent. Whoa Mama!

Through it all, both men continued to stack wood and shovel shards and sort out kindling and laugh at each other's jokes. The were both open to another voice when I interjected mine and it felt like finding a seat around the general-store wood stove ... of course there was plenty of room; sit down and stay a while.

Somewhere in Switzerland, the Hadron collider was bashing particles together; somewhere someone was getting out of bed and remembering the dishes that weren't washed last night; somewhere a child was groaning over yet another peanut butter and jelly sandwich; somewhere, someone was concluding a business deal or executing and enemy; somewhere, someone was praising God or playing polo with a human head; somewhere it was sad; somewhere it was silly ....

It was an excellent afternoon and I didn't have to do a single thing about it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

writing in college

My college freshman son sent me a copy of a paper on which he had received an A. He said he didn't think it was worth an A and I had to agree -- his grasp of the topic (stereotypes in the media) was OK, but, as for any of us, the execution left something to be desired.

Reading it over, I thought the paper showed promise of better papers to come. Practice makes perfect-ish. But what really worried me was whether the teacher had actually read the paper and if so, how s/he could have let so much get by him/her. Dumb students are OK -- that's why they're in school: To learn. But dumb teachers is enough to make the pope weep... verbs that didn't agree with nouns; opinions in the midst of an essay; and no sense of punctuation or paragraphs.

All of this stuff has pissed off writers from time immemorial ... if the thoughts are golden in my head, then of course they are golden when I put them on the page. But the hard fact is that writing is 95+% RE-writing. Why? Because the important person in the whole writing equation is not so much the author -- it's the reader. It's no excuse to say, "S/he SHOULD understand." It's harder and more accurate to say, "I should be able to convey it."

All of this and more like it I had a hard time communicating to my son. I am painfully aware of how much practice I have had and how pig-headed I can be. And I don't want to dump my stinky biases in his backyard and discourage him from trying to improve.

So I did the best I could and keep my fingers crossed that I didn't screw the pooch ... again.

Monday, September 13, 2010

'old' stuff

As someone learning to write, I was always taught, "write what you know about." Certainly you can understand the intention of the advice, but the fact is that everyone who writes, writes about what s/he doesn't know ... i.e. takes what is known and runs it through a personal-experience prism that may or may not betoken what is actually known.

Lately, for example, I have been surrounded by what it is and what it means to get old. There are pills and doctors and wrinkles and aches and pains, but the fact is that I don't really know what it means; I don't really know what I know (outside of being rather crabby about it all). It's my first time, so I can't be expected to be an expert, but still, since it is happening to me, you'd think I'd have some sort of handle on the situation. But the fact is, I don't.

In the past, when I have written about something, there has been a vague sense of certainty that accompanied the activity: I knew more or less what I wanted to say and had more or less good arguments to back it up. I did not feel as if there were no hand-holds.

I can recognize that this new shimmer that things seem to have is closer to a realistic approach to life -- every moment is born, grows old and dies in a nanosecond -- but in the past I was content to IMAGINE I was being realistic instead of BEING realistic. In imagination, there was right and wrong, better and worse, more and less compassionate ... a whole wardrobe of personality and person-hood hung neatly in the 'me' closet. But in old age, things fall away, dissipate and lose their importance.

It is odd -- all of it. And I feel somewhat shy talking about it, as if, at this tea party called life, no one ever said shit with his mouthful ... bad manners, dontcha know? Everyone eats white-bread cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and smiles in accord with a smiley occasion... politics, children, profession, death, divorce, philosophy, religion, gardening, aeronautics, marriage, race horses ... etc.

It's all so much easier when you imagine and agree...yummy little sandwiches.

But without imagination ... well, from the imaginative perspective, it's hard.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Getting Dirty 101

Sometimes I think that, as part of a good education, everyone should have the opportunity to get dirty, both literally and metaphorically. Getting Dirty 101.

On the literal front, there are Muslims who show their breeding by using only the first joint of the first three fingers of the right hand when eating. Only slobs like me get sloppy beyond that point. And other cultures have other forms of good breeding -- dressing, singing, walking, speaking, whatever.

But the trouble arises when there is some notion that NOT adhering to the marks of good breeding really show much of anything. Slob or no slob, a man has to eat. And nourishment trumps breeding any day of the week. A mind fixed on a single approach -- a well-groomed and well-shaped approach -- is a tight and limiting mind. Also, it's not much fun.

The first real chore I ever had in life was shoveling horse shit in the fourth grade. I didn't think of it as dirty, but I suppose that in some lexicons it might be seen that way ... scooping up horse manure, throwing it into a honey cart that ran on overhead wheels in the alleyway behind the horses, and eventually dumping it in a pile by the side of the barn. Inevitably, some of the shit got on my clothes and I ended up, like other kids who took care of horses, smelling like horse shit ... a smell I enjoy to this day.

But some never get the opportunity to get dirty -- to step outside their upbringing, to take a risk, to be inept, to stretch the stiffened boundaries. It seems a pity.

In spiritual life there really are people who never get beyond their culture -- the culture of refined and fine belief. If they are Christians, they never open the windows of the mind to wonder, "Who are those people who think Christianity is a crock? We are all human together, so I should be able to understand that in a non-uppity way." And Buddhists the same. And Jews. And Hindus. What are things like where the aroma of horse shit fills the air and I am out of my depth... where the best I can muster is a heart-felt eeeeeeuuuuuuuuw!

I guess it is a delicate matter, challenging or questioning the starched collars we may wear in this existence, but somehow I think that without such an effort, the effort we do make will always fall short of the peace we hope to achieve by wearing starched collars in the first place. Not that starched collars are somehow wrong ... it's just that they may need a little loosening ....

As in Getting Dirty 101.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

friends and enemies

I wonder: Is it harder to like or to dislike something or someone over a period of time?

I think maybe it's about the same because, no matter what the protestations of delight or disgust, liking and disliking mean creating a fixed set of descriptions of what is liked or disliked.

Fixed. Things are always changing and yet something or someone we have decided to like or dislike very much always depends on a fixed, stand-still reasoning or emotion.

For this reason, there is a sense of fatigue mixed with a vague hypocrisy that creeps in as we try to extend or lengthen our likes and dislikes, our 'good's' and 'bad's.' And sometimes, when we sense we are losing our grip on a particular person or thing -- something towards which we might like to extend an on-going principle of favor or disfavor -- the tendency to talk louder and use more hyperbole goes up. If you talk louder, maybe you will continue to believe it with the same fervor you once did ... only of course it doesn't work.

Things change. It's easy to say, but harder to do -- harder to get with the program. Enemies of the past are not necessarily enemies of the present. Friends of the past somehow shape-shift into something that seems inimical.

The only thing harder than the fact that things change is insisting that they don't/can't/won't.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

serious become solemn?

Although I am not sure what, exactly, is peculiar about it, still there is something peculiar in it....

I suppose there was an element of seriousness and determination involved when I built the zendo in the backyard in about 1998. A permanently split left thumb nail gives enduring testimony to the nail-pounding that more than once went awry. I spent the money for the lumber. I consulted with better-informed carpenters about how to create the foundation and, hardest for me, got the angle on the roof beams right.

Anyway, at some point, the place was as good as it was going to get and I could begin putting the place to the use intended -- zazen or seated meditation. Some people came to join me, but mostly they did not ... no matter, this was a place for zazen.

Then yesterday, as if my efforts here represented some institutionalized accomplishment, I got an email from a local college inviting me to join them as they counseled their students in spiritual matters. The letter was full of wording that suggested my thumb-bashing little hut had turned into something serious ... in the less serious, more institutional sense. I could send my representatives to meetings at the college. I could fill out a form and be on their volunteers list. I couldn't cuss up a storm because that's not how things were being organized.

Since I don't have any 'representatives' and since this small house in the backyard hardly resembles the intricacies of some Vatican, I sent a polite note saying that if individual students wanted to talk over their spiritual endeavors (with or without the Buddhist overlay) I'd be happy to lend a hand, but otherwise I was basically small potatoes.

And the idea of going to meetings made me remember Richard Feynman's response when asked what winning the Nobel prize (physics?) meant to him. "It means," he said, "that I don't have to go to meetings." I guess some meetings can help solve some problems, but I also think it can help confuse them worse ... and they sure are boring.

In zazen, you sit still and straight and confer with ... no one, more or less. It's true that that stillness will have to venture out if it hopes to come to fruition, but in the meantime well, just nourish the buds. No beard-stroking sincerities can do as much, but maybe you have to stroke your beard for a while before that becomes clear.

Anyway, it felt sort of weird that this putt-bang zendo would receive a wink and a nod. True, I did write a letter to the local newspaper when there was a story about the college's planning to cut back on its religious component, but that was some months ago and it was just an expression of my opinion ... it wasn't trooping down from Mt. Ararat to people the plain.

It makes me feel a little like Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels who observed aptly that if you said anything often enough, people would come to believe it. If the zendo sits there long enough, someone will get up a head of solemnity: It must be true, it's been sitting there, making its statement for 10-12 years.

Ah well, it was all a small matter. Peculiar. And made me titter a little.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

winners and losers

It occurred to me that in spiritual endeavor ...

Winners always come in second.


GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - The leader of a small Florida church that espouses anti-Islam philosophy said he was still praying about whether go through with his plan to burn copies of the Q'ran on Sept. 11, which the White House, religious leaders and others are pressuring him to call off. Complete article

Fervor is such a strange commodity. It lights up the distant horizon like the Blitzkrieg, and yet, come dawn, its wonders are somehow changed ... not necessarily diminished, but less colorful, perhaps, in the dawn's early light.

The fervor of others can be pretty spooky, but my own fervors seldom make a similar spotlight. They are my fervors, of course, and don't carry the same elements of crazy I can invest the fervors of others with. Burn the Q'ran? That's nuts in a hundred ways. It pisses people off without doing much more than pissing them off. It doesn't change any minds. Its self-congratulation would be funny if it weren't so dangerous.

Burn the Q'ran.
Burn the Bible.
Burn the Tripitaka.
Burn the Upanishads.
Burn the Vedas.
Butn the Torah.
Burn Beavis and Butt-Head.

And then ... and then ... don't think of a purple cow.

In the basement here are the complete and molding works of Swami Vivekanada. There are a pair of cufflinks (real gold, not the chintzy latter-day kind) that belonged to my father and might be passed to my son. And there is s first-class sheep-skin coat, three-quarter length that may be heavy but would keep out the most bitter of prairie winds.

The all have meant something to me in the fervent times and yet now ... I'm barely sure of where they are, even if I did want to root out an old fervor. Vivekananda's in a box, I think; the sheepskin is in a trunk, I think; and woven in with Vivekanada is some recognition that religion and spiritual life was a fervent concern that is now spilled carelessly somewhere or other in my life...not at all the neatly-packaged Q'ran burning of the past.

Can fervor stand alone ... without any company to applaud or hiss? I sort of doubt it: Even where there is no one else around, still there are the scenarios of the mind, cheering and chiding. Fervor pushes actions along, but after a while its high octane seems to dissipate: Whatever anyone is fervent about turns into a simple aspect or facet of this life.

You like God? OK, no need to get your tail in a twist. The edges just soften over time like some small wave in the bay ... rolling along and sometimes singing. Sharing it in any real sense never did make much sense.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

spending for ....

Spending for House and Senate seats has risen to a record $1.2 billion and a report shows that the U.S. expects to spend about $6 billion annually in Afghanistan even after the U.S. troops withdraw.

What a lot of money. I wonder what sort of bang we can expect for the buck ... positive bang. It's hard to see and hard not to think:

A lot of people are unemployed and cannot feed their families.

Monday, September 6, 2010

the comfort of discomfort

Somewhere, George Orwell mentioned more or less that there was no such thing as a philosopher without a full stomach. I imagine what he had in mind was to point out the disparity between rich and poor -- the rich have the comfort and luxury where the poor have more mundane matters to attend to: Food, drink, shelter, etc.

Does it take a certain level of comfort to make it possible to consider the discomforts of this life? I think it does and I think that comfort is manifested, for example, in the go-along-to-get-along conformity institutionalized churches/temples exhibit. It takes some peace and quiet -- and a full stomach -- to consider what Buddhists sometimes call unsatisfactoriness or uncertainty. And who better to provide that peace and quiet than a well-armed state? Philosophy and religion may be smooth as dish soap to the touch but there is payment to be made for that dish soap.

As true as any of the above may be sociologically -- and I'm not claiming it's a perfect analysis -- what interests me is how this plays out in individuals who may be seeking some peace of mind: Gotta have some comfort in order to assess discomfort. Or, as my buddy John once put it, "How many people do you know who claim poverty and still drink bottled water?"

I just think it's something to keep an eye on: Who is this one who assesses and wrestles with judgment and bias and attachment and all the other aspects of human existence that convene towards unhappiness? Is that one judgmental, biased and attached?

Have a Big Mac and think about it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

good and evil

On television, The History Channel tends to be top-heavy with clips of World War II and thin-tea approaches to Nostradamus/Apocalypse/Revelations/Anti-Christ/Doom-'n'-Gloom.

But yesterday, during a channel-flip, something caught my ear on The History Channel. I probably got it wrong, but how wrong, I'm not sure.

What I heard was that up until the Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews started promulgating their faiths, the notions of good and evil were joined at the hip so to speak -- kin whose separation was impossible. This accords with anyone's common sense and yet the dream/belief/hope that there might be some light without darkness was so compelling that common sense was swept aside in a bolt of pure light ... or pure darkness, I suppose.

Pure goodness surrounded by imaginative tales of how evil entered the picture. No longer kin. No longer brother and sister. No longer fruit of the same loins.

And to the extent that I got this notion right, all I could think was, "No wonder things got so fucked up." Not that it's not human and understandable, but rather what a good pointer to return to a common sense that points more assuredly to understanding a peace.

Anyway, what I found interesting in what I only half-heard and perhaps heard badly was the delicious public relations to be found in good and evil. It's so damned attractive that it takes some real courage to get beyond Disneyland -- courage and patience and doubt.

What would man's good be without man's evil? And what would man's evil be without man's good? It is fertile ground for the weaving of tales (tales I have woven and so perhaps have you), but for the serious student, it is also idiotic and half-baked, a stumbling block made particularly dangerous by the vast social agreement it can invite.

If so-called good and so-called evil are separated, isn't this the same as taking the wetness from water? How good could a man possibly hope to be good without the capacity to purify evil? How good could he be if all he could do was to point out evil as distinct from good? How could God be God if God were not God?

It's not tricky of philosophical or religious. It requires no books and no hierarchy and no convincing. It just requires common sense and a willingness to pay attention.

Still ... what a great p.r. gimmick: Good and evil, separate and distinct. If you have any doubts about great p.r., just check out the size and membership of some of the megachurches in the Midwest.

If only it assured peace.

If only it worked.

PS. As a footnote, someone posted this oldie-but-goodie elsewhere:

A teacher asked the children to draw a picture. Checking on their progress the teacher asked one little girl: "what are you drawing?" the girl answered: "a picture of god". The teacher pointed out that no one knows what god looks like.
"They will in a minute," replied the little girl.


Saturday, September 4, 2010


Virtue that is not put to the test can hardly be called virtue at all. Purity of motive and heart cannot be created on the tip of the tongue.

And so we test our spiritual endeavors again and again by putting them on the line -- possibly to be lost forever -- and embracing the fear we may feel at the idea of straying from or losing our virtues.

Courage is tested. Honesty is tested. Responsibility is tested. Attention is tested. And there is no book or institution that can assure the outcome. Only we can to that.

Let's be good.

But not too good.


It is traditional to hang out the flag on Labor Day, the first Monday of each September -- a holiday born out of strife between the haves and the have-nots. First celebrated in 1882 in the U.S., the holiday is generally a time that also marks the end of summer vacations and provides an opportunity to fire up the barbecue one last time before cold weather sets in.

To hang a flag upside down is not a mark of disrespect. It is a mark of distress, an SOS for those in difficulty. It has nothing to do with the patriotism of those hanging it. Others whose love of country goes no further than an American-flag lapel pin may see things differently.

Since there is trouble in my country with something like 16-plus million either unemployed or underemployed, dismay seems appropriate. 9.6% unemployment is not much to write about in, say, Zimbabwe (94% in 2009), but many Americans do not imagine themselves as living in Zimbabwe.

Third-world status creeps in slowly. It's a dirty little secret: If we don't mention it, it's not true. "Mildred! Where is my American-flag lapel pin?!" The greatness of American principles is belied by its haves and its have-nots.

I will try to figure out how to hang my flag upside down.

Friday, September 3, 2010

a confession

Following what I admit is more or less a nightly ritual, I watched first the BBC news tonight and then changed the TV channel to something called "The Nightly Business Report" on America's National Public Radio.

It's not that I am conversant with economics of any kind, but I feel it's important to know something of the day's financial concerns when so many are feeling the economic pinch. But tonight as I watched the business report, I realized what was missing from the 30 minute program: A laugh track.

Everyone involved on the program was at pains to put a positive spin on stock, bond jobless and other financial movements. There was not one word of negativity ... except, for example, to pooh-pooh such things as a "double-dip recession," i.e., moving from the recession we are currently in to an even deeper recession.

Those producing the show and, I guess, watching the show, wanted to hear that they could still make money and the rest of us should trust that things were, in fact, getting better. The program, like the government in a hundred different ways, has asked that the public trust the very banks and other institutions that put them in the soup in the first place.

I confess I was wrong about laugh tracks. There is a place for them.

When the banks got in trouble and the real estate bubble burst, public money was poured into their coffers to assure that they would not fail. Meanwhile, the public coffers -- the people whose money makes banking and Wall Street operate -- were left to fend pretty much for themselves. Take apart the smooth talk from the president on down and ... well, the only thing missing is a laugh track.

I hate laugh tracks almost as much as I hate malls, but in this case I really think a laugh track is warranted ... contrived laughter to balance out the contrived optimism and applause.

Is it any wonder that under-educated people like Glenn Beck can magnetize the disenfranchised, even with patent idiocies. Washington can't lead, Wall Street can't lead ... so we're stuck with Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or some other half-baked demagogue. However bitter and saddening it may be for what once was a great country, we deserve a little time to laugh.

However un-funny things may be.


End of rant.

driver's license

My younger son got his driver's license yesterday.

The result was that there were a hundred places he needed to go -- shopping at WalMart, blowing up the tires, picking up milk for dinner, putting gas in the tank ... all told, I wouldn't be surprised if he put 75 miles on my car.

And each outing was followed by a blow-by-blow description of the experience. Connecticut drivers were the pits ... and he had an example to prove it. The gas pump didn't seem to work, so he went back into the convenience store to get the clerk to reset the mechanism.

He was a peacock and I was enjoying it.

Who doesn't like to be a peacock from time to time?

If he wants to drive me around, that's more than OK with me as well.

Who doesn't want a chauffeur from time to time?


One of the things I suspect about serious spiritual life is this:

A realized man or woman is by nature compassionate. This compassion is not the stuff that self-help books refer to -- a kind of super-duper altruism that contrasts so nicely with the rough-and-tumble and sometimes horrific ways of the world. It is not something to praise.

Rather, I suspect, a realized man or woman simply has no other choice. Things cannot be correctly understood or enacted without compassion and this has fuck-all to do with virtue. There simply is no other choice.

It can't be helped.

Outsiders may judge those deemed 'realized' by the fact that they simply cannot act out egotistical formats. They can not. If they can, that's not's just another greedy, sex-crazed, ignorant nitwit like the rest of us. Such nitwits may praise compassion or tie it in self-serving knots or Jesuitical explanations, but compassion is not a choice or a possession in the world of realization.

It can't be helped ... that's all.

Or that's my hunch.

waking up

2 a.m. seems to be the time to wake up lately. Not yet near enough to dawn to consider getting out of bed and yet difficult to find that cliff we all drop off when finding actual sleep.

Maybe it's needing to take a piss, though that hasn't really pushed my buttons. Or maybe it's the fact that I am yet another voodoo doll for doctors and pharmacological money-makers to stick their bottled pins into.

Whatever it is, 2 a.m. seems to be about the time to wake up and think thoughts that pass the time without any particular excitement ... the relative merits of baloney and liverwurst; a B movie I enjoyed; and then a night or two ago was a longish segment it's hard to describe:

Whatever thought I thought, in the moment when the thought was through, another thought would come along posing exactly the opposite of what had preceded it. What was ugly became beautiful; what was tall became short; what was simple became complex and vice versa. The opposites came along naturally on the heels of whatever initial proposition there had been. It was all smooth as water connected to wave.

And the interesting part was not so much this rag-tag army of odds-and-ends thoughts, but the fact that any aspect had precisely the same importance as the one preceding it. I seemed incapable of elevating one thing over another. It wasn't frightening or delightful or freighted with "Buddhism" ... it was just what happened, over and over again. No particular emotion, but not lacking emotion either. It's odd to write, but it wasn't odd at the time ... more quasi-boring, as if someone were saying "d'oh!" and you agreed with them.

All things considered, I'd rather sleep from 2 to 4 or 5, but that simply hasn't been in the cards lately.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


My older son has been in college a little over a week and already he and some buddies are planning to buy a shark which he describes as "a vegetarian, for safety purposes."

I wrote back asking him not to tickle its chin or flush it down the toilet when he gets tired of it.

A shark ... the mind boggles.

senior moments

Something for the seniors

PS. Sorry, I don't know how to do the picture thingie.

driver's license

Today, my younger son gets his driver's license. There is a small test and then, voila!, he can do his own damned driving here and there.

On the one hand, I am happy for him -- a milestone, a marker.

On another hand, I am happy for me -- no more money paid to a driving school mandated by the state ... when I already know he can drive well because I taught him.

On still another hand, it is a time between yesterday and tomorrow -- a growing-up and grown-up time, when, in my mind, he still fits -- even at 6'2" and 200-plus pounds -- in the crook of my arm.

Who can do better than Dylan Thomas? "Time passes. Listen! Time passes."

sinners and winners

My mother once commented that between sins of omission and sins of commission, she would choose sins of commission every time.

The implication was that when you make a mistake by acting, its lessons sink in as surely as barbed wire.

But when you make a mistake by failing to act, the parameters of that failure are blurred and uncertain.

I don't think this is a vastly-important point since exceptions can be found at every turn, but it has a broad-brush fitness in my mind...even in the face of beard-stroking observations that action and no-action amount to action.

With attention, any sort of action comes up a winner, but if you're as dumb as I am, sometimes a sharp kick in the pants helps.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

into the military

Yesterday, I picked my younger son up from a friend's house. The two of them had been to a meeting of Best Buddies and discussed with others what activities they should all undertake during the upcoming school year with the impaired students each had been paired off with. I asked my son if their decision was pretty much to do the same as previous years -- bowling, movies, skating, etc. -- and he said yes. He'll be a high school junior this year -- getting his driver's license and all.

The conversation meandered around until he came out with, "If I decided to join the military, would you forbid me?" A bunch of acquaintances were doing it, he said, and he had "been thinking about it for a long time."

As questions go, well, talk about where the rubber hits the road!

For a moment, I wished I could be a lock-step pacifist with a hard and fast argument why he shouldn't. Alternatively, I wished I could be a self-satisfied patriot sporting am American-flag lapel pin. But I was neither of these things: I was just a collection of whatever experiences and thoughts I had and many of those thoughts and experiences pointed down conflicting roads.

The thoughts came helter skelter, some popping out of my mouth:

-- This was my son and I will take a back seat to no national or nationalistic policy when it came to trying to sort out what might be best for him.

-- The military is an organization founded on killing others and killing others invariably kills the one doing the killing. This is not some bullshit, religious joke.

-- There is a delicious camaraderie to a group of young people learning and living the same lifestyle. It is regimented and feels safe ... everyone agrees even though they bitch and moan volubly. It's grown-up at a time when a young man or young woman is probably uncertain about what being a "grown-up" means.

-- Military or non-military, every young person finds a way to make mistakes. How can they learn any serious lessons without the mistakes? (When I went into the army, I had to have five letters of recommendation in order to join the group I was to be assigned to. One came from a minister, who sent me a glowing bit of praise but included a separate note with it -- something for my eyes only: Don't do it, Adam! You're too much of an individualist! They'll eat you for breakfast! I joined anyway. It was not a mistake in one sense.)

And then we segued into basic training and leaning how to march and make beds and shoot guns and all the other minutiae. My son had been watching TV shows about Rangers and Recon Units and Special Forces and ... well, he had been thinking about it for a long time. Wondering if he could do it, wondering if he wanted to do it, wishing he could visit some of these people and ask them how it was ... I could feel his mind's curiosity since I had felt it too.

Rising up in the background, of course, were the United States' latest two wars -- one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. And there was the one yet to come, with Iran. None of them was based on anything imperative other than oil and greed. Any physical threats were not met with negotiation ... these were just old men with old agendas and they were the people who were willing to kill my son. Red, white and blue bullshit ... no one had yet landed a flotilla on our beaches; their acts of violence had been met a hundred times over with the deaths of women and children who were largely brown and poor and in some cases rabid.

No, I did not have the hard-and-fast answers. It was like spiritual life -- you can't tell anyone what they don't know yet, you can only suggest and hope that their mistakes are not too costly. So I will continue to talk to my son ... it is all I can think of. But I sure hate not having The Answer.