Friday, December 31, 2010

happy new year

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New, newer, newest -- it's New Year's Eve and I would like to wish everyone a happy and peaceful new year, starting with enough aspirin to relieve any residual hangovers tomorrow.

At a Zen center I once attended, New Year's Eve was celebrated by chanting the Kanzeon Ten Clause Sutra right through the midnight hour. At the beginning of each chant (it's a pretty short one), one by one, participants got to hit the big-bowl gong. We chanted the sutra 108 times ... 108 having a number of applications/associations in Buddhism, not the least of which is the 108 delusions (only 108???) anyone might be subject to. We chanted from before midnight to after midnight, from one year to the next, and by the time we got done we were still sitting in the same meditation hall ... which had changed but it was hard to say how. It was all a bit like driving across the state line from Massachusetts to Connecticut -- everything (speed limit, scenery, etc.) pretty much the same except for some random sign (and your willingness to credit it) saying you had crossed the border. Chanting was a nice way to usher in the New Year... but then there was the question as to what, precisely, was new about it.

In order for anything to be "new," there is the imperative to look at the "old." This morning, for example, I woke up with the old nudge to Christians, "Imagining you are a Christian because you go to church on Sunday is like standing in the garage and imagining you are a car." It's an old chestnut, one that can be applied to pretty much any faith or belief or intellectual construct. Talking the talk and walking the walk are not the same thing: Sure, it's true, but who is willing to take it seriously?

Anyway, there is the new that relies on the old and then there is the new, the right-now that never was and never will be again and is gone before you can say "right now." Associatively, another old chestnut comes to mind: "Your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before."

What could possibly be difficult about right-now? Or easy either? What could possibly be different about this meditation hall? Or the same either? What could possibly be new ... or old either? Imagining I am a car or a Buddhist is just imagining ... the new year doesn't mind. But it doesn't concede the point either. As a small ego trip, I have always enjoyed my line, "Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help."

So I hope everyone will have a happy and peaceful and safe new year, whether as a Buddhist or Christian, a car or a garage. Take the time to smile just one smile. It's worth the price of admission.
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Thursday, December 30, 2010

victory

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All of my kids have played sports of one kind or another as they went or continue to go to school. Sports, like wars, generally have winners and losers ... that's the way they are configured.

And one of the hardest things to do is to convince a kid to be gracious in victory. Even though they too have been on the losing end of the battle and know what that feels like, still they can't help gloating and strutting...sometimes in public and less often in private.

As I understand it, Alexander the Great may not have been entirely benevolent when he conquered vast lands and made them part of his empire, but one thing he did do was to make sure that natives of the land were a large part of the new administration... loyal to Alexander's vision and desires, perhaps, but still, speaking the native tongue and aware of native needs. He may not have been gracious, but he certainly was savvy.

A victory is one thing, but a victory full of gloating becomes no one, least of all the victor.

Not to mention the fact that gloating is bound to come around and bite you on the ass in a future tainted by chest-pounding.
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modesty

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An internet dictionary defines the adjective "modest" as:

  1. Having or showing a moderate estimation of one's own talents, abilities, and value.
  2. Having or proceeding from a disinclination to call attention to oneself; retiring or diffident.
  3. Observing conventional proprieties in speech, behavior, or dress.
  4. Free from showiness or ostentation; unpretentious. See Synonyms at plain.
  5. Moderate or limited in size, quantity, or range; not extreme: a modest price; a newspaper with a modest circulation.
I like modest people. Not the Stepin Fetchit types whose pretense is hardly better than the blowhard show-offs they pretend they are not, but the ones who let their actions do the talking and their talking take a hike. Modesty is pretty attractive in my mind's eye.

But I wondered this morning what useful role modesty might play. Two fortune cookie nostrums came to mind: 1. The old observation that "comparisons are odious" and 2. the suggestion, "You already know what you think and it is therefore wiser to find out what the other guy thinks." And perhaps one more: Put up or shut up.

But is any of that really useful? I don't know. It does seem to me that the only way to learn modesty is by recognizing the brick walls that the experience of immodesty imposes. Modesty sees a wider tapestry, when it is not being faked. There is less "me" because there is some recognition that life is not about to sit still for the unexamined limitations of "me." Immodesty wins the battle, but modesty wins the war. But how could anyone find that out without hitting a few brick walls -- without experiencing the slings and arrows of war?

Trying to quantify or define or create a legal precedent out of modesty is, by definition, immodest. How's that for a koan?

Oh well, I like modesty and dislike anchovies ... that's about as far as I can go.
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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

movies

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My son, who likes some of the older movies, went out and bought a copy of "A Clockwork Orange" the other day. For my money, it's a classic, but it's also a classic I wouldn't watch again gladly. It's too close to the bone and these days I prefer my cinematic truths more candy-coated.

As I noticed my reaction -- 'classic but to hard to take as my time passes' -- I thought of other movies I considered truly great and yet too hard to stomach these days: "Brazil" and, to a lesser extent, "Apocalypse Now." Once I watched them with the delight that can arise with a studied distance. Nowadays, it's a little like Dostoevsky vs. Tolstoy -- each, as I once thought of it, standing equidistant from the midpoint between pessimism and optimism. Same scenery, different glasses... quick, gimme the Tolstoy glasses!

Yes, there are hard truths that are worth telling, but I'm turning into too much of a wuss to take my whiskey straight. Being a wuss doesn't bother me so much any more ... what the hell, I hate anchovies too.
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the joker

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I was just reading an implication on an internet Zen Buddhist bulletin board that culture accounts for the views and actions of a student or teacher. I find the suggestion both obvious and ludicrous.

All spiritual persuasions morphed as they moved from one culture to another. D'oh. An African is unlikely to see Christianity through the eyes of an Italian. An American is unlikely to see Zen through the eyes of a person living in Japan.

Culture is how we grew up and how we live. Richer, poorer, dumber, smarter, democratic, authoritarian ... and on and on through the hallways of culture. It is with culture on board that anyone approaches the spiritual adventure. In the same way that we dress according to the season, culture is the clothing we wear when assessing or implementing a spiritual persuasion.

Everyone starts out with his or her culture, his or her bias, his or her goodness or evil, his or her beliefs or disbeliefs, his or her hopes. What other choice is there?

But the fact is that the results of all that cultural background has not yet provided the profound clarity or peace that spiritual life suggests might be possible. Why did any of us test the waters of spiritual life in the first place? Wasn't it in part because culture simply didn't have the answers to the questions and doubts and uncertainties and sorrows that nattered and nagged?

We all began with our cultural baggage. D'oh. And then we got on board with a spiritual persuasion of one kind or another. We might not have known the truth of that persuasion, but we got on board because others (in text or temple or in person) offered descriptions we were willing to explore ... or even believe.

So we practiced. Out of the culture we were born to, we practice. And a little at a time, with luck, the cultural aspects we had so loved become less conclusive. They are simply too limited. In short "me" no longer made much sense in any enduring way. Relying on culture for our 'meaning' is not exactly wrong -- it's just that relying on anything whatsoever doesn't make much sense. This is not something to be understood intellectually or emotionally ... it's just an experience that lacks the doubt -- the limits -- that culture implies.

You are the joker in a deck of cards -- the one that brings meaning a force to any other card in the pack. You are the culture you claim to be part of. Just like anyone else in your culture, you can laugh ... but your laughter reaches to the end of the universe.

Culture? Ludicrous!
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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

enablers

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Given the volatility of the subject matter, I am probably putting my nuts in a vise, but I was thinking about the word "enabler" this morning.

"Enabler" is defined by one internet dictionary this way:

One that enables another to achieve an end; especially : one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior
 For example, as a teenager, I probably acted as an enabler as my mother sank deeper and deeper into alcohol and pill addiction. My excuse? (and enablers are filled with excuses) -- I was too young and too unaware and too viscerally hopeful that a parent would be the loving and responsible party in any relationship with a child... in this case, me.

These days -- or perhaps ever since the word itself was invented -- the word "enabler" does not simply suggest a relationship and encouragement. I think the word "enabler" also brings with it a tone of disapproval and smug, analytical distance, as if the one using it could see things more clearly and were immune to the confusions and negative impact of enabling.

Those who can cite "enabling" may be entirely correct in their assessment of some destructive or self-destructive behavior. But what crossed my mind this morning was that clarity is different from finger-pointing analysis. The American electorate, for example, enabled an egomaniacal George W. Bush ... or anyway that's my take, but waving the "enabler" wand is not really the end of the story, however convenient ending the story with that smug judgment may feel.

I haven't got the energy to weave an entire tapestry this morning, but I guess I think that we all enable each other, for better or worse, all the time. Literally, we are all enablers, whether we look in the mirror or look elsewhere.

I don't mean to disable the appropriate and accurate assessment of "enabling" (to fade away into some grand philosophical or religious ooze ... let him who is without flaw cast the first stone), but I do mean that without recognizing our own roles in the enabling of others or ourselves, there is hardly any chance that we will begin to correct what has gone astray. Without that recognition, our sense of superiority and righteousness will invariably cloud the scene of what is actually going on.

Enablers will no doubt have an explanation and an excuse for their righteousness, but I think such excuses only leave a hole in the heart, a sense of uncertainty that causes all enablers to redouble their efforts to excuse their righteousness ... and thereby expand the hole in the heart.

Suzuki Roshi once observed approximately about the dicta of Zen practice, "there are things to do and there are things not to do." I like that better than standing at some imagined, unconnected distance.

I cede the balance of my time to the ladies and gentlemen of the blogosphere.
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Monday, December 27, 2010

cursing the blessings

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The water we will drink and the water that will nourish the flowers is falling from the sky today. It is white and fluffy and the wind whips it hither and yon.

There are snow shovels on the porch and later, when they get up, I will encourage/order my two good sons to go outside and curse their way through exercises in the cold. The old man is getting too old.

Imagine that -- cursing the sustaining source of life.

Naja, it's a well-worn habit...cursing the blessings that nourish us.
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are we here yet?

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Sometimes I think that one of the tricks of the trade -- a trick I would like to brand on body, mouth and thought -- is the ability to go back to the beginning of things ... and never imagine it is a beginning.

Yesterday, out of the ether, I received an email from a high school student who said she had to do a paper for a religion class and she had picked Buddhism and wondered if she could come here to gather information for her paper. The request somehow took me back to a time when I too snooped the edges of spiritual life under cover of intellectual improvement.

Of course this young woman may never find spiritual endeavor anything more than an intellectual or emotional asset, but still ... there are beginnings and those who have been around the block a few times really do need to be comfortable and assured in realms that were once entrancing, but now gather dust in the mind's attic. When I find myself imagining that something is too simple or too basic or too unworthy of my expertise, then I know that my expertise is faulty.

I once had a friend who was a determined tennis player. She loved the game and wanted to be really good and once dragged me to see a women's competition at Madison Square Garden. I don't remember who was playing, but I do remember they were big guns -- the top professional women of the time. The players were pretty wow and yet some time later, when I suggested to my friend that she and I might sometime play tennis together, I could feel her emotional and intellectual muscles tightening up: I was not worthy of playing with her. I was not good enough. She only played with people who were as serious and determined as she was. And the diplomatic but firm no she delivered made me think: A good player or a good thinker should be capable of playing with the worst -- and not just the best -- opponent. A bumbling tyro (I was a medium good, though not professional, player) is a true challenge to the expert because it requires that the mind set on expertise do double duty, maintain the standard in the face of an ineptitude that had no agenda. Playing with the best is easy. Playing with the least is hard. And my friend was not up to it. She could not surrender her acquisitions, her expertise.

I wrote back to the young woman who sent the email and said she was welcome to come by. I also sent her a little one-page cheat-sheet I had written about Buddhism for another teenager who had visited at the behest of her church -- a church that wanted her to learn 'tolerance.'

But as I considered the blithe assumption that Buddhism was a religion ... well, it took me back to a time when I was snooping the spiritual terrain, when I felt very unsure of myself, and when I really did want to find others who agreed with me. Without that agreement, I was out on a limb, very unsure of my footing and wondering if I wasn't out of my mind by following some bizarre path. To be part of a "religion" meant I could claim the comfort of other people who were likewise religiously inclined. It felt authenticated to be among others who supported my travels and opinions and judgments: We may be crazy, but at least we have company. And the greater the crowd, the greater the authenticity.

With the email staring me in the face, I realized I hadn't thought about religion in a long time. Not that I was against it like some knee-jerk atheist ... I simply hadn't considered it. It was as if a man changing a flat tire had been asked to consider the delights of chocolate ice cream. What in heaven's name did ice cream, however delicious, have to do with trying to remove lug nuts?

But the email made me think. I have a lot of sympathy for people who embrace religion. Not that I don't recognize the capacity for nitwits and massacres and not that I want to be trapped in some great hall listening to solemn utterances based on some book, but still I have sympathy: Everyone wants to be happy; everyone has his or her uncertainties ... so religion, like tennis, is a perfectly OK starting point. The central difficulty with religion is that it posits something else -- some god, some heaven, some state of mind, some goodness, some evil ... some something or other else. And there is sometimes little willingness to investigate where else anyone could possibly be.

There is a sitcom on television called, "Are We There Yet?" a line used by bored children forced to travel with their parents to grandma's or elsewhere. For me, if Buddhism were a sitcom, I think the title would be "Are We Here Yet?" ... and there would be a lot of canned laughter.

So, OK -- maybe for the moment Buddhism is religion. What the hell, Buddhism has people saying words like "enlightenment" and "compassion" and "Nirvana" and "emptiness" and the minute you utter such a word, you're off and running in the world of something else. But where else could anyone begin if not in the realm of something else -- some religion or tennis match or flat tire?

I don't know if the email young woman will show up or not. I haven't had a response yet. But I do know that she made me stop and think and get a glimmering ... if you can't be at ease with the beginning, there is no chance in hell you'll be at ease with the end. And there's no room for bullshit -- none of that "sharing is caring" crap. Kindness be damned!

Are we here yet?
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Christmas music at the mall

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Religion beyond religion.




And another one:


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Sunday, December 26, 2010

good news

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Reading the news from around the world today, I was reminded of my deceased brother-in-law, who, when I was working at a newspaper, wondered why there couldn't be a newspaper that reported all the good news, the warming news, the news that made you smile inside and out. He was quite serious about it. And sometimes, reading the news as I was this morning, I could see his point ... men, women and children being killed or maimed or going hungry or sick or ... the list is endless.


And sometimes it is the same inside as it is in the news -- a lot of very difficult and painful pictures painted in the mind ... no wonder people take illicit drugs. It can be so pleasing to read or hear good news, news that elevates the darkened interior. Bright and cheerful. Yes, we are all going to heaven after we die and, for those inclined, there will be 77 virgins to make things more pleasant. It's good to hear good news. But most of the good news comes at the expense of bad news ... yes, we're going to heaven, perhaps, but we are also going to die in order to get there. Most are not dying to die.

Good news/bad news.

As the former television anchorman Walter Cronkite once said, "News isn't about the number of cats that did not get up on the garage roof." Going to heaven is also about the cat on the garage roof -- the death we must address when we're honest, the bad news.

And the civil rights leader Martin Luther King once said approximately, "It's not what's wrong with the world that scares people. What really scares them is that everything is all right."

Good news, everybody! The cat is on the garage roof!

-ish

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Wondering vaguely if children -- and subsequently adults -- are inherently selfish. And, based on the need to survive, I guess they probably are. But the question that arises after having survived is, who survives? What self is it, precisely, about which anyone might be -ish?

The -ish suffix implies approximation. Blue-ish, tall-ish, sweet-ish. Is there an approximate self ... or an exact one either? If we are imitating something called the self -- stage-managing some play called "I, Myself and Me" -- then who is doing the imitation?

This is a point at which Buddhism can be useful. Check it out. It's interesting-ish.
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grinchy

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The day after Christmas and the house that was already overflowing with stuff is now overflowing-er. Today is likely to be a day of Stuff hangovers. Bleah.

Well, the zendo heat is on and perhaps a little zazen will help sweep the floors, although the fellow who said he would come today (and I thought might kick my ass into gear) emailed his regrets and said he would come next Sunday. I'll take my Grinch out there and let him do the kicking.

Watched a large chunk of the movie "Avatar" yesterday with my son. I can see why it didn't win an Academy Award: Lots of imaginative background and special effects, but basically it was a cowboys and Indians movie ... only this time the Indians won and the characters were not that interesting, even if they did have tails. Maybe today we can watch one of the several old movies I got my older son for Christmas -- "Schindler's List," "A Man for All Seasons," "Paths of Glory" and "The Parallax View."

Somehow -- perhaps because of my own crabby disposition today -- I can imagine Europeans chortling a little because the same kind of snowfall that has snarled air and land traffic in their neck of the woods is promised for this part of the colonies... 10-15 inches.

Gotta get to the market early ... stock up ... hunker down ... and be grateful for the wood stove.
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Saturday, December 25, 2010

the cat's pajamas

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Early Christmas Day and the house is full of the smell of cinnamon buns. It is dark as yet and my usual stopping places on the internet are quiet.

After the boys get up and the orgy of Christmas wrappings is over, I plan to go downtown and stand on the peace picket line. The fact that few if any will see those who gather on that picket line makes it a somehow extra-delicious prospect.

Doing things when no one else sees or knows what is being done ... that's pretty much the cat's pajamas, a Santa Claus among Santa Clauses, I think.


PS The "cat's pajamas" is described on the internet as a usage from the 1920's, "a phrase used to describe something that is the best at what it does, thus making it highly sought and desirable. Similar phrases that didn't endure: "the eel's ankle," "the elephant's instep" and "the snake's hip.""
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Friday, December 24, 2010

smile just one smile

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Merry Christmas and ...



 A Happy and Peaceful
                        New Year to all!
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movie time

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"You ready, Pop?" my son asked about a half an hour before the movie was due to start yesterday. I muttered something about being too early, but he countered that there would be traffic. And besides, since being on time is an old habit of mine ... I hustled into my clothes, checked my wallet for money, and away we went, him in the driver's seat.

And we were early -- early enough to see why movie theaters are losing their appeal. Once seated, for a solid fifteen minutes, we watched advertising clips. Nothing but advertising ... for cars, for food, for malls, for debilitating diseases. Finally, the theater darkened and we were treated to another five or ten minutes of advertisements of movies to come. None was coherent or let you know what the story might be about. Instead it was a pastiche of boobs and bomb blasts and cryptic one-liners uttered by pretty male actors who needed a shave and were therefore, somehow, Alpha-male tough guys who got the girls with the boobs.

I am a sucker for stories, so I never stop being amazed at a movie industry that fails to tell the story that will bring me back and extract my money. It's as if what happens in any given story doesn't matter so much -- it's how it looks and the technology it employs that counts. Talk about dumb and dumber! Who doesn't like being carried away by intellect and emotion ... swept up in some suspend-disbelief panorama? Who doesn't like to be shown the world in another way, to be surprised?

Is it a surprise that bombs go boom or girls have boobs or the hirsute hero needs a shave?

Abraham Lincoln once said, "You call fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." I guess Hollywood is satisfied with "some of the people."

The movie, called "The Fighter," was pretty good -- had some good characters and plot lines. The fight scenes were OK too, but it was the entire arena of the film that was more credible. "It took me a while to get into it," my son said, "but after that, it was really good."
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expertise

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Yesterday, a woman from the cardiologist's office called to remind me that I have an appointment next Tuesday -- a fact I had already written down on the calendar but had largely ignored or perhaps blocked out. It wasn't the 'mortality' thing that caused the blockage -- I'm pretty much in tune with the doctor component of getting old -- but rather the fact that I don't much like or trust the doctor I see and I have avoided the effort and diplomacy necessary to finding a different guy.

My problem with the current man is his expertise. He is -- or I sense that he thinks he is -- an expert. As Shunryu Suzuki once observed more or less, in the beginner's mind, the possibilities are endless; in the expert's mind the possibilities are few. There is a difference between being an expert and knowing you are an expert. This guy knows -- or acts as if he knows -- he is an expert. He reminds me of the 18th century French doctor who, in the age of reason, dissected a corpse and announced to the world with an expert's delight that he had not found anything resembling a soul. In an age reacting to a credulous past, I can sympathize with the announcement and delight. But there is something to be said for getting past our own expert abilities.

Not that expert abilities aren't wonderful. I would hate to go to a car mechanic and ask him to tend to my heart or any other organ. But for an expert of all people, the imperative to move on -- to get wider and more open -- strikes me as, well, imperative. How else can you BE an expert?

Oh well, perhaps on Tuesday I can ask for future visits to be with someone who does not know so much and therefore knows more. Just because you can't find a soul doesn't necessarily mean it's not there.
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Thursday, December 23, 2010

work and play

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During anyone's working life, there may come a time when the saying hits home: "Stop and smell the roses."

But when working life recedes and there are nothing but roses, the old Zen saying begins to take on a meaning beyond thin-tea, logical certainty: "A day without work is a day without eating."

"Work is overrated." -- what a fine koan.
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give and take

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Yesterday I passed the scene a couple of times while driving around doing errands -- yellow police tape strung around a local bank's parking lot. State and local police cars and officers could be seen behind the tape. The scene didn't take much deduction and shortly thereafter on the internet there were security camera pictures of a black man, apparently with a beard and wearing a snappy hat. He had robbed the bank of an undisclosed amount of money. How he escaped was not revealed.


Greed, giving, desperation ... Merry Christmas.

It put me in mind of a small lesson in giving-and-receiving I once got during a three-week trip to what was then called the U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1968.

Before leaving the United States, the tour group had been told that the Russians were serious about gift-giving. It wasn't like Christmas in the United States where people gave gifts because they felt they should. There was no duress -- gifts came from the heart, so we were advised not to give things casually.

As part of the tour, we took a boat trip down the Volga River, and on the way we stopped at a small dock surrounded by lush green hills. We could swim or go for walks or whatever took our fancy. A fellow tourist and I walked back into the hills to a small village whose houses, with one exception, were all built of logs. The exception was a cinderblock cow collective.

The place was picturesque. Houses were neatly kept on either side of the dirt roads that provided transportation routes through the town. No cars were in evidence and I don't remember seeing any draft animals either. There were no people on the streets.

But as my friend and I sat on the grass and I changed film in my camera, a young girl of perhaps 11 approached us shyly. She was curious and I waved her closer. She came slowly until she was right next to me. She wore a flowered shapeless dress that might once have been worn by an older sister. My Russian was extremely limited, but I managed to say hello and then, on a whim, I took the pin I and all the others on the tour wore and pinned it gently on her frock. The pin said "peace and freedom" in Russian and it identified the tour. Once the pin was on her, the girl, who had been bunched with tension at her own compelling curiosity and audacity, ran away to the safety of a house we could not see.

We continued to walk through the streets.

As we started to head back towards the boat, at last there was someone else on the streets -- a man who, even from a distance, was clearly drunk. His head was down and he was clearly singing and equally clearly he did not see us approaching him. The space closed between us. He kept singing and wobbling. I could feel myself tensing up in the same way I might have tensed up in the United States -- this was a bum and he was likely to ask for money to use for more liquid drugs. I hardened myself, preparing to reject him. At perhaps 30 feet, the man caught sight of us. He raised his head, looked us over as we looked him over and then, instead of asking for money or anything else, he stopped singing and hung his head in shame.

And this one small action made me ashamed of myself. Ashamed for tensing up. Ashamed for assuming he would ask for something. Ashamed because I disliked refusing to give what I could give when someone asked. Ashamed because I had assumed something and it was not true. Ashamed to cut short his melodies, wherever they came from.

All of this happened in less than 30 seconds. We passed him and he passed us and that was the end of that. He left me with a gift, though it didn't feel that way at the time. We just walked down the dirt road between the lush hills ... back towards the boat.

About 100 yards out of the town, suddenly we heard a voice calling out behind us. We stopped and turned and saw the young girl, hell-bent-for-leather, running towards us. She ran at full tilt until she stood two or three feet away. In her hands was a small package, badly wrapped in old newspapers. She extended the package to me and, as soon as I had taken it, she took off again, running like a white-tailed deer back towards the village. When I peeled back the edges of the Russian newspaper, there, inside, were perhaps a dozen crab apples. But even as I thought I had no clue what to do with these apples, which usually require cooking in order to be tasty, it dawned on me that it didn't matter what was in my hands.

What she had given me came from her heart and touched my own.

It was beyond compare.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

truffle wars

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Dec 22, 4:16 PM (ET)By GREG KELLER

PARIS (AP) - French police have arrested a farmer who fatally shot a trespasser he suspected of trying to steal highly coveted truffles from his land on the edge of France's southern Provence region.
The 32-year-old farmer told authorities he was guarding his truffle patch in the town of Grignan when he was frightened by the intruder and shot him in the legs and head with a hunting rifle, police said Wednesday.
Police said the farmer believed the man was armed. The 43-year-old victim died shortly after Monday's shooting. Authorities did not release the names of either man.
Truffles are a fungus found mainly in forests in France and Italy that grow underground, in the root systems of host trees. They are prized for their rich, earthy flavors and can fetch astronomical prices - making them a prime target for thieves.

Complete story
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unemployment line

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It was an hour-plus before the unemployment benefits office opened this morning and already there were about ten people waiting in the cold, morning dawn. By the time the doors actually opened, there were close to 30 people, me among them.

The guy I was standing next to was a miner. His work strip-mining marble for upscale counter-tops and other uses traditionally shuts down in winter: The stone was hard to work in the cold weather and then there was snow and ice: "Steel treads don't work well on ice," he commented. He had tickets to a professional basketball game tonight. "I bought them when times were good," he said, "and we really shouldn't go, but the girlfriend loves basketball, so I guess we will." Luckily, since in hard times there are still a lot of rich people (how could times be tough otherwise?) his work will resume in the spring.

Thirty people at just one center. Extension benefits were approved just last Friday, so there was bound to be a rush of people filing for extensions. But there were a lot of first-timers as well. I wondered how many centers like the one I was at dotted this state ... or the nation.

In the morning chill, it seemed to me to be a reality check for everyone there. It was nice in the sense that individuals did not have to feel so lonely. And it was nasty in the sense that this was proof positive -- the country really is in trouble and those who helped caused it have not yet shown the decency to consider their responsibility and, at a minimum, apologize.
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house of cards

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The other day, I caught a snippet of a TV interview with a fellow who had written a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States. Born into a wealthy family, Roosevelt was a naturalist, explorer, hunter, author and soldier. He also felt what was once a given among patricians -- that it was their duty to both lead and protect those who were not in power. In this vein, Roosevelt did what he could to defend the people from the greed of corporations and banks.

The TV interviewer asked whether the author thought a man of similar diverse interests and capacities could be elected to office today. The author replied that he doubted it and, given the leadership that has evolved since Roosevelt was president (1901-1909), it was hard not to agree. Not only has the patrician imperative of noblesse oblige been replaced by status-according-to-wealth, but the electorate has come to expect two-dimensional leaders, people who stand for a couple of things and otherwise are juiceless ciphers. And the leaders -- who long for office and power -- try to comply with the electorate's demands.

How often do we box ourselves or others with the same narrow definitions we apply to our political leadership? He's an editor, she's a lawyer, he's a father, she's a mother, he's boring, she's fascinating, he digs ditches, she cooks lasagna...? It's cozy and comforting, in one sense -- editing what we see and hear to fit on our own private 3x5 index cards. But invariably, with investigation, it turns out not to be true. It's bad enough that we do it to others, but it can be purely confounding when we discover we have done it to ourselves ... limited the limitless as a trade-off for a safety and security that never works very well. The serial killer is remembered as a quiet fellow who was nice to neighborhood children. The saintly soul turns out to have a penchant for porn.

Naturalist, explorer, hunter, author and soldier ... I guess that any time I start believing my own descriptions of self or other, it is time to rethink what is "obvious." Who wants to live in a house of cards?
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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

three phases of life

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With some rare exceptions -- and I'm not even sure about them -- I think maybe the Hindus got it right when they observed that there were three phases to a human life ... childhood and learning, working and family, and finally an interest in or dedication to spiritual life.

Skipping over or revising any of these segments so often just means there will be a necessity to turn back and live through what has been skipped. The old man recreates a childhood ... the old woman reconfigures a family life that had been forsworn... the middle-aged live a drawn-out childhood only to be confronted by what it might mean to be an adult ... or delve into spiritual life only to find that the richness had dried up.

Confronted by a template of this sort, the mind races to point out exceptions and footnotes and asterisks galore. "Yes, but...." Nothing is precisely linear or limited and the mix-and-mingle of the phases is everywhere apparent. Human beings are more interesting than templates. On the other hand, the longing for 'meaning' makes templates comforting and delicious.

Generally, I think the Hindus got it right.
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blame it on the moon

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The last time a total lunar eclipse coincided with the winter solstice was Dec. 21, 1638. It happened again in the wee hours of this morning. It won't happen again until Dec. 21, 2094. News reports said the moon glowed red.

I slept through it.

How many 'important' events does anyone miss? It makes you wonder what, precisely, is important, what is momentous, and what is different. If you say that agreeing with others is what makes something important, well, that's not quite right because there are personal matters that blew you away when you were utterly on your own. But if you reduce it to what you, personally, consider important, that doesn't seem quite right either since the mind most often relies on a tapestry that is woven from a learning and belief system that rests on the learning and beliefs of others.

And as you ponder and sift -- assuming you wouldn't rather sleep through it -- maybe the importance boils down to the momentousness, the utter shazam, of what is happening right now and who it is who could possibly sleep through it.

Blame it on the moon. :)


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Monday, December 20, 2010

sucker for a waltz

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 And, in a somewhat different vein, this one from Kate McGarrigle
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the educational model

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pleasure in all things

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At a Zen center I once attended, students who had been around a while would be called upon to give a talk on a public meeting night -- a Thursday, if I recall. This was the night on which visitors sniffing the edges of Zen practice were invited to visit and give things a try.

I was at a point in my practice where I felt honored and delighted to give such a talk. For one thing, it made me feel noticed and appreciated and for another it fed into what seemed to be an innate desire to be a ham.

But whatever 'positive' feelings I might have had, there was inevitably a sense of anticipation and dread as the time approached when I would sit in front of the meditation hall and say something 'important,' when I might (or -- oh my God! -- might not) wow others as I myself had been wowed in the past. I seemed to be in what I now think of as a natural phase of spiritual practice -- one in which I would have the snappy robes and I would inspire recognition and devotion and I would ... dwell among the anointed, I guess. I wanted to be a teacher and to be acclaimed as such. I wanted to hang out with the big boys.

And within this often sub-rosa longing, there was a feeling that you had to learn how to please others -- be as pleasing as you had been pleased. When talk-night came, I wanted to be pleasing ... pure and true and ... pleasing. You know -- the kind of stuff where someone talks about compassion as if it were some elevated, oozy-goozy altruism or about emptiness/satori/nirvana as if it were some clarity that existed at the end of a mythical rainbow ... together with the leprechaun's pot of gold.

An indicator of my state of mind and state of practice was the sense of disappointment I invariably felt after giving my own version of a Thursday-night talk. "I should have said this" or "I shouldn't have said that" whizzed through my mind after the fact, stinging like a swarm of bees.

I wanted to be pleasing and, post mortem, I had failed. I knew I had failed because no one came up and patted me on the back as I subconsciously wished they would. There was no applause. There was no offer of a corner office in the corporate, climb-the-ladder structure I imagined Zen practice to be. No one crowned me king ... or even prince. I saw other kings and queens and princes in the realm and ... how come no one crowned me?

As I say, I now think this is something every student goes through, one way or another. Maybe they aren't as insecure as I was, but still.... And I suppose it should be mentioned that there are those who never leave the pick-me realm of spiritual life and it is possible to make a life-long corporate venture out of it. What a pity.

This morning I was thinking of the be-pleasing aspect of spiritual life. Of course it's nice to be nice and kindness is better than cruelty, but contrived niceness and contrived kindness is just a starting point, a way of trying to revise habits that have proved useless and painful in the past. Sure, take the precepts and do your best. It's a start.

But today it seems to me that the object of spiritual adventure is not to please or be pleasing to others. The object of spiritual life is to take pleasure in all things. Enjoy yourself. No need to harm others. Just enjoy yourself.

I realize that it's a sticky wicket in the sense that plenty of egotistical assholes seem to enjoy themselves immensely. But they are enjoying themselves at the expense of others. They rely on those others for their enjoyment and their enjoyment, therefore, falls short. How can you possibly rely on anything and fulfill the requirements of enjoyment?

As the Zen teacher Rinzai once said to his monks by way of encouragement, "Your whole problem is that you do not trust yourselves enough."

Of course there may be some question as to what self anyone might actually trust, but, hell, that's why there's practice.

Never mind being pleasing. Just take pleasure in all things.
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Sunday, December 19, 2010

catching the unicorn

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I was once ambling idly around an art gallery when I came upon a painting of a mountain that utterly blew me away. I was transfixed. I was overwhelmed. I was drowned in wonder and delight. I was speechless.

And as I stood there looking, the gallery owner approached from my rear and began to "explain" the "meaning" of what I was looking at. He was knowledgeable and effete and polite and wanted a sale. And when I could finally take myself away from the painting, I purely wanted to kill him. His explanations and meanings and wisdom struck me as so second-rate as to be obscene.

What...a...complete...and...utter...asshole!

I guess everyone has had moments like that -- moments that left you speechless and complete. "Awe" is a word used by those seeking to put a handle on what has no handles, but anyone who has had the experience feels the sullying lash of language when the experience is upon them.

Naturally, the first thing you want in the wake of an experience like that is to have it all over again. You'd do anything to enter that territory and swim there ... forever. And equally naturally, the harder you try, the further the experience retreats. It is like some shy unicorn that eludes all blandishments and prayers. Efforts are puny and yet the unicorn walks with a sure and delicate and utterly-uncontrived step through your garden.

How do you catch a unicorn? The only way I can figure it, you have to surrender all notion of or longing for the unicorn. Elaborate traps and ascending virtues are of exactly zero use. Unicorns are sui generis, utterly free and appearing where they choose to appear, not where anyone might want them to appear. They are so quiet and assured. They are, to the extent anyone might say so, just you.
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the world of wonders

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Those who rely on kindness are bound to run into the brick wall of unkindness.

Those who rely on clarity are bound to run into the brick wall of confusion.

There is no such thing as a coin with a single face.

Better to rely on nothing whatsoever and stop deluding yourself with wonders.
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Saturday, December 18, 2010

a small invocation

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Greed, anger and folly,
Body mouth and thought,
Clarity, confidence, kindness....
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simple stuff

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As a card-carrying member of my gender, I am reluctant, if not downright opposed, to seeking directions. It was therefore with a light heart and steady hand that I began to make some real cocoa to take with me to the peace-picket line today. How hard could it be?

The answer is, not very hard. Cocoa is just chocolate, sugar and milk if you grew up the way I did. But since I was making something more than a quart and a half, the amounts of chocolate and sugar were not mapped out in my mind. Never fear, I figured, just taste and retaste it.

Which I did. More chocolate. More sugar. More chocolate. More sugar ... back and forth and on and on as the pot warmed on the stove. I wanted something that tasted like real chocolate, not that wussy stuff that comes in a packet from Nestle.

I finally achieved about what I wanted, but looking back, I was amazed at how much effort this one, apparently simple-chore, entailed.

Simple stuff does not mean it is simple stuff. You'd think I might have learned that as a practicing Zen Buddhist. :)
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Friday, December 17, 2010

daydreaming

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A sharply brrrrrr morning and as I read over the mail or comments that collected overnight, I realize how delighted I am to hear from people who are willing to put themselves on the line and just describe what they actually do in life -- what their circumstances are -- and what they think about it. To hear what they think or believe is OK, but it lacks a marrow of context in my eyes and ears.

The military entry below elicited a comment from someone who pilots a Blackhawk helicopter ... and a little of what he thinks. The entry also elicited an email from someone who had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war and whose son is now in the army in South Korea. These kindnesses put music to the dance of life ... plain-Jane, everyday facts ... inescapable and mundane.

 Sometimes I think spiritual endeavor really does shoot itself in the foot with its versions of angels on the head of a pin, intricate philosophies and buzz words, cozy imaginings that seek to assuage some current uncertainty. Seventy-seven virgins await you in heaven; compassion is better than cruelty; the only good god is a righteous god ... that kind of stuff. And I suppose that imaginings have the capacity to draw us all forward, but I do so miss the begin-at-the-beginning stuff -- the stuff that gives spiritual endeavor its honest zip ... stuff like a broken shoelace or a sunset that blows your socks off or the fact that the bread really does seem to hit the floor butter-side-down or a relationship grown stale or sour.

The sci-fi writer Ursula LeGuin (absolute aces as a writer) used the theme in her books frequently ... the uninitiated setting out on a journey with a sense of importance and curiosity and imagination. It's all serious stuff in its time in its time ... seeking, seeking, seeking. And yet many of these characters return to where they began, to themselves, to their homes, to the drab dailiness they had once longed to escape ... at which point any honest seeking can begin.

I once read a psychology book that pointed out that the hallucination is as real to the person in the midst of it as reality is to the rest of us. You can't take daydreams away from a daydreamer -- not only would it be cruel, it would also be impossible. And since we're all daydreamers one way or another I guess the only application that is worth much is patience -- patience with our own daydreams; patience until the adventure wears out and the broken shoelace or the buttered bread on the kitchen floor asserts its ascendance and magic.

About the best I can envision the spiritual endeavor that entices with daydreams is that (assuming it's worth a shit and not just some self-indulgent religion) when the day dreaming is worn out, we have the tools with which to bend over and pick up the bread.
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a little updated Laurel and Hardy

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

where cowards lurk

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When I was a freshman in college, there were a number of academic requirements -- English, science, a foreign language, etc. And together with them was a requirement that males take ROTC -- an acronym that was pronounced ROT-SEA and stood for Reserve Officers' Training Corps. Back then, in the late 1950's and early 1960's,  the U.S. had 'universal' conscription and the military was part of the national tapestry. Flower power would come later. The idea that women might be similarly required to have military training wasn't even on the radar.

My father had lectured me at some length about his philosophical opposition to the military and perhaps that lecturing -- which lacked some force in my young ears because he had never actually been in the military -- was part of the reason I decided not to take ROTC ... requirement be damned. I thought through my opposition as best I might at 18-19 and then had a sit-down with the officer in charge of the ROTC program. I made my case on moral rather than religious grounds and to my surprise, I was allowed not to take the course.

Three years later, I volunteered for a three-year hitch in the army. Conscription was still the law of the land and, unless I ran away to Canada, got pregnant, went to graduate school, pulled political strings I didn't have, or pleaded conscientious objector, there was no way out of it. I explained my change of heart to myself by saying, "I am more interested in experience than I am in virtue." It was a feeble argument in its time, but now, so many years later, I have to admit I like it quite a lot. My father was not overjoyed at my choice but, being an college-teacher intellectual, he smothered his disdain.

I did acknowledge that I did not have the courage to be a conscientious objector -- a group whose detractors often bring up their lack of patriotism and just plain cowardice. I never could quite figure out why, if you believed someone to be a coward, you would want them on your team in the first place. The inability or unwillingness to recognize the fact that there are cowards in this world strikes me as an indisputable act of cowardice ... but that's just me.

Anyway, I joined the army. The bottom-line mission of any military is to coerce and kill and I was fortunate not to have been put to the test during my three years. Instead, after a suitable period of running around in the South Carolina dust, learning to shoot and salute and make my bed, I was taught German, sent to Berlin and spent a couple of years with the single most intelligent and eclectic group of people I ever met in my life.

We were "Violet Section," a bunch of fruits and faggots from the gung-ho point of view ... the people who eavesdropped on East German (yes, there was an East Germany once) political phone calls. The army needed smart people and yet smart people seemed limp-wristed to those who maintained a narrower and more heroic vision of coercion and killing. I suppose, in their eyes, we were just one step up from the unpatriotic cowards who never did any military service at all.

I'm not quite sure what got me off on this old-fart recollection this morning except perhaps the re-echoing of the experience-trumps-virtue theme. Mostly, I think it's true. But nowadays I also think there is a point at which virtue can trump experience, as for example, the admonition not to kill or steal or lie or misuse sexual capacities. Each and every one of these capacities is well within the human arsenal and yet, particularly with killing, there is good reason to follow as best possible the admonition: "Don't do that." Why? Short answer: Because suicide is a poor way to lead this life.

And I guess too that I was thinking of the coward anyone might face when trying to lead a fruitful life -- the coward in the mirror. Miles beyond physical cowardice lies mental cowardice -- the fear that things can and do change and that if I take the time to investigate this obvious fact, I will lose my footing and my definition and my comfort. This is not something to scorn like some lapel-pin patriot. This is something to treat with care -- with a gentle firmness that does not surrender to the blandishments of easy bias or judgment or virtuous hallelujahs or group-think.

In this realm, who wouldn't be afraid? Who wouldn't shrink back in horror? Who wouldn't cower among the cowards?

And yet cowardice and comfort are not quite enough. The accusations of the mirror are sometimes just too tough to take and each in his or her own way feels the imperative to step forward, to step up, to be courageous where there are nothing but shudders.

Gently, firmly ... to seek out what nags in the night and casts doubt by day.

To seek it out and, in the end, to make peace with what is at war.

To seek it out and return victorious.

A victory that requires no flag-waving.

I found Zen Buddhism useful, but that's just my mirror.
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

warm and cold

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Went Christmas shopping this morning.

The best gift I found was dropping a dollar or two in the tin cans that various street people put out. They were well-bundled against the cold and warm enough to offer some small conversation.

The stores, by contrast, were just full of cold stuff that, with the exception of a small but beautiful-sounding gong, numbed my nerve endings.

Time for a nap.
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looking ahead

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A crispy clear day today -- pale blue and bright.

I keep wondering if the snow storm that recently clobbered the upper Midwest will rain its bounty down here. Weather systems tend to move from west to east, so it seems logical.

But the forecast says nothing about it.

Why is it that I feel the need to look ahead?
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Christmas surprises

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I really do enjoy giving other people presents. Everyone likes a pleasant surprise -- from a chance meeting to an unexpected widget -- and I enjoy playing a role in that surprise. But yesterday, with Christmas in mind, I went to the mall and traversed the marbled floors in search of surprises whose joy was somehow diminished by an enforced holiday 'spirit.' I hate malls when they act as an aimless effort to evoke joy. The experience was not improved by the piped-in Christmas music that each emporium insisted on.

Earlier, I had gotten a haircut. The barber I go to doesn't dither and dally. She, or occasionally a he, uses the clippers deftly and once in the chair, I'm out of there in under seven minutes and feel a strange lightness of spirit, as if some messy table had been straightened out and was now spacious enough to work or eat on. The mall, by contrast, seemed to clutter the table without much purpose -- creating the kind of mindless mess that might be found in a teenager's bedroom.

I did see a few wonderful things, as for example a guy in the mall's hallway who was manipulating a model helicopter. It was a mesmerizing piece of machinery, flying, at the controller's behest, with all the maneuvers an actual helicopter might make -- soaring, swooping, banking, landing, taking off, hovering ... all in miniature. At $100 or more, depending on the model, it was well outside anything I was willing to spend, but that didn't mean I couldn't marvel and be surprised.

I ambled around, feeling the fatigue creep up on me like a fog, rising up out of the marbled floors and off the shelves of various stores. I did buy a couple of presents, but not anything that surprising. They would be part of my family's Christmas day, but their surprise quotient or usefulness did not match the effort involved.

And then I stopped into a computer store. Lately, contrary to my usual ways, I had conceived a longing for a laptop computer. I figure the longing is based on the male gene marked "gadgets" or "tools." There are some good excuses I can come up with for having one, but they are mostly excuses and the idea of buying something expensive for myself goes against years of putting off my satisfactions in favor of family needs or surprises. It was somehow a challenge -- imagining doing this for myself.

The young man who helped me was, as I expected, much better informed than I was. And he was patient with my ignorance. And pleasant into the bargain. It was as nice a surprise as I found in the mall. Email friends had told me bits and pieces of information -- comparing personal computers to Apple -- but in the store I was faced with the actual things, sleek and shiny and calling out the the gadget gene. They looked so kool and I indulged myself a little, letting the kool sweep over me. But I am tired of buying things that look kool and then fall apart in a couple of years. I don't like things that fail over the long haul. I like things like the hammer in my tool box: It may be a bit worn after all these years, but it's a hell of a good tool nevertheless.

And what occurred to me during this adventure was that I was surprising myself, challenging my long-held habit of not doing what I felt like doing, buying something for myself that was not as functional as a shirt or a pair of shoes. This was personal whimsy and, on my pocketbook, pretty expensive whimsy. Did I have the nerve for my own whimsy?

And the answer is, I don't know. Why should I be willing to buy whimsical, surprising things for others -- and really enjoy it -- and yet be reluctant to extend the same enjoyment to myself? I can recognize in malls and in others the willingness to succumb to their own whimsies on their own behalf, but I am the mirror image of that willingness.

Well, I didn't buy the laptop yesterday, but I remain interested. Once freed, the gadget genie is had to put back in the bottle. So I'll go to the Apple store today, perhaps, and let some nice young person who knows his/her ass from his/her elbow explain why paying twice as much is really a bargain. And perhaps I will eventually succumb.

At the moment, though, it's all a strangely surprising adventure. If nothing else, completing Christmas shopping means I don't have to listen to lovely Christmas carols that have been reduced to Muzak.
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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

bumper sticker lifestyle

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A woman walked up to me in the supermarket parking lot the other day and asked where I had gotten the only bumper sticker on my car, a bumper sticker that reads "Do No Harm." After I told her, she said she thought it was a "marvelous prayer" and wondered what it would be like if more people acted according to its implications.

Sensing a heart-felt exposition in the offing, I said something non-committal and moved towards the store and the inevitability of forgetting to buy something because I had been so convinced I could remember everything without writing it down.

But later I thought I sort of agreed with her. I like the bumper sticker primarily because it is just three words and it leaves it up to the reader how to interpret and act on them. My daughter, for example, once chided me and the bumper sticker as further examples of the thin-tea, "earthy-crunchy" ambiance of the town we live in.

The bumper sticker is a bit like the peace picket line I join on Saturday mornings. Some of the pickets don signs to indicate a distaste for war, a wish for peace ... things like that. I wear my Buddhist robe because I figure a guy in a dress excites attention and I like to think passersby would pay attention to their own versions of war and peace. Even just a little bit. Even for a nanosecond. I don't care so much if they agree with me or agree with the peace picket. I just hope they will agree with themselves in something other than a simple-minded way.

Last weekend, when Saturday's vigil broke up at noon, I headed towards my car and got a chance to say thank you to the counter-picket ... a lone fellow who stands at a slight distance from the peace picket with neatly-printed signs saying what an unpatriotic, ill-informed and purely pussy view of reality the peace picket depicts. He comes from some distance to stand, all by himself, for the same hour that we stand. He helps our cause as we help his ... pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. He's a pleasant guy.

It's another version of getting around to what "Do No Harm" might mean in reality.
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Monday, December 13, 2010

an education

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Sometimes I wonder how useful it might be to require all those graduating from college or entering into a job to see an execution. Maybe you could get a college degree, but its usefulness would be premised on the viewing of an execution ... not on a TV monitor, but through a glass that was not 15 feet from the event itself. Graduates or others feeling faint of heart might decline this adventure, but those seeking positions as stock brokers, bankers, politicians, teachers, social workers, doctors, soldiers and so forth might be given extra credit or extra pay for having assumed the responsibility. In the event, puking and tears would be permitted, but there would be a monitor to assure that no one closed his eyes or turned away.

This bizarre and somewhat grizzly suggestion is premised on the all-too-easy ways in which we may evade our responsibilities, little and large. It is premised on judgments and belief systems that are often too glib and offer to little considered substance. It is based on a lack of street-level accountability that suggests kindness to our fellow beings is not just nice ... it is also sensible.

Here is an excerpt from a 1939 interview with a Massachusetts resident, Charles Monroe. I think it suggests the kind of backbone any of us might wish to exhibit:

I try to be a good citizen by performing certain public and personal duties which most of my friends would throw up their hands at if I suggested they perform along with me. In my opinion there's too much 'passing the buck' going on today. I don't like many of our laws - capital punishment, for instance - but since I'm a voter and a sustainer of our form of government, I of course automatically make myself as responsible as any other individual in the upholding of our laws.
As a sort of an 'accessory to the fact' I once forced myself to attend an execution down in Sing Sing prison where my brother-in-law holds a good job. It was an ugly business. One witness fainted and another vomited, and it was a big relief to get out of there. I felt like the executioner myself, as I was partly, for the fact that we do not press the button or cut the rope doesn't let any of us off.
But if I can't convince you that I was a killer in that instance, you'll have to grant that I'm a killer of pigs and cattle, for I've often helped farmers butcher their live stock. I've done this to satisfy my own conscience, for I'm a meat eater, and being a meat-eater, why shouldn't I assist with the dirty work? You smile! (Complete Charles Monroe interview)

And for those willing to see an execution and receive extra credit in the social market place, perhaps there could be an extra-extra credit adventure: Be present and focused as a child is born.

No one can tell another what to think or how to think in the presence of such events. Philosophies and religions fall away except among the terminally blind. And it doesn't matter much WHAT anybody thinks in the face of street-level facts. It matters THAT they think.
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powder puffs and pleasantries

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When it comes to watching TV, I guess the reason I like watching sports now and then is that someone is actually doing something they alleged they would do. I can mute the commentators and the cheering and just watch athletes do what they promised to do -- play (U.S.) football or hockey or baseball to the best of their ability.

How I wish that news organizations could do the same. But news costs money and those with the money have decided to go a different route ... chattering, entertaining, and not spending the money it takes to gather and report the news that might inform an audience. Tits and ass and adjectives and ambulance chasing and medical press releases and the latest blood stain on a nearby sidewalk ... well, it's less expensive and makes room for opinions that issue from people whose opinions pander and placate. Joseph Goebbels would probably be delighted.

But on the field, there is no tom-foolery. Yes, there are outlandish paychecks and star-struck status in the background, but on the field ... well, there's no screwing around when a guy who weighs 300 pounds is trying to kick your ass.

I can only take so much sports, but I do like to see people making an honest effort. George Orwell once observed that without a full stomach, there is no philosophy. And I guess I admire those who have decided that a full stomach is not the be-all and end-all and instead put their money where their mouths are.

Oh well, I guess everyone decides how tired they are of their own commentary and analyses, adjectives and judgments -- how much they do or do not want to turn off their own TV's and confront the 300-pound ass-kicker in their own lives. Powder puffs and pleasantries can only reach so far. How far, however, varies by user.
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

light one candle

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When I entered the zendo this morning, it was pretty dim and gloomy in accordance with the freezing rain and grey skies outdoors.

I lit a single candle, fired up a couple of pieces of incense and sat for 30-40 minutes.

By the time I got up, the candle seemed to have gathered all sorts of brightness and what had been in shadow was now obvious.


And cozy.
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my teapot and yours

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As a humongous storm in the Midwest inches itself eastward and as a bombing in Sweden makes me wonder if the world isn't heading for some barbaric mediocrity, my mind and its notions of what to write today were swept away by an account of a rally outside Sho Bo Ji, a Zen temple I used to attend in New York. (The account is given towards the end of the comments.)

For those uninterested in Zen or Buddhism, it is probably all a tempest in a quite ordinary teapot. Zen is such a sliver of a sliver of spiritual adventure when assessed from a popular point of view. And even Buddhism is pretty small potatoes outside its religious and superstitious leanings.

But the comments this morning were a tempest in my teapot. This was something I cared about. (And, as a tempest in others' teapot, it is endlessly detailed in another thread on this blog.) Several people had taken the step and moved from talking the talk to walking the walk. Literally. Bless their hearts!

I don't want to resurrect the whole to-and-fro about Eido Tai Shimano and his missteps, but I do find myself thinking with renewed force about the difficulty in stepping from commentary and philosophy and religion ... into action. Into the actual-factual world of action.

I don't like telling others to put up or shut up. But I do think looking in the mirror is a good idea -- whatever the much-beloved topic may be. How many of us have been bored deaf, dumb and blind by the pot-bellied beer drinker who can wax critical for hours about baseball and yet, if the ball were headed in his direction, probably could not or would not bend down to scoop it up? It's the same for spiritual life, I think: Look in the mirror and wonder if there is anything you can actually DO to make what you profess and proclaim come true.

It's not a matter of criticism or praise that I'm interested in. I'm interested in the difficulty that arises when anyone might say to themselves, "Prove it!" I am interested in the foundation stones of honest happiness.

Oh well -- a warm morning though an icy rain is falling.
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Saturday, December 11, 2010

playing "telephone"

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As a kid among kids, now and then there would be a game of "telephone." It provoked a lot of laughter, yet its lessons seem to get lost on adults.

It was a simple game: Five or six or eight or ten kids sitting around a table would play. The first kid would whisper some simple sentence into the next kid's ear. It was whispered only once ... no do-overs. The second kid would repeat the process with the third, whispering what s/he had heard. And around the table it would go -- each whispering earnestly to the next. The last kid in line would be responsible for announcing the message for everyone to hear ... at which point the first kid would say the original message actually was.

Invariably what had been, for example, "The dog peed on the fire hydrant," would turn out to be "My mother bakes muffins" or something equally far from the mark. And it wasn't as if anyone had tried to screw things up. Everyone was as clear as they could be ... and still it came out flummoxed. No matter how clearly anyone spoke, still the result did not match the first, best effort. It was good for a good laugh.

Words ... aren't they interesting? We use them is serious and silly and sad occasions. We open our mouths and know precisely what we are talking about. We are being authentic and clear as a bell. And yet, in the next person's ear, "My mother bakes muffins."

I would call this process par for the course. Not only are words inherently unclear because they only describe what is experience for the person speaking them, but they are invariably filtered by the person who hears or reads them. If this is the rule rather than the exception -- and I think it is -- then the solemnity or seriousness with which we take any words really deserves to be dialed down. Experience cannot be transmitted in words: This is not a good thing or a bad thing. It's just something to notice and acknowledge. No big deal -- just notice and be aware of. No need not to use words by way of information or encouragement ... just be aware.

I was munching on all this when I thought of a bit of Zen Buddhist writing called "On Zen" by Dai O Kokushi. It aims to say something true -- simply true -- and yet, however wondrously expressed, however elevated it might sound, still, invariably, "My mother bakes muffins." The only way to plumb the facts is to plumb the facts. 'Authentic' texts are not the same as authenticity.

ON ZEN

There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth;
It has no form, much less a name;
Eyes fail to see it; it has no voice for ears to detect;
To call it Mind or Buddha violates its nature,
For it then becomes like a visionary flower in the air;
It is not Mind, nor Buddha;
Absolutely quite, and yet illuminating ina a mysterious way,
It allows itself to be perceived only by the clear-eyed.
It is Dharma truly beyond form and sound;
It is Tao having nothing to do with words.
Wishing to entice the blind,
The Buddha has playfully let words escape his golden mouth;
Heaven and earth are ever since filled with entangling briars.

O my good worthy friends gathered here,
If you desire to listen to the thunderous voice of the Dharma,
Exhaust your words, empty your thoughts,
For then you may come to recognize this One Essence.

How many gazillions of spiritual efforts like this, in whatever tradition, exist around the globe? Lots and lots and lots and lots -- all of them making a good-faith effort to say, "The dog peed on the fire hydrant." And how many gazillions of listeners -- in all sincerity -- may be sure that they have heard and absorbed? Lots and lots and lots and lots. Spiritual life, a life of war, a life of love, a life of hypocrisy, a life of joy, a life of philosophy, a life of plumbing ... each absorbing and being nourished and encouraged by the words, "My mother bakes muffins."

Maybe the rule of thumb should be something like this:

Listen attentively ...

Work hard...

And if you aren't laughing, be assured there is more work to do.
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Friday, December 10, 2010

teaching forgiveness

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In a world of elegant, but insignificant, distinctions, which would you rather have -- someone to forgive you or someone to teach you?
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me, me, me, me, me

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Yesterday, a friend sent me the latest atheist news letter. I didn't bother to open it, not because I disagree with atheists, but because I find the arguments repetitive and self-serving and stale. That's just my taste and I mean no disrespect.

But simply receiving the attachment to my friend's email made me think of the accusations sometimes brought to bear against those concerned with religion -- or, more specifically, meditation. "Navel-gazers," "self-involved wimps," and occasionally just plain "assholes."

Those involved in religion or meditation are quick to defend their practices. They seek "peace" or "compassion" or a "kindness" that is as wide as the universe and twice as deep. They may fail in their attempts, but at least they are trying in a world that is too often filled with nastiness and greed. Relatively speaking, they are on a gentler, more compassionate track... or so goes the defense, sometimes more ornately presented.

But I think it might be useful to take the "navel-gazer," "self-involved," "asshole" observations and, instead of debating the point, simply concede it. Who would be better to assess the fact that I am an asshole than I would? And who would know better about my navel -- my life -- than I would? And when it comes to self-involved ... well, how would it  be possible to move forward with religion or meditation without acknowledging my own self-ish-ness? Paying attention to someone else's selfishness doesn't accomplish much by way of assuring peace ... though I imagine it may make for a good news letter.

Just noodling here and thinking that rather than setting up a debate about who is more or less self-ish, it would be better to concede the point and then really dig in to the one thing I can do anything about --- me, me, me, me, me, me, me.
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pole dancing

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After gaining relative consciousness this morning, I started hunting around for something interesting in my mind -- some spark that did not rely so much on past sparks but was freshly minted and bright. Before starting this entry, I searched the internet in vain for a story I heard on NPR radio some years ago about a couple who farmed pigs in (I think) Louisiana or Alabama. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard, combining without ever mentioning them, an honest "Buddhism" and an honest "love." But that was in the past, even if I couldn't find it.

So I skimmed down the news, wondering vaguely how long anyone might give a damn about homosexuality in the military; wondering vaguely how long China, with its interest in an improving economy, could hold out against the 'dissidents' who were part and parcel of an internet that provided the information necessary to a swelling economy; wondering vaguely if the passage of a tax package that provides more money for the extremely wealthy and unemployment benefits for the extremely-stressed were ever really in doubt ... wondering vaguely, but not really finding the kind of bright spark that makes you smile with outrage or delight.

As close as I came was the Pole Dancing Championships in Tokyo -- something I had never heard of and, more interestingly, something that challenged my easy-peasy assumption that pole dancing was a slithering, raunchy turn-on for happily-plastered guys with and without tattoos ... not to mention a good way to pay college tuition.

I like it when my biases are reshaped -- forced to get wider; forced to be rethought; forced to admit their narrow contentments; forced to ... be bright and new and more interesting than the edges I had put on them.

Of course there's nothing wrong with being horny (where would any of us be without that?) or conceding we have some pretty interesting fantasies or getting drunk and then paying the price exacted by the Hangover God ... but the story offered a small reminder -- this was also about human beings who were exercising. Pole dancing certainly would spice up the Olympics if it ever gets that far.

And, as usual (yawn!), it made me think of spiritual life -- its easy pole-dancing assumptions, its visceral longings, its bright-light virtues, its rich fantasies, its delicious and serious arousals, its ornate venues and rituals that beckon and beckon from some well-lighted stage, its unrequited longings and finally, its ability to inspire something assured and bright ... enlightenment, love, peace, heaven ... or getting laid.

Start anywhere and don't stop -- that seems to be the best advisory life has to offer. But of course we do stop, we do snuggle down in our biases and faiths, we do figure we have a good bead on things ... and in all that self-defining effort, we still wonder why the brightness we yearn for seems to be just out of reach.

Stop anywhere and don't stop ... it sounds pretty bright to me.
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Thursday, December 9, 2010

quips

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Will Rogers' quips are like eating potato chips ... and, since I am fresh out of fresh thoughts, here are a few of his:


-- Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.
-- Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.
-- I have a scheme for stopping war. It's this - no nation is allowed to enter a war till they have paid for the last one.
-- A difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries.
-- America is becoming so educated that ignorance will be a novelty. I will belong to the select few.
-- An onion can make people cry but there's never been a vegetable that can make people laugh.
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tabula pretty-much rasa

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Winter's chill has set its grip on this neck of the woods -- sharp, insistent, unremitting.

This morning I have little to offer outside an idle game of solitaire.

But the colder it gets, the cozier the wood stove becomes. It's sort of like having a big, fat cat that lies on your bare feet.
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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

unremitting goodness

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When it came to inspiration, I'm not sure but what the fuck-ups in spiritual endeavor encouraged me more than the goodness of it all. True, I wanted to be good better or more peaceful or whatever, but the unremitting goodness of a Jesus never really made me feel that I was part of an honorable family. Goodness of that sort pointed out the disparities between me and the lauded one (another sort of inspiration), but it never made me feel at home in a warm, messy kitchen ... the kind of thing that really opened me up, offered me kinship and goaded me forward.

I used to love reading the tales of other Zen students who went about their lives, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, and yet expressing a constancy and determination in their practice. There was money and lust and anger and righteousness and kindness and passion and ... well, blood -- the same blood that flowed in my uncertain veins. Jesus never picked his nose and it was not enough for me that he might forgive me for picking mine. I wanted to be among those who knew the delights and disgust of their own nostril-invading adventure.

Milarepa really inspired me. The Tibetan sage was not always a sage. When he was a kid, his father died and his uncle snatched up the farm lands that more reasonably might have passed to Milarepa and his mother. They were left destitute ... and Milarepa was pissed. Mother and son eked out a living and as they did so, Milarepa saved a nickel here and a nickel there until he had enough money to go off an learn black magic. After his studies, he was returning home when he stopped at a farmhouse where a woman offered him warm milk and a bite to eat. Her kindness touched him -- touched him but not deter him. On his return home, he used his newly-acquired skills to create a horrific hail storm that blanketed all of the fields his uncle depended on for his wealth. The crops were killed. But in the midst of that hail storm, the small farm where Milarepa had been treated kindly remained unscathed. It was a delicious ego trip in my mind, something I could see in myself and relate to the joy of doing something, uhhh, naughty.

When circumstances sent Milarepa to study with Marpa, the elder Marpa recognized the ego-tripping Milarepa was capable of and put him through some very difficult hoops -- hoops designed to mitigate what had once been so delicious. I could get on board with the discipline not just because it might lead to a wider, more compassionate view but precisely because there was an acknowledgment of Milarepa's (and my) nose-picking capacities... and it wasn't just some beyond-it-all, down-the-nose smarmy forgiveness.

And perhaps, in Zen Buddhism, this is part of why a man like the monk Ikkyu was and remains attractive. Not much attention is paid to the severe training Ikkyu went through. What is remembered with delight is what appears to be his outside-the-law activities ... hanging out in whore houses and so forth. This, to onlookers, was a man capable of being more than just good. He was a mensch and a fellow worth traveling with.

Unremitting goodness has a kind of juvenile, plasticized appeal. But as Ta Hui once observed more or less, "too much virtue makes people crazy." Nobody wants to go insane when engaging in spiritual endeavor. What they hope for is to go sane. And an honest sanity requires an investigation of the boogers any of us might need to dig out. Yes, we can all be guilty of too much goodness -- and then hit the brick walls of reality, assuming we're lucky -- but unremitting goodness is just another booger, something worth picking out as a means of breathing freely.
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unrepentant

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At 5:30 a.m., out beyond the street lamp and its bluish haze and between the wires that hung from the lamp pole, the morning star was literally blazing this morning. Like some immodest prop in a high school play, the star seemed somehow too fat, too bright, too loud, too much. And yet there it was, clear as a bell.

Nearby, but lower in the sky, a smattering of clouds picked up the pink and white of nearby city illumination. I imagine if I had stood in the cold of the porch, the clouds might have blocked out or blurred the star, but for a few moments of looking, they were still and the star was unapologetic. "Lookit me!" it offered without caring if anyone looked or not. It was like walking on some sidewalk to meet a friend for coffee and seeing that friend from a distance ... the two of you looking and recognizing and filling up with friendship and ... smiling.

Some Buddhist schools celebrate the anniversary of Gautama's realization today. The school I grew up in does that. The tale has it that Gautama, after much effort that proved unavailing, sat down under a tree one night and vowed not to rise until he actualized the enlightenment he sought. And with the rising of the morning star, he did just that and neither star nor man had cause for regret.

Today is the last day of Rohatsu sesshin, an intense eight-day Zen retreat that comes once a year. Participants rise from their seats after so much effort and return home, having expressed their determination and yet strangely unable to say what, precisely, has just happened. It is worth a smile, perhaps.

In New York City, this morning, a small rally was scheduled outside of the Zen temple Sho Bo Ji. The rally was organized as a means of pointing out the sexual and financial depredations of Eido Tai Shimano, a man who has acted as a Zen teacher for 50 years. He wounded many and made no open apology. He too has been unrepentant and yet, if I had to guess, he failed to greet his true friends with a smile. All that effort beneath the tree and no smile to show for it. It's a profound pity that none of us needs to duplicate.

A bright, saucy and unrepentant star.

A good friend.

A warm smile.
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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

advice worth heeding

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Received in email:

Not A Joke!!   Even If you dislike attorneys..You will love them for 
these tips. 
Read this and make a copy for your files in case you need to refer to 
it someday. Maybe we should all take some of his advice! A corporate 
attorney sent the following out to the employees in his company: 

1. Do not sign  the back of your credit cards. Instead, put ' Second 
form of ID required. '  
2. When you are writing checks to pay on your credit card accounts, 
 DO  NOT put the complete  account number on the ' For ' line. Instead, 
just put the  last four numbers. The credit card company knows the rest 
of the number, and anyone who might be handling your check as it passes 
through all the check processing channels won ' t have access to it. 
3. Put your work phone # on your checks instead of your home phone. If 
you have a  PO  Box use that instead of your home address. If you do no 
t have a PO Box, use your work address. Never  have your  SS# printed on 
your checks. (DUH!) You can add it if it is necessary. But if you have 
It printed, anyone can get it. 
4. Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine. Do both 
sides of each license, credit card, etc.. You will know what you had in 
your wallet and all of the account numbers and phone numbers to call 
and cancel.. Keep the photocopy in a safe place.  
I also carry a photocopy of my passport when I travel either here or 
abroad. We ' ve all heard horror stories about fraud that ' s committed on 
us in stealing a Name, address, Social Security number, credit cards.. 
Unfortunately, I, an attorney, have first hand knowledge because my 
wallet was stolen last month. Within a week, the thieves ordered an 
expensive monthly cell phone package, applied for a VISA credit card, 
had a credit line approved to buy a Gateway computer, received a PIN 
number from DMV to change my driving record information online, and 
more.  
But here ' s some critical information to limit the damage  in case this 
happens to you or someone you know: 
5. We have been told we should  cancel our  credit cardsimmediately. 
But the key is having the toll free numbers and your card numbers handy 
so you know whom to call. Keep those where you can find them. 
6..  File a  police report immediately in the jurisdiction where your 
credit cards, etc., were stolen. This proves to credit providers you 
were diligent, and this is a first step toward an investigation (if 
there ever is one). 
But here ' s what is perhaps  most important of all: (I never even 
thought to do this.)  
7. Call  the  3 national credit reporting organizations  immediately to 
place a fraud alert on your name and also call the Social Security 
fraud line number.. I had never heard of doing that until advised by a 
bank that called to tell me an application for credit was made over the 
Internet in my name.  
The alert means any company that checks your credit knows your 
information was stolen, and they have to contact you by phone to 
authorize new credit.. 
By the time I was advised to do this, almost two weeks after the theft, 
all the damage had been done. There are records of all the credit 
checks initiated by the thieves ' purchases, none of which I knew about 
before placing the alert. Since then, no additional damage has be en 
done, and the thieves threw my wallet away this weekend (someone turned 
it in).. It seems to have stopped them dead in their tracks.. 
Now, here are the numbers you always need to contact about your wallet, 
if it has been stolen: 
1.) Equifax: 1-800-525-6285  
2.) Experian (formerly TRW): 1-888-397-3742 
3.) Trans  Union  : 1-800-680 7289 
4.) Social Security Administration (fraud line):  
1-800-269-0271 
We pass along jokes on the Internet; we pass along just about 
everything. 
If you are willing to pass this information along, it could really help 
someone that you care about..