Wednesday, November 30, 2011

refrigerator magnets

The Internet version of this column was screwed up by the newspaper that printed it so I am parking it here for my own purposes.


Everybody's got 'em, I suppose -- the refrigerator magnets whose wit and wisdom serve as reminders in a busy and sometimes confusing day. But I would also guess that those short-and-sweet reminders began accumulating long ago, probably with mom and dad whose wit and wisdom had likewise accumulated from both their mom and dad and from subsequent life experiences.

"Don't put all your eggs in one basket;" "A stitch in time saves nine;" "Put up or shut up;" and "If someone tells you something is 'free,' grab your wallet."

Whether hung on the refrigerator or posted somewhere in the mind, these micro-philosophies act as guide posts and support structures -- small suggestions that help create the lenses through which to see the world and cope with it. They are not terribly serious, perhaps, but also they can be quite serious.

One of my favorite reminders, for example, comes from the American humorist Will Rogers, a dry and apt observer of the society he lived in:

There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.

For my own purposes, this serves as a strong reminder that experience trumps intellectual structures or beliefs ... no matter how sincere such structures or beliefs may be. Keep it real.

Another one posted on my mental refrigerator is Beatle John Lennon's

Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.

Like anyone else, I can get so caught up in the scheming and sweating that goes into creating a happier, saner existence that I lose track of what a saner existence consists of. Lennon's observation may not be the perfect antidote to some over-zealous endeavor, but it offers a nudge towards a greater sanity.

A wider perspective is similarly added with the light-hearted

Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

Or, for those disinclined towards an ethereal realms, there is the pure silliness (and a reminder to laugh) of

Unattended children will be given espresso and a free puppy.

Each such short saying or observation -- you with yours, I with mine -- carries with it a wider and deeper meaning and impact. It is like the tip of an iceberg that implies a greater substance at a greater depth. In times of doubt or uncertainty, such observations may not give a perfect answer or solution, but they do suggest alternative directions... or perhaps a chance to laugh at our own solemnities.

For example, Bill, a friend of mine, once rewrote Benjamin Franklin's

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise

His rendition read:

Early to bed and early to rise ... and you never see any of your friends.

Bill's version supplied a tweak to Ben's own upright and moral tweak, but morality, for anyone interested in such things, has a way of needing a tweak from time to time.

The up-side to our collections of physical and mental refrigerator magnets is their ability to gently correct. The down-side can be a mindless reliance on what, after all, is just a suggestion. Words of wisdom are only as wise as the action they can provoke.

So, for example, anyone can quote Gandhi:

Be the peace you seek.

The words may be a wonderful encouragement, but if the encouragement is not acted upon, then Gandhi's meaning is relegated to a means for making excuses -- looking good without living up to what may really be pretty good.

As the sound bites that existed before sound bites, many of the refrigerator magnets anyone carries around with them has a touch of Shakespeare at their base: It was the bard who wrote:

Brevity is the soul of wit.

And while not everyone longs to be a wit, still it is nice to have our directions pointed out in small, easily-digested bites. These refrigerator magnets are like the hors d'oeuvres of a life philosophy -- not the main course that shows itself in action, perhaps, but a tasty prelude that can add savor and point to the satisfactions to come.

Or, to corrupt and expand a bit on an imaginary and lisping Will Rogers as he considered the electric fence:

It's the pithy stuff that counts.

a glass of prune juice

Sometimes I have to laugh at my own self-congratulatory belief that I am 'smarter than a box of rocks.'

Last night, because I like a glass of fruit juice with dinner, I looked in the fridge for orange juice, my drink of choice. But we were out of OJ. So then I looked in the cupboard and spotted an unopened bottle of prune juice. OK, I'd drink that.

In my 'smart' mind, there was a grandmother's reminder that prune juice was an old-time, tried-and-true laxative, but I passed it by with a cavalier wave of the mental hand. How bad could it be? A little laxative effect wasn't anything I couldn't cope with. I was an adult, after all.

So I settled down with a bowl of pasta and chicken and peas and corn and pimento and cream of chicken soup ... and a large glass of prune juice. The caserole I had made was pretty blah and the prune juice was pretty viscous, but my stomach acknowledged that I had been fed and could rest assured I wouldn't starve to death. So far so 'smart.'

It wasn't until about an hour later that my 'smarts' received a serious wake-up call. The porcelain throne began screaming out my name. How could I rebuff such piteous cries? I walked (or perhaps sprinted) upstairs to the bathroom and did not return for a half an hour. The demands of the throne seemed to extend from my finger tips to my toe nails ... it was endless, explosive, airy and substantive by turns. My smarts dissolved in a flood of reality check and I returned to the world chastened ... and considerably lighter.

When your grandma says something works, trust her.

cause and effect

Swami Vivekananda, the "Hindoo" who ignited a good deal of journalistic fire during the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago, once suggested in ways that I found useful a small exercise in spiritual endeavor. As I remember it, the suggestion went something like this:

Since everything is the product of cause and effect, it can be informative to retrace the Yellow Brick Road. If 'B' is the conclusion or effect, what was it that constituted the 'A' or cause? And since 'A' is itself an effect of some preceding event or thought, what was the before-'A' cause. And what was the cause of the before-'A' cause ... etc. Back and back and back and back -- follow the Yellow Brick Road. The topic doesn't matter. The exercise is informative.

Back and back and back and back until those who run out of energy pronounce themselves content with "God" or something similar. But when it comes to cause and effect and the road they construct, "God" is just a manifestation of laziness ... understandable, human and whatever all else, but still, laziness. Whose creation (cause) is "God?"  Who utters "enlightenment?" Who schmoozes about "Tao?"

This is a useful brick wall to hit, I think. Where intellect falls flat, where emotion is left gasping ... this is not a time to give up and build a cathedral. This is an arena in which religion and philosophy lose their footing, an arena in which the lions of fact gobble up the woozy Christians of belief, where "cause" and "effect" are silenced, where the imperatives of actual-factual life challenge and defeat the comforts of control and story-telling. This ... is ... alive. This is the place in which safety and danger dissolve. This is the place where the carelessly-employed hammer hits a very tender thumb. And is no good cringing and retreating ... the obvious remains obvious and any unwillingness to address that obviousness leads to a life of continued uncertainty.

The wily 'Hindoo' Vivekananda offered a suggestion to those willing to take up the challenge: "The mind [he meant intellect] is a good servant and a poor master." Who then is the master, the one who chuckles before cause and effect were brought to bear, the one who wouldn't be caught dead bending a knee to "God" or "enlightenment?"

I don't know, but I think some questions are wilier and more useful than others.

Autumn in the West

Not that it's a new or novel thought, but the tea-sipping accolades that the West offered when demonstrations and outright shooting erupted in the north of Africa and the Middle East has been all but quelled by the eruptions in its own backyard. No longer is the matter an expression of cozy, philosophical applause. Now the mud splashes up on our own trousers. Now our own armies will have to be called out...'to maintain order.' The 'Arab Spring' is now the 'Autumn in the West.'

In Los Angeles and Philadelphia, police have cleared out the Occupy movement protesters. In England, two million public sector workers have gone on strike. "Schools, hospitals, courts and government offices around the UK are among services being disrupted, as more than 1,000 demonstrations take place."

Supermarket meat shelves may soon include equine cuts. My father used to tell me that the French ate horse meat and he recommended it to me as a comparatively cheap and tasty meat.

And this morning, as my (poorly copy-edited) fluff piece on refrigerator magnets saw the light of published day, it occurred to me that there is something ludicrous about the current gaggle of Republicans who are vying to be the presidential candidate in 2012.  Each of them is trying so diligently not to say anything of substance while the world around them cries out for substance ... damn near any substance will do. The Republican wannabes strike me as the refrigerator magnets (much style, little substance) of a civil society that is being driven downward by a spiral of what is often a very concrete and consequential anguish. The eurozone is teetering on a debt-crisis implosion. American Airlines, rather belatedly compared to its competitors, filed for bankruptcy Tuesday. As elsewhere, it is the employees who will suffer the most as stockholders are bouyed.

The autumnal winds are everywhere and winter is yet to come.

directions of Buddhism

Anyone who likes thought-munching about the directions of Buddhism might enjoy biting down on Hozan Alan Senauke's "The Future is Always Arriving" which was passed along in email and appeared on the Buddhist Channel today.

air swimmers

Passed along in email ... a Christmas present worth having.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

jazz for cows

Received in email. Notice that no one in the audience leaves ....


refrigerator magnets

Somewhat to my chagrin, I got an almost instantaneous acceptance yesterday from the local newspaper of a short article I had written. It was a piece of fluff and I don't get paid for it, but I had cobbled it together in about an hour and was surprised at so swift a response.

The article was about the wit and wisdom of refrigerator magnets ... and by extension the pithy refrigerator magnets of the mind. It was just an observation about the sound bites of wisdom that anyone might collect and then use as guide posts or excuses for the way in which they controlled and led their lives. "A stitch in time saves nine," "If someone offers you something for 'free,' grab your wallet," "Man without God is like a fish without a bicycle" etc.

The article was fun to do in the sense that I could dredge up some of my favorites and those favorites served as a skeleton upon which to fashion the article. But I was also mildly embarrassed: Quoting others as a means of supporting my own points strikes me as both common and vaguely slimy. It is common in the sense that 'everybody does it' -- adducing evidence and support from others as a means of buttressing and perhaps elevating 'my' stock. But it is slimy in the sense that 'my' arguments are devalued: What's the matter with saying, "I think" or "I believe" and letting others draw their own conclusions? The answer is that those advancing the arguments are afraid no one will listen to them ... and they are probably right: My opinion is just my opinion just as your opinion is yours.

My mother gave up writing magazine articles in the 1950's because it was just about then that the publications she submitted to decided that arguments needed to be footnoted. "According to" or "as leading expert Joe Bumfuck said" became the norm. She had grown up in an era when writers could make whatever argument they liked and, assuming that argument was in some way cogent, readers would be left to decide whether they agreed or not. It was a time of reality and responsibility. But then the 'experts' were introduced with no investigation of whether those experts had any more honest credibility than Joe Bumfuck. It was an implicit suggestion that if a large enough segment of society agreed with something, it was therefore true.

I dislike riding the horse of another and therefore felt a bit slimy resting my fluff-article's case on the wit and wisdom of others. The article was not profound or serious, but still, I dislike the framework in general. If no one listens, well, no one listens: That doesn't change my view unless I choose to change it. If the Catholic Church or Buddha or Barack Obama or Albert Einstein or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says so, does that make my life any more or less credibly uncertain? Will I be better thought of if I use the technique? Does being well-thought-of really provide a relaxed and peaceful life? For fools, I imagine the answer is yes.

But I dislike being a fool. I already have enough evidence that being a fool is pretty thin when it comes to providing a relaxed and peaceful life. Better anonymity than the applause of others.

PS. Here's the article as it appeared, badly copy-edited, in the local paper on Nov. 30, 2011.

money and history

Financial news and a little redolent history caught my eye this morning:

-- In Italy, some ordinary businessmen are looking to Switzerland as an atmosphere in which to make a decent living as the Eurozone implodes. Switzerland, the land of cuckoo clocks and banking haven for the wealthy, is also the country in which a court said municipalities could make their own decision about whether of not to allow naked hiking in the Alps.

-- As poverty squeezes and seeps its way into what once was called the 'middle class,' naturally the wealthy remain wealthy. And so, as Christmas approaches, it is appropriate to notice how much of an outlay the Christmas carol's "Twelve Days of Christmas" might cost ... assuming anyone could afford lords-a-leaping, drummers drumming, partridges and five gold rings. The upshot: $101,119 -- a 4.4% increase over the cost for the 364 items last year. In the midst of anguish, there is frivolity and a dash of carelessness.

-- Josef Stalin's daughter died Nov. 22. Does anyone remember Stalin as anything more than a reference point in a school composition? I suppose not. Anyway, daughter Svetlana defected to the United States in 1967. It was a propaganda coup for a United States hip deep in a 'cold war' with what was then called the U.S.S.R. ... Russia, for short. Stalin, ne Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, proved he had the 'steel' of his adopted name by sending thousands to concentration camps and by hurling millions into sometimes ill-conceived battles during World War II. I once heard that the official Russian death toll for World War II (ca. 20 million military and civilian) was actually something closer to 40 million. Being the daughter of someone infamous -- like being the daughter of someone famous -- could not have been easy. Svetlana died of colon cancer at 85.

Monday, November 28, 2011

observations by Ta Hui

I had occasion to copy this out elsewhere today and thought I would append it here as well for anyone who may not have read it. It is an excerpt from a letter by the Zen teacher Ta Hui (1088-1136) and addresses the supposed and real differences between monks/nuns and lay students of Zen practice.

"As a gentleman of affairs, your study of the Path differs greatly from mine as a homeleaver. Leavers of home do not serve their parents, and abandon all their relatives for good. With one jug and one bowl, in daily activities according to circumstances, there are not so many enemies to obstruct the Path. With one mind and one intent (homeleavers) just investigate this affair thoroughly. But when a gentleman of affairs opens his eyes and is mindful of what he sees, there is nothing that is not an enemy spirit blocking the Path. If he has wisdom, he makes his meditational effort right there. As Vimalakirti said, 'The companions of passion are the progenitors of the Tathagatas. I fear that people will destroy the worldly aspect to seek the real aspect.' He also made a comparison: 'It is like the high plateau not producing lotus flowers; it is the mud of the low-lying marshlands that produces these flowers.'....

"We leavers of home are on the outside breaking in; gentlemen of affairs are on the inside breaking out. The power of one on the outside breaking in is weak; the power of one on the inside breaking out is strong. "Strong" means that what is opposed is heavy, so in overturning it, there is power. "Weak" means what is opposed is light, so in overturning it there is little power. Though there is strong and weak in terms of power, what is opposed is the same."

-- Letter to Hsu Tun-chi in "Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui." Tr. Christopher Cleary.

out of gas

In the pinks and blues of this morning's dawn, I shot my writing bolt on A. a letter to The Washington Post, a newspaper whose reporting I like and whose web site is slovenly, suggesting it might bring some order to the chaos of its internet creation and B. shaping a short opinion piece about the micro-philosophies of refrigerator magnets.

Now the sky has turned grey and it is time for breakfast.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

eye to eye

I have always been flummoxed by the look in the eye of a hawk or a cow or a dog or a baby or a back-from-the-battle veteran. It was a look that simply refused to play the game. It was not dead. It was simply not on a toy-story frequency. The look was inexplicable and somehow scary. What was it?

Today it occurred to me that that look I could not penetrate or somehow engage in the usual agreements was simply ... present.

small tragedies

-- The Occupy Wall Street movement, which has gained momentum nationwide since it got off the ground on Sept. 17, 2011, is coming under increasing pressure. Police department budgets are being stretched in a time when no one has as much budget as once. 'Health' issues are being raised. And it's not just propaganda flag-wavers like Fox news. Staid and vaguely sympathetic organizations like the Associated Press are saying between the lines, "OK, kiddies, you've had your say. Now get back in the box."

In which regard, a friend sent along this picture, which seems to wrap up the Occupy case:

-- In a comprehensible tragedy that allows tragedy to enter the mind, three people died when a suspension bridge in Borneo collapsed. The killings in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere are numbingly disposable in their endlessness. But three people in a place almost no one could find on a map? It really is terrible.

-- Italy's interest rates have gone up in a time when poverty rears its head. At the same time, Standard & Poors, the rating agency that contributed handsomely to the 2008 economic debacle, downgraded the credit-worthiness of Belgium. Strange how what was once discredited as a reliable credit rating agency is now back in business, much as the bankers and stock agencies that likewise contributed to the latest Depression are back in the money-making pink (courtesy of the taxpaying public) and hollering that they are being unfairly targeted for responsibility or corruption.

-- And in Cambodia, some of the men accused of being hip-deep in the killing of close to two million  people from 1975 to 1979 are defending themselves: "We had our orders." Who can remember 1975? The Vaseline of time blurs the camera lens ... as it does, like it or not, for the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Catholics and others that Hitler found distasteful. And for the Ottoman slaughter of about a million Armenians ... and Stalin's systematic starvation of Ukrainians ... and... and...and ... the lens is blurred.

second-hand lifestyle

An interesting exercise is to notice the ever-so-thin line between quoting someone else and simply saying what you think while acknowledging others who have asserted a similar thought.

Gandhi said, "Be the peace you seek."
Gautama the Buddha encouraged followers to "find out for yourself."
A graffito I saw once at a construction site said, "Man without God is like a fish without a bicycle."
The Bible says, "the kingdom of heaven is within."

School children and other students parrot what passes for learning. They get A's and B's according to their capacity to remember. 2+2=4 .... A+! It is useful to remember stuff, to have the tools that allow for one solution or another.

But there is also the danger of thinking that because something is remembered, it is therefore part and parcel of an honest life. Increment by increment, the chicanery can grow: I remember, therefore I know from experience. It's an uncertain and awful way to live out the certainty of this life... always chewing someone else's cud until you think, but don't know, what your own cud tastes like...always pleasing others in the hope of pleasing yourself.

The social judgment rendered above is pretty small potatoes. Sure, we've all known people who ride the horses that belong to others -- it's labored and hard not to say, "cut the crap!" But the important part is to decipher the willingness within to put a head above our own heads, to remember and quote and in so doing to lose our own delight. To lead our own lives is the point, right? Since there is no other choice, why bother flailing around trying to lead someone else's life?

Sure, get the A+ necessary for starters.

But what a dull and demeaning life to lead an entire lifetime that way.

Gandhi, after all, was only quoting you.

"do no harm"

My younger son was keen to have my battered car. It's a stick shift and has some pep and I think he thought it might feel more like 'his' after driving the old van his brother drove before him. It has an element of 'kool' even if its once-vaunted "rice rocket" potential is hardly slick any longer.

Anyway, we switched cars yesterday. In one sense, I didn't mind at all and was pleased to think the swap might please him. On the other hand, I didn't like the fact that I had to change gears, so to speak -- find new spaces in which to thrown the loose change and other bits and pieces that claimed nooks and crannies in the car I had used. I was crabby -- don't mess with my habits, please.

I scraped off the American flag posted in one of the van windows (I dislike trumpeting what I cannot help but be) and then I realized that there was a sticker on my car that I really would have liked to transfer but could not. I really don't like bumper stickers or shirts announcing the maker on the left breast, but I liked this bumper sticker and wanted it on my new mode of transportation: "Do No Harm." As announcements go, it's pushy, but not that pushy.

A silly found while searching for "do no harm"
So I wrote to Clyde, the fellow who had given me the original sticker, and said I would be happy to pay for another. Clyde lives in California, and, as far as I can figure out, has made something of a cottage industry out of do-no-harm stuff. As cottage industries go, I think he could do worse. Anyway, he wrote to say he would send me one and I am happy to think there will now be two cars in town, both with a "do no harm" sticker.

Who knows, maybe the idea will catch on ... perhaps even lead to action, though I don't want to get my hopes up. With a sticker, I can check in when times get tough, and remember who the hell I was supposed to be.

wrinkle, wrinkle little star

The course is straight between there and here.
Like a hot iron brought to bear on damp and wrinkled chinos,
The dog shit and delights of the past
Conform to a knife-edge crease
That leads from there to here
Without any other option.

The course is straight between here and there.
The fiddling, fulminating fears
Have come and gone enough times now
So that all those wrinkles lose their daunting force.
The way is straight
What other option is there?

The course is straight from here to here.
The doldrums and disasters,
Seen as through a telescope up ahead or way back when,
Play melodies of wrinkled passion --
Of meaning and belief -- but still,
In fact, betweens take too much energy.

The course is straight.
What other course could there be?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

meaning, no meaning and cocoa

If you don't like the meaning or explanation

And if you don't like the lack of meaning or explanation

It seems to me there is one of two choices....

Either go into a swooning funk

Or have a nice cup of cocoa.

economics from the rug man

Yesterday, the rug man arrived to give me a "free estimate" on what it would cost to cover the front room where I sit. The floor is composed of two different and well-worn kinds of wood and I thought it might be nice if there were a future uniformity ... at some point the house will have to be sold and I would like to give as much of an edge as possible to those selling it.

Bob is a former banker -- a guy whose consulting business was bought out by a bank in order to get five years of his working for the bank. After the five years elapsed, he quit and threw in his lot with the rug firm. But his whole family is into banking, so he keeps his hand in. He measured and showed me samples and then gave me a price that was, despite the "sale that ends today," outside my pocket book.

And then we chatted about the economy. And his take was this: "The dirty little secret -- the one that nobody mentions -- is that the only way to get world economies back on their feet is inflation." Inflation means that prices rise and the bang-for-the-buck diminishes -- a dollar buys less tomorrow than it buys today. I have no way of knowing whether Bob's assessment is true or not, but prices certainly are rising ... and poverty with them.

He did tell me one useful thing about buying any big-ticket items: Always buy at the end of the month: That's when retailers have to make their quota and are more likely to offer a good deal. It's little stuff like that that helps economic dummies like me.

the gag reflex

Today, a frisky friend sent along a droning disquisition about why religious/spiritual individuals and organizations should not speak ill of each other. There was an encouragement to support and feel joy in the efforts of another.

I agreed with the suggestion ... and it made me gag.

Serendipitously and simultaneously as it seemed, another email in the same mailbox wondered whether, when a spiritual teacher, however flawed, had put heart and soul into a lifelong practice ... well wasn't this deserving of honor and praise? Wasn't this better than some beer-swilling couch potato whose efforts and intentions were utterly self-serving and blatantly ignorant?

And again I could see what the writer was talking about. I too have done such things ... but that too tickled my gag reflex.

In spiritual effort, there is (sometimes) an encouragement not to speak ill of others. No bad-mouthing ... something like that. And together with that no-bad-mouthing, there is (sometimes) an encouragement to support and nourish and delight.

My question, and gag reflex, probably boils down to this: If it is a bad idea not to speak ill of others, how is it possible that speaking good is not a similarly bad idea? This question may be intellectually satisfying ... but it is probably emotionally repugnant. My own inclination, for example, is to speak well of others, to encourage and support them. It feels better.

But are intellectual and emotional yardsticks the basis of an actualized spiritual peace? I seriously doubt it ... that would just be more of the same, more of the uncertainty that led anyone to a spiritual effort in the first place, more beer-swilling on a comfortable couch, more mediocrity in a life that deserves a complete enjoyment. Altruism is nice ... but the question remains ... is it true?

If blame doesn't work and praise doesn't work, what works?

To my mind, this is a question that no one can answer.

But you can.

Friday, November 25, 2011

damn! we won!

The American Samoa soccer team was ranked worst in the world with 30 defeats over a period of almost 20 years. In 2001 American Samoa lost 31-0 to Australia.

But now the team has suffered its first victory, beating Tonga 2-1.

They did their best to be worst ... and failed.

It's a good lesson for all, I think.

to believe or not believe ... is that a question?

Everybody believes something, I imagine. From hula hoops to self-esteem, everybody believes something. And it seems to be OK: Belief inspires action and everybody was built to act in one way or another. But belief means doubt and the stronger the belief the more doubt-filled the lifestyle. It behooves a sensible person to investigate beliefs and the choke-hold with which they are grasped. It's uncomfortable and far from peaceful to live in doubt. Peace is preferable and the only way I can think of to find peace is to get to the bottom of doubt -- the bottom of belief.

This all may sound a bit philosophical and airy-fairy until you look around. What, for example, is money if not a belief system? When you hand me a dollar, we share a belief that this piece of paper is worthy of some concrete thing -- a candy bar perhaps. When we share the belief, things go swimmingly. But where the belief is withdrawn ... then what?

One of the world's richest families, the Oppenheimer dynasty, has decided to divest itself of its holdings in DeBeers, the company with what I understand is a monopoly on diamonds and their distribution. Diamonds, as this Reuters story points out, are not "intrinsically valuable." The Oppenheimers were squeezed for cash and the sale of its diamond holdings seemed a sensible move. The belief in diamonds is waning. If fewer and fewer believe, then wealth, the stuff that business people adore and depend on, dwindles... and the doubt that belief appeared to keep at bay gains an unacceptable power.

Gold seems to be suffering a similar weakening of belief, though I can't pretend to understand the complexities of its recently-shrinking price.

And what is the ordinary result of a belief under pressure from the facts? I don't mean just sissy-safe topics like diamonds and gold ... what happens when some deeply-held belief comes under assault in your life and mine? The first, sometimes desperate, move is to reassert the belief with an ever-greater force ... rush around and find new and better reasons and explanations that will bolster this long-held and much-beloved belief... to create for a former 'authenticity' what must now be made even 'authenticate-r.' And so the spiral of belief rises, higher and higher -- ever corrected, ever improved, ever more assertive -- with nary a glance at the foundations of what shaped the belief in the first place ... doubt.

Belief inspires action. Good. But when held tight-tight-tightly, it invariably asserts and nourishes the doubt that fathered and mothered its birth. Doubt inspires action. Good. But when tight-tight-tightly held, it invariably asserts and nourishes the belief that fathered and mothered its birth. Like a dog chasing its tail, there seems to be no way out of this dynamic and sometimes heart-breaking activity.

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki was once asked about the importance of Zen practice. He said, "It's important, but it's not that important."

Belief is important.

Doubt is important.

But it's not that important.

Or, as the refrigerator magnet once asserted, "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

burn it all down

Lately I have had occasion to recall a TV presentation in which a Japanese Zen teacher was interviewed as part of the New Year's Eve celebrations in Japan. In Japan, the New Year is often ushered in on TV with a visit to one temple or another.

The teacher was asked how he would feel if the communists invaded Japan and wiped out all the temples there. "Oh yes," he laughed approximately, "burn them all down!" I had heard similar sentiments in Zen centers, but never on TV and seldom so gaily. Imagine a Christian or Jewish or Muslim potentate with that sort of chutzpah, with that sense of humor.

Not long ago I was talking to a Zen-inclined friend on the phone and he tentatively suggested that the whole of Zen in America, if not everywhere, was bogus. He did so with a combination of some conviction and some question-mark in his voice. He wasn't trying to sell the idea. He wouldn't go on TV about it. It was more as if he were trying the idea on for size, to see how it dovetailed with his gut experience and honest-heart understanding. My friend is too old to do an arm-flailing, teen-aged let's-pretend-we-know-what-Zen-is schtick.

Burn it all down! -- how about it?

I can hear and make up the simpering counter-arguments, but what about it really? On the one hand, you don't want to hurt anyone else or deprive them of a useful tool in their attempts to create a peaceful life. And, on the other ... cut the crap! This is organizational bullshit!

Either/or. Both/and. Neither/nor.

Just something that seems to appeal lately:

Burn it all down.

hope for heaven, prepare for hell

Poor old Harold Camping, the radio evangelist who predicted the end of the world on May 21 and, when that didn't work, recalibrated his vision to Oct. 21 ... which, as it turned out, was also wrong.

I suppose "poor" is a poor choice of words since many of Camping's followers sent him donations ... a fact I find hard to understand since the end of the world was right around the corner: Those going to heaven would hardly have need of money or possessions ... just like those headed for hell... so a transfer of goods sounds like a waste of time to me.

Less ludicrous than all of this, perhaps, is the encroaching sense that things are going to hell in a hand basket. Riots, demonstrations, increasing economic uncertainty, a shameless political leadership, and a growing malaise that good-news gurus find increasingly difficult to thwart -- all of this seems to bring a common-sensical quality to those who are preparing for the meltdown of social order.

A friend sent along this news story about three survival-goods stores that are seeing an uptick in business. In the 1950's and 1960's, there was a similar uptick in the building of fallout shelters against the day when the governmentally-promoted nuclear attack by the Russians might occur. Guns, supplies, air-filtration systems ... and a good field of fire were part of such plans. But there is something less hysterical about the current safety measures. If everyone is thrown back on self-reliance, as the Republicans seem determined to implant, how are people likely to act? A sense of community safety and nourishment is central to a civil society and civility is a dwindling commodity.

I'm not planning to send my goods and chattels to Harold Camping, but neither do I see a reason to put my faith in the capabilities of those charged with the safety and nourishment of a nation. I can see why some might hope for heaven but prepare for hell.

It's hard not to note, among other things ...

-- No new grants for AIDS, TB and malaria in developing nations will be made this year due to the economic downturn.

-- Fitch downgraded Portugal's bonds to "junk." Egypt suffered a similar blow from Standard & Poors. Money is founded belief and belief is sagging.
-- Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain said that, if elected, he would back Israel if it came up with a credible plan to attack Iran, a country the U.S. seems bound and determined to make war on.
-- Unsettled circumstances continue to plague Syria, Egypt, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries. And that doesn't include the war in Afghanistan and uncertainty in Iraq. The Middle East produces much of the oil used in the West.
-- A court ruled that Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, would not be allowed to file for bankruptcy in its attempt to avert a state takeover of the financially bereft city.

And there are other events that could be cited -- each, of itself, not personally compelling, perhaps. For the moment, I've got mine, so why concern myself with events and countries and happenings that are not in my backyard? Perhaps I am just being a sissy. Or perhaps others are just being overly sanguine. Nevertheless, things don't feel right to me. It's like shoveling out a pig pen ... this shit really does stink worse than other shit.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Here in the U.S. Thanksgiving is a harvest festival -- a time when there is an opportunity to express gratitude for things.

It's good to be thankful.

Good to be grateful.

And into the bargain ...

Don't be a turkey.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

constitutional deliberations

In honor of the peaceful protesters recently pepper sprayed at the University of California at Davis, someone apparently used his or her Photoshop expertise to produce this bit of history.


Literally and metaphorically, this picture seems to sum up the discontents around this nation and around the world. In this Reuters photo by Abdallah Dalsh, a protester in Tahrir Square in Cairo returns a tear gas canister lobbed at those protesting yesterday.

Whether it's income inequality or the result of more obvious dictatorial rule, the words of a Somali intelligence officer talking about piracy off his shores ring true: "If you do not share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you."


It's raining today -- pretty hard just at the moment. The dawn has a hard time asserting itself under all those moist grey clouds.

I once heard that an inch of rain represents what otherwise might be 10 inches of snow.

I am happy not to have to shovel the rain.

the blessing of our heresies

It seems to me that heresy (in the broadest sense of the word) is absolutely essential to any belief. The more heart-felt the belief (whether spiritual or social) the more important the heresy. In fact, there is no escaping the heresy that beliefs (money, love, God, enlightenment, material possessions) may energetically deny or disparage.

Believers, to my way of thinking, are heretics and the only important thing about that assertion is that a believer diligently pursue and investigate his most heart-felt belief and acknowledge his heresy as a blood-line ally. As exhalation follows inhalation, as night follows day, as anger comes with love ... how could belief ever stand a chance of being 'true' without its fullest acknowledgment of its shadow existences. Heresy is really, really important. Right and wrong are important, but they are also sissies.

This is not just theoretical bullshit. It speaks directly to the longing for peace of mind in this life.

Somehow, in an effort to actualize that peace, it will be necessary to go to the place where the light meets the shadow and they are so tightly interfused that there is no longer light or shadow ... nor any lack of light and shadow. This is a world of wonder ... or, from the believer's point of view, a world of eek. What makes the deep fear worth it to the believer is that without entering such a world, there can never be the peace the believer may claim he wishes to attain. That peace, so to speak, is worth the war.

Gently, but firmly ....

Acknowledge and investigate the belief.

Acknowledge and investigate the heresies so zealously kept at bay.

Gently but firmly, watch them at play. Gently but firmly allow them their time and place. Gently but firmly, be patient. Gently but firmly do not succumb to intellect or emotion ... just watch. Watching is not an exercise for the philosophically adroit or the oh-so-sincere. It is an exercise for the courageous and wobbling and determined. As the Japanese say, "fall down seven times, get up eight."

Bless the heresies. Damn the beliefs. And go forward despite the blandishments of either. Forward to where the light meets the shadow, the day meets the night, the then meets the now, the fear meets the longing, the strength meets the weakness it relies on ... actualize what is true, not what is believable: No believer, no lack of believer; no heretic nor any lack of heretic ... to the easy grace of a place where the bullshit no longer finds a footing, where nothing whatsoever works....

But a smile works.

Or a laugh.

Or a stubbed toe.

Or a kiss.

Or anything at all.

Peace is not for sissies.

be careful what door you walk through

Received in email this article, suggesting that walking through doorways -- literally -- causes forgetfulness.

I'm not sure how specious the reasoning is, but the vaguely-magical quality of the assertion and experiments appeals to me.

And it makes me wonder whether, if I walk backwards through all the doors I have been through, I would thereby remember all the things I had forgotten by walking through them in the first place ... and what impact that would have on all the new information I had gleaned by walking though: Would I thereby forget that I had forgotten?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

the rise of barbarism

In this age of reduced economic certainty and of what feels like a rise in barbarism, I sometimes think of pointillist painters like Georges Seurat. Pointillism is the technique of creating a recognizable individual or scene by adding point-tip after point-tip of color until the individual or scene emerges. Dit, dit, dit ... itty-bit by itty-bit.

And itty-bit by itty-bit, the social fabric seems to dissolve. The political scene becomes more and more complex. Governments refuse to function. Anger rises itty-bit by itty-bit. Anguish heats up. A cohesive and recognizable picture is lost ... as some new and as yet unrecognizable picture emerges. The longing for answers goes unanswered as, one by one, those offering up answers prove unequal to the task. Individuals zipper their economic coats against the cold winds ... and zipper their minds into smaller and smaller containers as they attempt to save ... something.

And not for the first time, it occurs to my increasingly zippered mind that of all the useful tools for seeing human beings out of the mess, shame may be the most useful. In the face of cruelty and confusion, as the recognition that reliable havens are no longer reliable rises ... shame has a chance of making the reflection in the mirror less grotesque.

Shame is not the half-joking archetype of the Jewish child who is victim to some stereotyped, guilt-wielding mother. Shame is a recognition of responsibility -- personal responsibility and a willingness to try to meet that responsibility. Imagine if politicians had a sense of shame. Imagine if bankers and stock brokers had a sense of shame. Imagine if I had a sense of shame. Imagine if the righteous or the virtuous everywhere had a sense of shame.

Would it cure all the ills as barbarity gains a foothold? Certainly not.

But it would be less shameless.

And perhaps a little kinder.

and then I....

Watching a television biography of movie director Woody Allen last night, I found myself torn between loving to hear other people's stories and being irritated with what I perceived as his intelligent and witty way of steering clear of his own serious questions ... what he truly loved...what he loved without relying on any art whatsoever... what he wanted without guile.

And that thought train led me to turn the program off and to think further...

How much more is anyone's life than a reprise of the kid in the third grade who comes home and tells his mother about his day in school...

"And then I..."

"And then I..."

"And then I..."

"And then I..."

Weaving, weaving, weaving ... bolstering, bolstering, bolstering ...

This is what I was taught to do and I took to it like a duck to water. "And then I..."

It's not as if this is naughty or bad. The usual excuse is, "Everyone does it." And this is true, I think I would argue.

But what crossed my mind is that after enough of this same old diet, it is conceivable -- or do I mean inescapable? -- that "I" become boring or less convincing. If you thought TV reruns were bad, this really takes the cake ... and the boredom and lack of a once-dear conviction whispers louder and louder: "Is that all there is? Isn't there something interesting out there?"

And of course there is. On the one hand there is no escape from "and then I..." On the other, the willingness to believe in your own public-relations blitz grows curiously stale. Isn't it enough that circumstances rise up and fall away? Isn't that delightful? Why mess up a perfectly good story line with some fabulous addition. Been there done that. Been "and then I...", done that. Circumstances are what circumstances are ... why fuck up a perfectly good wet dream?

And it is the curiosity that blazes the trail and deserves attention.

Whose attention? Why 'my' attention, of course. Follow the trail, follow the curiosity. See what happens.

"And then I..." ..... oh really?

And then and then and then and now and now and now and....

Chocolate is outta-sight. Anchovies are to puke for.

And then and then and now and now and...

"And" what?

"I" becomes less interesting. "And" becomes less credible. "Then" becomes slightly odd.

"And then I..."

Monday, November 21, 2011

the desire to be well-thought-of

What a strange and human facet -- the desire to be well-thought-of.

At its foundation, I imagine, is the separation of this from that, "me" from "you" To be well-thought-of is to be well-thought-of by someone else.

There is no point in bad-mouthing or criticizing this desire. It is as common as grass on a backyard lawn. The desire to be well-thought-of inspires both altruism and depravity.

Gently and firmly, I think this desire is worth examining ... the creation of some 'other' authority in order to assert 'this' authority; the shakiness of the premise; the support beams of fear; the implicit uncertainties that are nourished by such a desire; the longing to be loved; the question of whether the loneliness that is staved off is actually staved off or more-probably nourished; and the damage that can be done in pursuit of that endlessly elusive goal -- to be well-thought-of.

A curious matter.

"Eastern Promises"

Last night, I watched "Eastern Promises," a 2007 thriller about the Russian mafia in, I think, London. Different from the wildly popular "The Godfather," this movie is darker, more redolent and more credible. It is a fairly violent movie ... but the violence was not a sidelight or an afterthought: Organized crime is based on violence, and so, perforce, the movie did not shy away from violence.

What I really liked was the faces of the people doing the acting. There was a total of two pretty faces in the whole cast. Everyone else looked like people, honest-to-goodness people. The plot was nicely intricate instead of comic-book broad. Often, what was left unspoken and unexplained loomed as large and important as what was. Maybe it was a "Godfather" for grown-ups, although I doubt that any movie could ever do adult credit to the chicanery and cruelty and stupidity of such a world. But these human beings had believable characters, from the sly and silent power brokers to the sometimes rambunctious and sometimes restrained underlings who did their bidding.

It was nice to see a movie that did not pander quite so obviously to the Hollywood gods. And I wanted to know what happened 'after the end.'

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Occupy Wall Street hits a money-making nerve

If you had any doubt about the impact the Occupy Wall Street movement (which began Sept. 17, 2011, and has gone worldwide) has had, check out this news story, which was passed along in email this morning. For a paltry $850,000, a lobbying firm is offering bankers a chance to push back against the sullying effects all those protesters are laying at their doorstep.

what comes true comes out of what is false ... sort of

Socially, it's pretty obvious stuff, but on a personal level it is frequently adorned and camouflaged -- the willingness and perhaps need to tell a wonderful story that then, invariably, trips up any honest story-teller.

On the social front, for example, a Catholic church in South Riding, Va., recently announced that it would no longer allow girls to act as altar servers. The decision was left to individual pastors by (what I imagine to be) a sensibly gun-shy hierarchy and Corpus Christi church's pastor, Michael Taylor, made his decision. No more girls.

An institution that touted its vision of inclusiveness fell into a more obvious version of exclusivity. The feel-good (Christian) story had some bad-news aspects. Mostly, the bad-news trip-stones were overlooked: Overall, this was a good news story -- an institution or belief system that wove a wondrous and redemptive tale that parishioners, as believers, clearly credited.

OK -- I imagine anyone can think of a social setting in which things are seen in shades of grey even though the heart's desire is for something black and white. The 'adults' in the crowd may pat themselves on the back for seeing life in shades of grey. They are 'realists.' Applause, applause, applause! 'Realists' assume they can overlook minor peccadilloes as they tell a marvelous social story.

But then there are the stories told within -- the means by which someone might define his or her life ... the intentions and beliefs and inspiring formats and, well, the defining stuff, the stuff that makes life bearable or meaningful or joyous or ... something similar. Little and large, these are the stories anyone might get out of bed with in the morning. "I am me and here I am."

In Buddhism, there are the lines

Wishing to entice the blind
The Buddha has playfully let words
Escape his golden mouth.
Heaven and earth have ever since
Been filled with entangling briars.
This is not some believer's wise crack ... a warning that all and sundry may claim to understand and then show every example of not understanding. It is just an observation that happens to be true: Any story, any belief system, any heart-felt enclosure that structures a meaning or explanation for this life ... any at all ... well, it just means we're cruisin' for a bruisin'.

Does this mean that all stories are useless and without value? Not at all. Everyone has their stories, often pretty refined and holy. But the uses to which those stories are put varies. Some buy in and, invariably, get bruised. Some nibble around the edges, being sort-of convinced. And some dismiss all stories out of hand ... and thereby create yet another story.

Stories R Us. And it's OK. We need intention and effort to lead our lives. But we also long for some peace of mind, some understanding that is not at the whim of endless bruises, endless thorns, endless well-intentioned lies. So it behooves us to don our stories with care, apply ourselves to their dictates AND recognize that where we may require stories and beliefs and explanations and meanings, life -- the very life we cannot escape -- does not. Life includes stories but is not bound by them. So ... how about it ... what is this life without our help and hoorahs?

It's worth a look, I think. No story is the story is no story ... something like that?

one picture worth 10,000 words

The horrific nature of child abuse is numbing in its similarity from venue to venue. It's just so damned familiar and the reactions to it are likewise repetitive, repetitive, repetitive. First the incidents begin to surface like a boil -- small and lonely voices of the affected make their way into mainstream consciousness. An institution that relies on and elevates its good name and integrity and power is accused of fostering and protecting and giving permission to members who preyed on the unwitting and vulnerable. The Catholic Church, Penn State, The Citadel, or, in the world of Zen Buddhism, the Zen Studies Society ... the last of which did not (to the best of public knowledge) prey on children, but nevertheless fed its version of Christians to the lions of institutionalized power. The list goes on and on.

Step 1: It happened. Step 2: Bit by bit the horror goes public. Step 3: The institution, which relies on its good name and accumulated power and income to survive, goes into survival mode ... grudgingly admits, but carefully couches its responses so that all that power and money will not be lost ... seeking to preserve what is 'good' and 'noble' about the institution. Supporters rally around, cooing and tut-tutting, but basically supporting the institution against the victims (who threaten to upend the income flow ... the victims who, were they not victims, would represent the very life blood of the institution in all its glory).

One small act of straightforwardness
I'm not sure which makes me want to puke worse -- the depredations that originally occurred or the self-serving and half-hearted institutional answers that rise up in response to being caught, literally and metaphorically, with their institutional pants down. Straightforwardness is sacrificed in oh-so-many-logical-and-thoughtful-and-caring ways on the altar of preserving of the very institution that allowed the evil in the first place.

I like straightforwardness. At least that contains some integrity.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"mic check"

For perhaps 20 minutes, the Occupy Northampton effort whose numbers seem to be small, occupied the peace picket I stand on for an hour each Saturday morning. Someone walked through the congregation passing out "I belong to the 99%" stickers and people pasted them on their coat fronts. I declined since I already belong to the 99 or 100% and don't need a sticker to prove it.

Leading the Occupy group was Claudia, an edgy and energetic woman who lives down my street and has, in the past, stood on the peace picket line. I think she qualifies as an 'organizer.' But whereas the peace picket line generally stands quietly with signs around individual necks or passing out fliers to willing pedestrians, Claudia wanted to bring something called a "mic check" to bear. Because the police had shut down use of a bull horns in past demonstrations, Claudia said anyone could have a say and everyone else would follow along, loudly, sentence for sentence. Each would thus be heard and supported by all the others...including those on the peace picket. Claudia had a whizzing whistle to indicate the end of each individual "mic check."

And so it proceeded, each individual backed up by a loud Greek chorus repeating whatever the individual sentiments might be. The noise gave me a headache, so I moved to the far edges of the group, surreptitiously eying pedestrians threading their way past the group, picking up speed in order to be out of the yelling. The sentiments expressed were, as you might expect, anti-war, anti-big-business and full of words like "justice" and "freedom." With everyone yelling, there was little or no room for reflection. It was insistent and heart-felt and ... just not my style.

On the one hand, if you don't speak up no one can hear you. On the other hand, where everyone is yelling, people can't hear themselves. The purpose of such a group is partly to assert that a loud group has the benefit of being right, speaking the truth, etc. I don't agree so I didn't join in. Nevertheless, I stayed. The peace picket is something I credit enough to join and it's like being in a great big family ... every once in a while a fractious uncle will hold forth, but it's just family stuff ... nothing to get too excited about.

It was interesting, being occupied by those who revile various other sorts of occupation. It felt like "solidarity" was being rammed down people's throats. After a while the Occupy folks drifted back to their turf further up Main Street.

But the air was crisp, the sky blue, the sun shining. The peace picket only lasts for an hour. I can do pretty much anything for an hour.


I have to admit I have a bias towards excellence ... just like everyone else.

But when I try to parse what excellence is, my mind's facile tongue fails to find an excellent or satisfying definition. I love it when someone does something very well -- anything at all. I love it when what is completed stands without explanation or excuse ... just balls-out complete. I love it when a 100-yard-dash is finished and the looks of nothing-left wrack the runner's face. I love it when a box made in 1620 has a beautiful patina and the dovetails are all but seamless. I love it when the child's finger makes a single, curiosity-plagued-and-wonder-struck adventure through the green or blue or red finger paint. I love the complete sound of a temple gong trailing away into silence.

Excellence fills me with delight but I am goddamned if I can say what it is that floods me or defines it. No-excuses and no-explanations seems to be part of the mix. It does not rely on anyone else ... that too seems to be part of it: A generalized and socially-acceptable 'best' is not quite it ... sometimes a socially second-best really is excellent beyond compare. I can remember, for example, touring a museum exhibit of Buddha carvings, some of which were exquisitely refined, and yet the one that stopped me in my tracks and filled me up was a very rough carving (it seemed to be made of some very ordinary piece of fire wood). The chisel marks were obvious, the presentation was not exact or perfect, the symmetry was whopper-jawed, it was mediocre by comparison to its refined neighbors ... but there was love and excellence all over it.

Excellence. I am tongue-tied -- revolted by the notion that it could be defined and yet wanting to define it.

I guess I will have to be content with being a nitwit.

"foremost" fiddle faddle

Under a tinged-pink early morning sky as I drove to the convenience store, an enthusiastic male voice touted "the foremost black intellectual of our time." I didn't listen closely enough to find out who this person was or why I should believe the assessment: There was an early frost on the windshield  and I was trying to be careful driving with an ice-impaired field of vision.

Still, the idea of the "foremost intellectual" tickled and teased. How the hell does anyone make such an assertion, let alone believe it? I'm not trying to detract from what may be some very good intellectual capacities, but "foremost...?" The zealousness of the assertion seemed to undermine the very thing the assertion attempted to assert: What very good intellectual in his right -- or honest -- mind would lay claim or allow himself to bask in the self-serving aptness of the assessment? Only a twit would do that, right? Just another dummy.

But maybe it is like the "enlightenment" of Buddhism or other spiritual persuasions. The longing to have some tip-top exemplar of study or accomplishment is just so socially compelling that those demanding a front-runner will not be denied. They will not stop to ask themselves what the wearer of the laurels thinks or says, or how those demanding that someone be "enlightened" could possibly know what they were talking about without being enlightened themselves. So the needs of the many believers take precedence over any right-before-their-eyes facts. Would any honest "God" or "Buddha" bother entertaining him-, her-, or itself with a foremost notion like "God" or "Buddha?"

I am not trying to promote some mediocre 'equality' argument ... we are all 'special' or 'unique' or 'wondrous' or some similar lazy, self-help pablum. It is not the defrocking of the crowned prince that interests me. It is the willingness to explore and examine the person who put the crown atop these golden locks in the first place.

Without such an effort, wouldn't life take a turn for the worse -- be dragged down by kings and queens and princes instead of shining without a doubt?

"Fiddle faddle" was once an expression used to denote something spurious. "Poppycock" was another word for the same idea. Later both words were employed as names for a confection of popcorn covered with caramel. In their metaphorical sense, both words were your grandmother's prim way of saying "bullshit."

But whether metaphorical or literal, fiddle faddle is no diet on which to rely for serious nourishment. Relying on the "foremost" or "fully enlightened" exponent of anything may be a good encouragement and a tasty treat, but to the extent that anyone takes that 'anything' seriously, well, isn't there some need to feast on meat and potatoes if you want to grow up strong and healthy?


Interesting to think -- the luxuriousness of life does not always present itself as a luxury.

Luxury is a personal persuasion.

The luxuriousness of life is not.

silly and/or sane

Received in email this silly/sane bit of thinking for those of a certain age:


I have been in many places, but I’ve never been in Cahoots. 
Apparently, you can’t go alone.  You have to be in Cahoots with someone.

I’ve also never been in Cognito. 
I hear no one recognizes you there.

I have, however, been in Sane. 
They don’t have an airport; you have to be driven there.  I have made several trips there, thanks to my friends, family and work.

I would like to go to Conclusions, 
but you have to jump, and I’m not too much on physical activity anymore.

I have been in Doubt. 
That is a sad place to go, and I try not to visit there.

I’ve been in Flexible, 
but only when it was very important to stand firm.

Sometimes I’m in Capable, 
and I go there more often as I’m getting older.

One of my favorite places to be is in Suspense! 
It really gets the adrenalin flowing and pumps up the old heart!  At my age I need all the stimuli I can get!

I know about the Here and Now,  
but more and more I think of the Here After … 
Several times a day, in fact. I enter a room and think I am here now, but ‘What am I here after?’

Friday, November 18, 2011


Desperate retailers are starting to fill the television airwaves with holiday cheer and invitations to consumers in tight straits. The turkey has not yet hit the Thanksgiving table and yet Christmas is coming and bank tellers are saying, "have a nice holiday" without being specific about which holiday they mean.

Today, the holidays seemed ever more apparent as my wife and son took off for Pennsylvania to visit over the weekend with my daughter and her fiance. A cheerful time I hope before my daughter returns here Sunday for a doctor's appointment on Monday and the house will once more be filled with the galumphing of my son, kitchen sink water running and general urgings to "bring in an arm-load of wood."

In the meantime, it is quiet save for a gentle, chilly breeze rattling in what remains of the leaves on the trees.

speed and chicken massacre

-- At the same time that researchers confirmed with a second experiment that there are things that move faster than the speed of light, the U.S. Army has conducted its first test of a missile that will travel at more than five times the speed of sound. Meanwhile, a Superman heist in Illinois ended with the perpetrator doing slower-than-light-speed time.

-- On a less zippy note, the Congress passed without fanfare or open acrimony a spending bill that will fund the government through December. The passage stands in stark contrast to the boondoggles of recent months, but extends the contrast with previous years in which Congress routinely passed spending bills for the whole year and not just month-by-month.

-- In a world where the agents of 'health' have increasingly donned the mantle of the merchandisers of pills, the sales pitch has worked so well that health officials are warning the public to be wary of the antibiotic pills they bought in to. Specifically, those antibiotics you saved after your last tooth extraction and then used for self-medicating purposes could in fact be a recipe for the creation of antibiotic-resistant illness. It's not a new warning, but as pill-pushing gains in popularity, I can imagine that the seriousness of the warning is increasing.

-- The legal tsunami spawned by a pedophile scandal at Penn State University is gathering steam. Like the Sioux tightening their noose at Little Big Horn, lawyers and litigants are lining up for the blood bath ... and a credible pay day. The vainglorious Custer of this metaphor is the smug and institutionalized willingness to sweep harmful actions under any available rug based on some imagined 'good' reason ... the integrity, or financial benefits, or other excuse. The Catholic Church did much the same with its pedophile scandal. Unfortunately, as with the Catholic Church, the underlying responsibility or causes are unlikely to be cleanly excised at Penn State. Blood, sweat and tears will be expended ... but the basis will remain intact. It may be infuriating, but that doesn't change the fact that it's true.

-- Locally, a group of those lovable canine companions which leave their hairs on your living room sofa are the chief suspects in the massacre of 51 chickens which have been described in equally lovable terms. Police are investigating and suspect a pack of 'domesticated dogs' as the perps. Domesticated dogs meet domesticated chickens and ... suddenly the word 'domesticated' is thrown into a cocked hat and those who use it so blithely are left with egg on their faces.

Stop! Look! And listen!

Amorphous stuff:

The ordinary way is to try to make things stop. Fear is an attempt to make things stop. Love is an attempt to make things stop. Belief, explanation and meaning are attempts to make things stop. This is the ordinary way.

But things don't stop.

And the disconnect between what is attempted and what is creates an understandable uncertainty ... which itself is another attempt to make things stop.

Buddhists refer to this activity as "ego," but no one who is uncertain cares what it is called. They would just like the uncertainty to stop.

And still things don't stop.

Within this uncertain and ordinary way of living, it is useful to build a better mouse trap -- to find an avenue and an effort that can absolve this life of uncertainty.

Railroad crossings, among others, offer a good suggestion:

"Stop! Look! And listen!"

Thursday, November 17, 2011

no nude dudes

Secretive banks, cuckoo clocks, neutrality and breath-taking scenery ... they all sound like plausible reasons for holding Switzerland in some esteem. Yet now the country's highest court has decided that local governments are within their rights to ban nude hiking in the Alps.

What is the world coming to when nude hiking is banned?! And in the Alps. It seems to me that if someone is willing to brave the potentially frigid temperatures in the buff, he or she might be more deserving of a medal (if there were anywhere to pin it) than a fine.

But apparently Switzerland has its own sense of propriety: Alpenzell, a canton that has seen an influx of naked hikers, didn't grant women the right to vote until 1990.

And you thought sharia law was tough.

confession and absolution

In Roman Catholicism, as I understand it, there is a tradition of confession ... confession and absolution. As I understand it from Catholic friends and acquaintances, a parishioner steps into the confessional booth where s/he is separated from a priest who is likewise ensconced by a screen that allows neither to see the other. The parishioner confesses his or her faults/sins and the priest then prescribes a penance (usually "Our Father..." or "Hail Mary..." prayers) after which the parishioner is absolved of wrong-doing in the eyes of the God that Catholics believe in.

Once upon a time, I can remember a high-school friend of mine who had quite going to Catholic church. It was a time of hormones (as always in high school) and he had a hundred reasons why the church imposed by his parents no longer made sense. But when I asked him if there were any aspect of the church that he missed, a strangely stricken look came over his teen-aged face as he admitted quietly, "I miss confession." And, although I had no church affiliation at the time and could wax pretty skeptical on the topic, still, my heart went out to him.

In Buddhism as I understand it, there was once a tradition of monks getting together periodically (weekly?) to admit to transgressions and other mistakes. As I understand it, there was no absolution ... just the admitting of slips and goofs and wrong-doings. The fact that it was out in the open, not held tightly and in secret, offered a chance to look things squarely in the eye and to investigate.

If his rough depiction of two traditions' approach to confession is somewhere close to the truth, then I think I would call Buddhism's version a confession for grown-ups: Harder, yes, but more adult.

One of the things I have always liked about formal Zen Buddhist settings (after a number of years... not necessarily sooner) is the fact that you can say any damned thing you want. Anything goes. Everything is invited. In fact, everything honest is encouraged. It's not like a social setting in which camouflage and misdirection are in vogue. True, people sometimes swath themselves in spiritual ardor and other folderol, but the general direction is to come clean ... to others, perhaps, but most importantly to yourself.

Who else could possibly absolve you in a way that had true meaning? This is the adult part and takes practice. It takes strength to stand naked in front of your very own mirror, whether real or metaphorical. Relying on the absolution of another simply cannot fill the bill of spiritual adulthood and peace.

Bit by bit and day by day and effort by effort I think a reputable spiritual practice guides us in the building of a confessional in which nothing is hidden, in which the disembodied voice is no longer disembodied, and in which the authority arises without a second thought.

This is authentic absolution ...or anyway that's my guess.


Although I dislike relying on the tales of others and thereby running the risk of implying or imagining that because I can retell the tale I am therefore personally capable of the wisdom of that tale, still I seem to have no tales of my own this morning. I am stuck with what I dislike ... offering up already-chewed food instead of an honest plateful.

-- Reports suggest that the housing market may be in something of a comeback mode ... not! The good-news talking heads on TV can point to various 'rebounds,' but the facts are not at all so smiling-and-rosy-cheeked. How dispiriting it can be to feel the insecurity of not having a roof over your head.

-- The dilemma the Occupy movement presents to those operating within the system that brought about the impetus of the Occupy movement is pressing. Democrats, who may share some of the same views, are as leery as a moth flying close to the flame. And Occupy protesters seem to be as leery of those who agree with them as they are of those who don't. How long the Occupy movement can maintain its outsider status is up for grabs, but today is scheduled to be a day of renewed protests worldwide.

-- And for those who think things are bad in the U.S., consider Andalucia.

Living in insecurity is hard. The longing for a 'solution' and a sense of security is pressing. True in spiritual life as it is true on the sidewalks where dogs shit. "Give me the answer! Give me a little peace!"

what is ignored

Somehow, the following two stories fit together in my mind ... the tale of a Hawaiian singer doing a 40 minute Occupy protest song at a state dinner that included U.S. President Barack Obama -- a song that made some participants jittery, but was largely ignored and ...

A very brief BBC news story about how it was that 'celebrities' like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and members of "Jersey Shore" could be raking in money without ever creating anything other than a 'faux celebrity' status. Since my kids seem drawn to stories or activities of these people, I am interested as well: They all seem to have two characteristics -- an over-weaning sense that they are somehow fascinating (and others buy into the notion) and a lack of intellectual or moral substance that, from my point of view, rivals a kumquat. They seem to be an American version of British royalty -- hopelessly ingrown and vastly ignorant ... but lacking royalty's limited sense of noblesse oblige. That, and, of course, the Americans seem to have bigger tits.

I guess the two tales fit together in my mind by reason of what is ignored.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"My Life as a Turkey"

I am not a nature freak, but I just finished watching "My Life as a Turkey" on public television. Outside the stunning photography, it tells a remarkable, unsissified tale of a man who hatches and then raises a group of wild turkeys... how, over time, he touches them and how they touch him.

Buddhists and anyone else who might be interested in how to live an adequate life should see this quiet film effort. As far as I can figure out, it's not on the internet just yet, but it will be at some point and I highly recommend it. Reviews cannot do it justice, but here is a review from The Guardian.

part-time jobs

Having dreamed of typing on a typewriter -- and being a bit rusty at it -- I awoke thinking ridiculously that old age might be an OK thing ... if only it were a part-time job. Maybe you could do it three or four hours a day and then take up other, less imperative, activities.

But of course life is not a part-time job, however hard anyone might try to segment and separate its facets. It's full-time all the time.

And that made me wonder if there is ever such a thing as a part-time job, a part-time activity, a part-time life. As the dusty refrigerator magnet insists, "Life is what happens while you were busy making other plans." Planning parties, planning to cook, planning to go to Kathmandu, planning a hot date, planning to brush your teeth, planning to read the next word.

Maybe it would be best to make planning a part-time job ... just two or three hours a day, perhaps, while leaving the rest of the day free to simply live this life you couldn't avoid living in the first place.