Friday, August 31, 2012

unexpected visit

Billy Meegan dropped by today. I had never heard of or met him before, but he was in Northampton as he deposited his son at the nearby University of Massachusetts campus and was snooping the Buddhist landscape. My name popped up on his machine, he called and the upshot was an hour or so of pleasant conversation.

Meegan looked to be in his late 50's or early 60's and is a homebuilder on Martha's Vinyard, an island off Cape Cod and a watering hole for the well-heeled. Meegan was wiry and fit. He has a small group of Zen students and hopes to implant a version of Robert Aitken's Diamond Sangha (Hawai'i) on the East Coast... something devoted to lay people rather than the stylizations of monastic life. He quoted Aitken as saying that monastic life was a non-starter in the U.S.

The two of us knew some of the same people or knew their names, so the conversation was easy enough to maintain: Aitken, Maurine Stewart, Sherry and Lou Nordstrom, Eido Shimano, Daido Loori, Trungpa Rinpoche, Kyudo Nakagawa ... names out of a past in which each of us, in different ways, had pursued a spiritual adventure. Meegan's wife and kids could give two hoots and a holler about Buddhism and the same is pretty much the same in my house.

So we chatted and visited the zendo and gossiped a little about Zen Studies Society and its listing in the winds of Eido Shimano's past sexual and financial depredations.

As I say, it was pleasant enough and I certainly wish Meegan well, but the whole delightfully unexpected get-together felt to me about like a tofu-burger trying to be a Big Mac. Zen practice is so important to people who think it is important, but ... well ... where's the beef? Do it, don't do it, love it, don't love it ... I just couldn't quite find the flavor and savor of a big, greasy, artery-clogging, and scrumptious fast-food burger.

It was a good lesson for me and I certainly was grateful that such a teacher should appear.

Now ... about that Big Mac....

life, death, elephants and a man

Received in email. Its deductions may be extreme, but the story is touching:

Lawrence Anthony, a legend in South Africa and author of 3 books including the bestseller The Elephant Whisperer, bravely rescued wildlife and rehabilitated elephants all over the globe from human atrocities, including the courageous rescue of Baghdad Zoo animals during US invasion in 2003.

Lawrence Anthony died in March, 2012. He is remembered and missed by his wife, 2 sons, 2 grandsons and numerous elephants.

Two days after his passing, the wild elephants showed up at his home led by two large matriarchs. Separate wild herds arrived in droves to say goodbye to their beloved man-friend.  A total of 20 elephants had patiently walked over 12 miles to get to his South African house in Zululand.

Witnessing this spectacle, humans were obviously in awe not only because of the supreme intelligence and precise timing that these elephants sensed about Lawrence's passing, but also because of the profound memory and emotion the beloved animals evoked in such an organized way: Walking slowly - for days - making their way in a solemn one-by-one queue from their habitat to his house.

Lawrence's wife, Francoise,  was especially touched, knowing that the elephants had not been to his house prior to that day for well over a year! But yet they knew where they were going. 
The elephants obviously wanted to pay  their deep respects, honoring  their friend who'd saved their lives - so much respect that they stayed for 2 days 2 nights.  Then one morning, they left, making their long journey back home.


Dismemberment does not seem to be a pastime limited to the realms of sharia law and its faithful adherents.

True, two adolescents, a boy and a girl, were recently beheaded in Afghanistan, but that's a blood-thirsty part of the world, right? But now the Canadians -- the good-tempered and civilized Canadians -- are investigating yet another dismemberment in the person of a woman's beheaded torso that was found near Niagara Falls.

I wonder why what happens here is an 'aberration,' while what happens there is 'par for the course.'

PS. And as if life in Canada had not gotten disconcerting enough, now police a investigating the theft of an unknown (but large) quantity of maple syrup, of which Quebec supplies three quarters of what the world consumes.

in the boom-boom room

Serene and peaceful and happy and ... BOOM!

Today, a friend sent along an evocative video clip (sorry, there doesn't seem to be a version that excludes the short ad at the beginning). In the upscale Schwabing district of Munich, an American bomb dropped during World War II, nearly 70 years ago, was uncovered several days ago. The bomb needed to be detonated.

The detonation Aug. 28 rattled windows in the upscale and more-or-less serene district of Schwabing.

Every serenity is an open invitation -- perhaps "demand" is a better word -- to boom. Every boom is an open invitation -- perhaps "demand" is a better word -- to serenity.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled serenity.

in my life, I have been afraid

In my life, I have been afraid.

Afraid I might be wrong.
Afraid I might be right.
Afraid I might fail.
Afraid I might succeed.
Afraid I might not be loved.
Afraid to love.
Afraid of death.
Afraid of life.
Afraid I was not good enough.
Afraid I was too good.
Afraid to lose control.
Afraid to assert control.
Afraid I might get blind-sided.
Afraid that not getting blind-sided was no sort of life.
Afraid to know.
Afraid not to know.
Afraid of being swept up in bias, whether another's or my own.
Afraid of not being at home in bias.
Afraid that life is sacrosanct.
Afraid of my own sanctity.
Afraid of my inability to line up my ducks.
Afraid of my ability to imagine my ducks might be lined up.

I could sit here all morning and deep into the night listing the circumstances and aspects of this life that had been touched by fear.

In my life, I have been afraid.

Fear is such a diaphanous imp. In one moment, it is just a whisper and a suspicion while in another it is as huge and consuming as an angry bear not six inches from my nose -- huge or thimble-sized according to its wants. Rip my guts out or irritate like a fruit fly.

There is no way to be kool about fear, despite the soothing ministries that life and self-help books may serve up. Fear is fear -- as clear as a bell and as smooth and unyielding as a cue ball ... read 'em and weep. It is love wearing brand new clothes. It cannot be out-thought, out-fought, out-flanked, embraced or dismissed.

But one thing you have to say for fear: It's utterly personal. In-your-face and intimate. And it is this aspect that I would call important. It is not frivolous. Anything that scares the shit out of you cannot be called frivolous because, of course, I am not frivolous.

If nothing can be done about fear or uncertainty -- no two-aspirins-and-call-me-in-the-morning solution -- then I think the best anyone might do is to watch and watch and watch some more. Watch and keep watching. Set aside hope. Set aside answers. Just watch. Somehow, this intimate imp deserves that much consideration ... really watch, really pay attention, really stand firm as the fires of hell blister the skin.


If you want a good-news punchline on this blog post, I'm afraid you will have to write it yourself.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

enlightenment certificate

In the course of scrounging around in an overstuffed basement today while looking for some old documents, I did not find the documents (as I said, the place is overstuffed) but I did find a cheaply-framed version of what is below.

It's old -- probably from the late 1970's or early 1980's. Who wrote it, I haven't got a clue (I know I didn't), but it does stand as a reminder that 'even then' there were those among us who harbored a certain skepticism about the sometimes-sacrosanct lineage and/or attainment factors in 'Buddhism.'

I do cherish my "Hungry Ghost" certificate, but I haven't found it yet.

seeking wisdom

If the search for wisdom were on anyone's agenda, and if that wisdom were roughly defined as an effort to actualize some wider and more peaceful way in which to address current circumstances, then I think it would be worth considering -- considering, not forcing the issue -- that everyone is already immeasurably wise, already at home in the home they seek.

This is hardly a new observation but I think it bears repeating. It is not some pious poppycock or sales pitch that encourages parishioners to put a couple of bucks in the plate. It has precisely squat to do with anything other than fact, and fact is far more interesting than the ornate fictions of faith or belief.

The alcoholic may seek a "geographic cure," thinking, "Oh, if only I lived in Colorado, everything would be different." Likewise the spiritual aspirant might long to live in a monastery where things are more peaceful and focused and serene. Each is destined for disappointment because, of course, the uncertainties of the heart and the blandishments of ancient habit are not diminished by geography.

And those seeking wisdom may acknowledge the wisdom of not relying on anything so superficial as a change of address ... and feel themselves the wiser therefore.

Yup -- fucked up is fucked up, whether in Connecticut or Colorado. Moving is not the cure.

But what is not so readily conceded is that the search for wisdom is not that much different from thinking that Colorado or a monastery holds the key. Things will be better, wider, more at peace ... and maybe everyone gets some new clothes. A lot of mental shoe leather can be worn down and worn out in the search for wisdom. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink of foolishness (moving to better surroundings) is invariably accompanied by the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of wisdom. Without taking a single step or removing a single zit refraining from a single fart or recombing a single hair or revising a single thought or restraining a single tear ... home is still home and wisdom rocks gently by the warming fire. And it is not some fake-o wisdom, some wisdom of relief or surcease. It is just what was there before the search for wisdom began.

Same in Connecticut.

Same in Colorado.

The same ... but different.

PS. If you wait long enough, someone is bound to agree with you and anoint you as "wise" ... at which point the whole wisdom-seeking schtick can begin all over again.

two-week-old goats

Just some fun/serious stuff:


messages from the past

How many bottles bearing messages to the future does anyone set adrift in their lives?

Countless is my guess. And how quaint and poignant and old-and-yet-new they seem when the bottles wash up on this present beach. Wow and d'oh in a single breath.

In Scotland, a skipper retrieved an actual bottle of this sort and set a new world's record. The bottle had been set adrift 98 years ago and the message inside offered six pence to anyone who might retrieve and return it to the lab that was studying ocean currents.

What a surprise, this new old stuff.

"growing up"

Sometimes I think "growing up" amounts to little more than recognizing we are all subject to gravity.

I don't mean the decked-out-don mind that oozes with hope and self-promotion and says "I understand." And I don't mean the attitude of the bling and bias maven mind that says, "I know." All that is just clinging to childishness.

I mean the beyond-all-doubt mind that, having realized what is plainly true, can forget all about it and do whatever it likes. The recognition has no value whatsoever and yet a failure to find out for sure nourishes endless uncertainties and a lifestyle that most closely resembles that of a whining, socially-acceptable child.

Strange how what is so ostensibly-impersonal can require such a personal effort.

No wonder whining is so popular.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


The nights come sooner now
And like some once-lush Turkish belly dancer
Whose lava-lamp lick-ilicious curves
Surrender to the cellulite of time,
The fattened leaves droop
Where once they danced in the summer sun.

The searing heat is not yet done but
Will come again as if to hiss-insist that
Days and nights in some forbidden
Casbah are still alive and undulating ...
Swaying beneath too much lipstick now
While back-stage, winter dons her brand-new lace.


The Zen teacher Ummon once observed:

When you can't say it, it's there. When you don't say it, it's missing.

A first-class teacher, I think.

a three-person civil union

Duck and cover!

A notary in Brazil has stoked the fires of controversy by accepting a civil union between one man and two women.

She [the notary] says there is nothing in law to prevent such an arrangement.
If, as seems to be the case, there is no documentation for a good Christian marriage between Adam and Eve (and just look at all the bastards who evolved from that illicit union!), it is hard to see how anyone could worry too much about this latest turn of events.

people of substance

With the political season heating up in this country, one of the things that seems to be in the wind is a generalized dissatisfaction with politics and the candidates who people the scene.

It is tiring to be around people who posture and promise but give no evidence that they have principles for which they would sacrifice ... unless of course it is to sacrifice someone else. Where is their substance, their sand, their track record as credible human beings?

During World War I and thereafter, there were dollar-a-year men, people who served the nation for a nominal fee because they already had enough money and they hoped to bring some skill to bear in parlous times. And while there are latter-day businessmen who have done the same, it has been a long time since I heard of a politician who, while wealthy in his own right, declined a salary because s/he felt that the effort was part of his or her civic responsibility.

People of substance. People who lack substance. I guess the bottom line is that individuals pick their own substance. But I do think that a feather-merchant lifestyle -- never willing to sacrifice or do something contrary to a personal best interest -- is pretty sad stuff.

When it comes to people of substance, I think again of Charles Monroe whose 1939 interview I keep as a permanent reference link on this blog. Charles Monroe was not a high-profile person. He was the town mail clerk in New Marlborough, Mass., where he lived. But he was also a man to take seriously, whether you agreed with him or not.

For example, here is an excerpt taken from the interview, one that does not depict a vapid character:

"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!"

Yes, Monroe's interviewer smiles. Perhaps a little nervously. Here is a man who is willing to challenge his own beliefs by following them and putting them to the test. This is a man of substance. There is no need to believe what he believes or act as he acts, but I think it is worth noticing that he has a courage that others may lack ... the courage to investigate what otherwise are just feather merchant beliefs. Leadership requires a willingness to tell a certain number of lies, but an unwillingness to acknowledge those lies, those compromises, those excuses ... well, it is not the business of substance. 

"I have to find out"

It doesn't happen often, but this morning ... ahh! As the old Indian chief said in the 1970 movie, "Little Big Man," ... "My heart soars like a hawk!"

It began yesterday when I got a note out of the blue from someone who had come upon a book about Shin Buddhism and wanted to find out more about it. He wrote to me because my name popped up in his Internet searching for more information. I know thimble-sized amounts about Shin Buddhism and wrote back saying so. But I also made a couple of suggestions about where he might look.

There were several little notes back and forth until this morning when I got up and received his latest. And there, rising up off the computer screen like mist over some quiet forest pool it was ... a line that opened me up like a kumquat ... the alpha and omega of serious spiritual endeavor ... a line that anyone might say, but when they mean it and act on it ... ahhh, here is the heart of the matter. Never mind teachers and gurus and vast texts and compelling rituals and intricate philosophies and soaring temples and incense curling into the sky ... the line was this:

"I have to find out."

It doesn't matter if what this fellow wants to find out is whether people wear blue hats or red, whether there is a god in heaven, whether there is life after death, whether he can afford a new refrigerator ... still, the spiritual truth remains ...

"I have to find out."

If there are blessings in this life, this morning I felt utterly blessed.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

the Grand Old Party

After months and months of political fidgeting and its own version of obscene spending, the Republican Party finally got around today to endorsing Mitt Romney as its presidential candidate for 2012. Paul Ryan is his running mate. Will anyone remember this a year from now?

The Grand Old Party also issued its platform, which would ban abortion and gay marriage, revise Medicare, and cut taxes as a means of stimulating the faltering economy. The GOP convention is under way in Tampa, Fla.

Romney, who, with his perfectly combed hair, hardly has an image problem, still lacks a persona in the mind of the electorate. What does this guy care about? What is he willing to stick his neck out for?

New York Times columnist David Brooks offered an uncharacteristically wry appreciation of the GOP standard bearer with his recent, "The Real Romney." If the ship of state must be sunk by the craven political pirates of this era, at least we can enjoy a smile as we slip beneath the waves.

Next up -- the Democrats.

fears and enthusiasms

Thinking this morning of my younger son, who is going through a confusing patch, it occurred to me:

Let neither your fears nor your enthusiasms persuade you. Just take one step at a time.

will science upend Buddhism?

I grind my teeth when others do it, but I am going to do it too ... posting a question asked and then cut-and-pasting the writer's response as if the writer had some handle on things and had ascended a throne. Ick. And yet I want to be able to find the response the next time the question comes up -- and it will -- and I am too damned lazy to rewrite what I think.

The question was nicely put: If science proves time and again that earlier scientific findings were off the mark and thereafter consigns those earlier conclusions to the dust bin, will Buddhism (the religion)  eventually be left behind and overshadowed by some newer and better conclusion?

Here, for future format purposes is what I wrote:

In one sense, Buddhism is constructed in such a way that it will, by its own encouragement, self-destruct. That, so to speak is the point: Reach 'the other shore' and leave the raft behind.

Whether Buddhism is a religion or not is a question better left to long nights of imposing discussion among people drinking lots and lots of beer. Some say yes. Some say no. Waitress! Another pitcher over here, please!

But as to the central question of whether scientific discovery will leave Buddhism in the dust, I think the answer is an obvious no. Science is aimed in the direction of intellectual and emotional conclusions ... things to hold onto for whatever period of time. And such conclusions are based in the past -- a time frame that no one can grasp. The fact that appreciations (of a flat earth, witches in Salem, etc.) come and go is evidence that science is bound to a world of limitation.

Buddhism does not exclude science (as some religions might). Science can be a very good thing and Buddhism acknowledges such potential good. But Buddhism's net is a bit wider. As a practical (as distinct from believing) point of view, it is not limited. Buddhism speaks to the present moment in which anyone, scientist or idjit, might find him- or herself.

Think about it: No matter how smart anyone might be, still they may find themselves suffering or experiencing a sense of something unsatisfactory or uncertain in their lives. Science invites us to out-think our problems. But out-thinking Buddhism is not possible because thought or emotion are as limited as science.

The Hindu swami Vivekananda once observed, "The mind [he meant intellect] is a good servant and a poor master." A good servant and a good tool, but not the sure-fire elixir that will lay uncertainty to rest. Vivekananda's observation, to the extent anyone is willing to credit it, does not mean any of us has to run out and crank up the God Machine. Just because intellect and emotion may play second fiddle in this life does not mean "God" needs to play first violin, as many religions may assert.

What it does mean is that intellect and emotion are not the be-all and end-all that most of us are habituated to thinking. This is hard to credit from the point of view of a fine-tuned intellect or a feel-good emotional palace. If my long-standing habit is to 'think things through,' then naturally Buddhism is something I can think through, know and reach a conclusion about. I am the master of my fate, right? But then life throws us one curve ball or another and the master's mastery is thrown into question.

OK ... if anyone is willing to credit that intellect and emotion only reach so far and no further and if Buddhism provides a beckoning hand, then who or what IS the good master, to use Vivekananda's terminology? Is it "God" or "enlightenment" or "the ineffable" or "emptiness" ... who or what is the good master?

This is a question that is posed differently by each individual, but the question remains unanswered without experiential proof -- the kind of proof that intellect and emotion cannot provide. And in Buddhism, one recommended course of action is to meditate ... literally, sit down, shut up, sit still, and focus the mind. And does this course of action provide the answer to who the good master might be, the answer to what it is that stands at ease and free and outside the confines of intellect and emotion? The only way to know if meditation works is to try it. Experimenting on lab rats won't do the trick. Doing meditation is a decision and a choice and there is no one and nothing (including intellect and emotion) that can do it for you. You won't go to heaven if you do it (a religious paradigm) and you won't go to hell if you don't (another religious paradigm). It's just a quite scientific approach to a problem that science can never answer: Me. You. Us... the stuff that will be around no matter how long science may ply its wonderful trade.

Sorry for all the blather. 

the boys who can't shoot straight

In Taiwan, a minister has set off a small firestorm of debate by suggesting that men, like women, should sit down when they pee in public rest rooms.

A cleaner environment is central to the argument.

Men everywhere are no doubt aghast that their aiming prowess should be called into question.

take the credit, elude the blame

Today, my mind has donned its mental combat gear, marshaling facts and arguments that I hope will straighten out a problem with local businesses whose errors directly affect my body. I am not looking for someone to blame -- the realm most businesses specialize in avoiding: I am looking for someone willing to take responsibility -- a realm all businesses may promise but few, when the specifics do not benefit them, are willing to exercise. Same for business, same for individuals ... gimme the credit and watch me evade the blame.

It all reminds me of a time, a lot of years ago, when my wife and I realized we needed a bigger car. Riding around in a VW beetle is not a pastime for people with growing families. So we went to a large car dealership, found a second-hand Toyota that seemed to fill the bill, and took it for a test drive. The salesman was all to happy to see our interest and spoke highly of the car's good qualities. During the test drive, my wife and I agreed that it seemed to be a car that represented the best compromise we could make between our needs and our pocketbook. So we put down a $50 deposit and said that, assuming the car passed our mechanic's inspection, we would buy the car for $10,000. The car did not pass our mechanic's inspection:

"It has a cracked block," he told us laconically.

A cracked block is equivalent to a junk car, good for parts and not much more.

The dealership was not in the least chagrined. In fact, rather than acknowledge their oversight and apologize, they proved reluctant to return our $50 deposit. They had put the car up for sale as if it were worth the price and ... well, I was not a happy camper. No one was to blame, to hear the dealership tell it. They were not responsible. No harm, no foul... except that they were willing to bamboozle the customer and still try to maintain the cloak of an honest broker. Let's just chalk it up to "caveat emptor" and forget about it.

Today, no one, to the best of my knowledge, is trying to sell me a car with a cracked block. But I am gearing up for similar excuses and a similar unwillingness to shoulder the responsibility. As I say, I am not interested in blame ... I am interested in who might take the responsibility.

Like many aging people, I take medications to keep this body in some kind of balance. It's a pain in the ass, but it goes with the territory. One of the beckoning blessings of death is that you will no longer have to take any more goddamned pills. Anyway....

The other day, I called the pharmacy to get a prescription refilled. It was a prescription I had taken for at least the last two years if not longer. Two tablets a day. But when I tried to refill the prescription via an automated phone system, a disembodied mechanical voice told me that it was too early to renew the prescription based on prescription information. I looked at the bottle which said to take one tablet a day. Hunh??!! Either I had been taking extra for a number of years -- something I can hardly imagine doing since I dislike taking pills in the first place -- or there had been a snafu somewhere. I needed the pills now because I had run out and I could feel my body exercising the negative effects of NOT taking them. I wracked my brain for explanations and came down to the conclusion that, when typing, "1" is right next to "2" and someone had somehow mistyped. This was the second time in two weeks that the pharmacy had made a similar error. In my confusion over the matter, I called the prescribing doctor's office yesterday and asked if they could help. The young woman hired to field incoming calls and shield those who might take responsible action said she would put it through as "urgent." I called back once to make sure someone was doing something. Another young woman hired to field calls and shield those who might take responsible action said she would resubmit my concerns ... once again as "urgent." As day turned into night, there was no indication that anyone had done anything.

So this morning, I am waiting for the pharmacy to open so that I can put my concerns directly in the ear of someone who might take responsible action. I am not optimistic, but I will try in 30 minutes to get a ball that had been rolling for years rolling anew. In the meantime, I feel that I have bought the car with the cracked block and of course no one is to blame ... and no one is responsible. Heh-heh-heh ... let's let bygones be bygones ... it's all in the past ... people make mistakes, right?

This line of thinking is rampant in business, but is less readily acknowledged personally. The longing to think well of this body and mind overrides the recognition that a life of excuses is not much of a life.

In Buddhism, there is an encouragement: Make a mistake, correct it -- this is practice. Not all mistakes can be corrected, but that's no reason to dismiss or duck the effort. There is no virtue in it, but there is a great usefulness.

Monday, August 27, 2012

"we" think

It may be an unkind failing, but there it is, warts and all:

I don't like "we" and "one" and "they" when addressing an audience. The cajoling succulence, false humility and unwillingness to shoulder responsibility just make my teeth itch.

What is the matter with "I think" or "I feel?"

Well, what's the matter with that is the fact that it lacks the invitation to a group hug or a circle jerk ... something socially warming and inviting and supportive. If "we think" or "one feels" or "they do," the sense of a wider agreement can be asserted or affirmed. And anyone knows that the more people who think the same thing, the true-r it becomes, right? Eeeeeuuuuwww.

If only "I think" or "I feel," what kind of important clout could that convey? Hell, that's just little old me ... not lots and lots of people whose combined clout is ever so much more impressive.

And yet, in the end, it is always only-little-old-me banging my gums. And you, deciding whether I am full of shit or not. And sometimes the one banging his gums and the one sniffing the shit are stuck between my very own ears.

And that perspective is worth maintaining, I think.

gratitude for my teachers


Above the computer corner where I slouch, I have tacked momentos of the past. I had to force myself to tack them up in the first place, but now that they're there, I don't generally pay attention to them. Pictures, an old hack license, a graduation certificate from the Army Language School, a New England Newspapers UPI first place award for a series of articles on alcoholism, a poster once sent by a now-dead friend saying, "50 LBS NET WT ... SWINE" with an etching of what looks very much like a smiling pig... and a couple of other things, including a calligraphy once sent by a Zen monk friend, Dokai Fukui.

None of these momentos are intended to prove anything in the way that a doctor or lawyer might hang things up to prove (and perhaps improve) that they are who they say they are. They are indicators of what I tend to forget. Perhaps they prove to me that I am who I say I am.

Anyway, today my eye lit on the calligraphy and mindset of Dokai Fukui, a monk who, together with the writer John Blofeld, once took me under his airmail wing as we corresponded about Zen Buddhism. I was new and enthusiastic and stupid and the letters that flew to and fro across the Pacific (Dokai in Japan, Blofeld in Thailand) were full of caring reminders ... try not to make too much of it all; try not to be an asshole... which of course was impossible. To my mind, serious spiritual endeavor is built for nothing but assholes, and the quicker anyone gets that fact straight, the quicker the usefulness of spiritual endeavor will become apparent.

Anyway ... this morning I feel gratitude for my friends ... one and all.

the one-eyed man opinion piece

Somewhat to my surprise today, the local paper printed an opinion piece I wrote a week or so ago. I didn't feel it was very well done and, since it was critical of latter-day news-gathering, doubted that it would make the cut. I guess there's something to be said for submitting pieces during the waning dog days of summer when everyone is on vacation.

"In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

zendo shingles

On the way out to the zendo yesterday, I noted once more what I have noted more frequently of late: How it pisses me off that the red zendo shingles, originally tacked down with a good deal of sweat, are now crumbling with the passage of time.

The shingles had promised a "30-year" life span and here they are crumbling like mange on a dog's ass after 14. Harrumph!

Of course just because some blithe actuary asserts that "people are living longer" and offers the statistical evidence to prove it does not mean a longer life will be equally spiffy-looking or full of pep from beginning to end.

The shingles may be there, but their beauty and utilitarian value will diminish. The actuary's job is to assert WHAT is, not HOW it is. Others may interpret the actuarial facts as they see fit. The actuary gets paid either way -- to gather and collate, not to assess and find meaning. If people want to assert that a longer life is somehow a better life, it's no skin off his butt.

Well, the zendo isn't leaking yet and I think what pisses me off is partly the notion that what I once laid down without too much difficulty is now beyond my capacities. Someone's going to have to do again what I once did.

Facts are facts, but I am not always graceful about or grateful for their imperious insistence.

Tant pis pour moi.

Tant mieux pour moi.

uphill battle, downhill slide

Is there an "uphill battle" without a "downhill slide" or a "downhill slide" without an "uphill battle?"

I doubt it.

Set the sights on the East and the West is forgotten. Take up one adventure and forsake the wispy finger-crossing of a Christian marriage vow: "Forsaking all others...."

You can only do what you're doing. And yet doing what you're doing simultaneously means not-doing what you're not-doing.

Uphill battle -- sometimes very heart-felt.

Downhill slide -- sometimes pretty discouraging.

But now and then and from time to time, maybe it's worth noting what things were like before "uphill" and "downhill" crank up their motors, to touch base with the starting point before things get started.

Neither uphill nor down.

Isn't it time to take out the garbage?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

the cave of the adepts

When I first became interested in spiritual life, I guess I was as inspired and wowed as the next fellow when I read about the men and women who took themselves deep into the jungle or high into the mountains as a means of attaining some new and improved way of seeing and coping with life. Off to their lonely lairs they trudged, determined in their quest. And when they returned, many became shining examples for the rest of us ... or anyway me.

The logic of this outlook seemed impeccable: Find a cave or a monastery or some place where distractions and diversions were minimal and ... come home a winner... happy, wise and dancing ... not gloomy, uncertain and hung with the flab of attachment or mistakes.

Oh, if only I could find a nice quiet cave!

But today it occurs to me that the deep loneliness that anyone might feel -- the loneliness that arises from the fact that we cannot share experience -- is a good indicator that human beings have already found and dwell in the caves they might crave. This me is my cave. This you is your cave.

And you and I live in adjoining caves, so to speak, or perhaps ....

Perhaps we all dwell in precisely the same cave --

The cave of the adepts.

Save your money! No need to buy a one-way ticket to the Himalayas or that monastery perched on some butt-busting cliff.

Home at last is home already.

Now the only problem is how to get home.

daily teaching

An email arrived this morning and said, "I'm so unhappy...."

And I wrote back the truth:

"I'm so unhappy too."

a calm place in the sex-abuse storm

I recognize that others can find the Roman Catholic Church sex abuse recitations wearing when they are not tearing. Others may be too busy. Others may not care. Others might prefer not to be reminded. Others may have enough emotionally-draining stuff going on in their lives and cannot bear to take on yet another heresy.

But to the extent that others may have some peripheral or even direct interest, I received in email this morning a very quiet depiction ... the adventures of one woman Catholic who chose to involve herself in the Vatican sex-abuse vortex. Virginia Jones does not allow vitriol or outrage to color her remarks. She just reports what a human being might report.

And I thought it was compelling.

state-sponsored terrorism

Steve Gunn's airport adventures while traveling home to Grand Rapids, Mich., are a pretty good example of the country the so-called 1% are fashioning so successfully ... fearful, intrusive, lock-step, and everywhere the drip-drip-drip of obsequiousness. Bit by bit, there are fewer people to question the verbal pat-down Gunn experienced at the hands of the Transportation Security Administration at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The 'terrorism' of violence is understandably frightening. But the terrorism being used to combat it is worse.

I am glad I will be dead before the serfs are once more in rags, but I am ashamed that this is the best I could bequeath to my children.

the bus you didn't see coming

No one has to be a Buddhist in order to chuckle ruefully at the observation that I once heard in a Zen context:

"Understanding is knowing to look both ways when you cross the street. Practice is for the bus you didn't see coming."

No one needs convincing. Robert Burns was among hundreds of others who pointed a partial finger at a similar situation: "The best laid plans of mice and men/ Do oft times go awry," he wrote approximately.

So, Buddhist or not, the observation and the principle are the same. Planning is common-sensical and sometimes successful; fucking up or coming to grief is inevitable.

Robert Burns pointed at the human reality, a reality that anyone might strive in vain to ameliorate: When things turn out well, there is pleasure; but the batting average for things' turning out badly is still pretty high. Some resign themselves: If it's a 50/50 split between pleasure and displeasure, well, maybe that's the best anyone could expect. Still the longing may remain ... how to sidestep or elude or come to terms with the downside, the times when things go awry.

Formulas for finding such escape routes abound: Money, sex, possessions, employment, intellect, religion, family ... the list goes on and on and yet the principle remains unmoved ... win some, lose some, but the bus you didn't see coming can be pretty painful.

"Practice is for the bus you didn't see coming."

Here in the United States, "the pursuit of happiness" is enshrined in our Constitution. The Constitution does not assert that everyone has the right to be happy, only that they have the right to pursue happiness. And pursue we do.... money, sex, possessions, employment, intellect, religion, family, etc. Most have tried a hundred different practices in their pursuit. Some work, some don't and if the batting average is 50/50, maybe that's the best anyone can expect.

In Zen practice, the practice that may begin as another way to elude the bus we didn't see coming and to  pursue happiness, things are a bit different from other practices. Zen practice suggests that investigating the planner of common-sensical plans is itself the most common-sensical course. Who exactly is making all these plans whose batting average never seems to get much above .500? Since one of the bedrock building blocks of Zen practice is zazen or seated meditation, the whole thing can seem pretty ridiculous: How can sitting down, straightening the spine, sitting still, shutting up and focusing the mind have anything useful to say about my "best laid plans?"

I leave it to others to wax lyrical about the wonders and practicalities of Zen. My salesmanship has largely run out of steam. All I can say is that if all the other wondrous answers have, in one way or another, fallen on their faces, then zazen may be worth a shot. The practice may begin as a new and novel way to seek relief, but not even the best snake-oil salesman can tell anyone else whether this practice actually works. If someone wants to know -- if getting hit by the bus you didn't see coming becomes compelling enough -- well, then it might be worth trying. Do it or don't do it -- there is no other way of knowing.

The intellectual and emotional support and delight that may be found in the fact that men and women of the past have tried it and speak highly of Zen may nudge the effort forward. The notion that there is some mystical 'lineage' that "extends all the way back to the Buddha himself" (gag) can be inspiring. But whatever the support structures, still the fact remains ... do it or don't do it; there is no other way of knowing for sure.

Your life.

Your bus.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

God's belly button

A friend of mine wondered, on behalf of all God-fearing Christians, whether Adam and Eve were ever married.

In the same vein, I wonder about the implications of ... why does God have a belly button?


a guru with perks

A Norwegian art gallery that hoped to save a little money sent a Rembrandt etching by regular, uninsured mail. The etching is worth more than $10,000. Now the etching is lost and the gallery has egg on its face.

For some reason, this bit of news reminds me of a time when I was sitting with a bunch of fellow Zen students in a greasy spoon and we were all playing what-do-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up. There were some heart-felt wishes expressed, many of them spiritual in nature, until it came to a then-45-ish woman named Nora who hit the nail on the head and makes me laugh to this day:

"When I grow up," Nora announced, "I want to be a rich ... sexy ... saint!"

An easier, cheaper route that is bound to backfire:

A guru with perks.

I love people who tell the truth and make me laugh.

"a star is born"

Rufio, once confined between covers as the leader of the Lost Boys in the children's story book, "Peter Pan," was born on Monday to my neighbor's daughter, Kimberly. Joe, my neighbor, came across the street early this morning and filled me in on the details.

In recent times, I had seen Kimberly now and then from across the macadam, walking to her car with a belly more pronounced than that of a beer-swilling Red Sox fan. Joe said the birth went normally, but that afterwards, the clamp placed on the umbilical cord had somehow slipped off and Rufio bled until he turned blue. Today, Kimberly and Rufio are at Kimberly's boyfriend's home in Middletown, Conn., and things are fine, Joe said. To celebrate the new arrival, Joe cut out plywood stars and placed them on his front lawn together with poofy, tissue-paper flowers. This morning seemed an inopportune time to ask Joe, a devout Pentecostal Christian, if Kimberly and her boyfriend, whose name I don't know, were planning to get married. I'm sure Rufio doesn't care one way or the other.


... flashing across the firmament in bright splendor against a backdrop of all the other stars, some of them blinking and winking and then succumbing to the soft darkness in which brightness is so bright... going, going, gone.

The summer season, born an instant ago as it seems, is likewise slipping away. The Japanese maple in the Massi's front yard still bears plump red leaves, but the shoots on which a small horde of squirrels once feasted with skittering abandon must have worn out their welcome in this earthly firmament: The squirrels no longer leap from branch to branch, hang upside down in order to reach their nourishment or take a break and chase each other in playful exercise. Instead, I see them on the ground, loping across the street with green orbs in their mouths ... a nut of some kind housed in a green pulp ... something to store up and hide away as winter approaches. I don't imagine the Japanese maple gets lonely for their antics any more than Rufio would care if his parents were married.

And around our house, it is a season of egg shells ... everyone trying not to make too much noise about the changes in the offing, the new stars preparing to be born. Tiptoe, tiptoe, and yet no matter how softly anyone treads, there is the crunch of change. Just about the time the firmament has settled in the mind and heart, a star is born.

Tomorrow, my older son Angus will return to college. He has been around the house, working a part-time job with some crazy hours and yet fulfilling his responsibilities responsibly. He is looking forward to his junior year, his return to college, his escape from the doldrums of "home" and yet ... and yet... and yet ... who knows what lies across the dark sky of the future? His mother has thrown herself into this homeleaving because there is no other choice -- buying supplies of dental floss and vitamins and needed clothing and issuing questions and answers and orders with a tiptoeing vigor. She will miss him as I will ... with a desperate parental missing that is laced with the certain knowledge that wishing the best for your child includes the willingness to ship him out the door ... anything less would be to cripple the very creature you hope will be free and competent and happy. It's a conundrum, but the firmament is not confused.

Meanwhile my younger son, at 18, is wrestling with whether to go to college, which he really doesn't want to do, and going into the Air Force, which is about the only military option his parents are willing to consider. Who in their right mind would want to be 18 again -- an age at which the uncomplicated comforts of childhood run headlong into the desire to be an adult without knowing what the hell an adult might be? My son aches to be right. He aches not to be wrong. And I ache to ease his aches. He gets pissed off when family members tell him a military choice is "unacceptable" as if they, in their opinions, were the arbiters of his fate. But he is not completely reassured when someone near and dear tells him he is right. What the hell is this all about?! Right is right and wrong is wrong, right? And of course it's wrong, but that doesn't stem the tide of wishing to be right, to be settled and assured. It's enough to make a blind man weep ... facing a world whose cares do not accede to your cares ... becoming an adult ... becoming your own star. And from a parental point of view, if he were to join the military, he would be gone and home would be that much more empty, like a tooth pulled out ... the hole remains; it's not precisely painful, but the reminder is there, firmament-like in its no-longer-present assertions. My son will have to become an adult, and as he does so, I will have to become an adult as well.

Tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe and yet no delicacy of foot can escape the crunch that counters the comfortable assumptions that once seemed so assured. Tiptoe and be right. Tiptoe and be wrong. Tiptoe and be assured. Tiptoe and be uncertain. Tiptoe and be happy. Tiptoe and be sad. Tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe. Hold and release or imagine that that were actually possible. Tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe ... when all the time ...

A star is born.

Friday, August 24, 2012

excellence ... the reality

As time passes and the numbing drumbeat of mediocrity begins to suggest that excellence is a fabrication, sometimes it is hard to remember that excellence is actually possible.

Yesterday, as I prepared to leave Michael's house after a pleasant lunch, his wife handed me a small bag filled with tomatoes and a pepper. Today, I ate the tomatoes.

Jesus, Joseph and Mary!

After so long of eating the agri-business tomatoes from supermarkets and even those sold at smug roadside stands, I had begun to be convinced that my dream of a really good tomato was just some fantasy based in a faulty memory.

But one bite was all it took: I had not been dreaming. There was excellence.

Today as well, a friend sent along an article entitled "Those Misbehaving Zen Monks" by Grace Shireson. The writing and the thesis were clear enough after eight or ten paragraphs. Grace is a crisp writer, so it wasn't hard. And the topic is an important one to anyone interested in Zen Buddhism, so perhaps some will find it all either shocking or despicable or informative. I'm happy she wrote it.

But I have been around the agri-business mediocrity of misbehaving clericals for a long time and I am tired of them in the same way I am tired of TV sitcoms with laugh tracks or stand-up comedians whose riffs depend on the repetitive use of the word "fuck."

Oh yes, the hypocrisy and unkindness and corruption of those who put spiritual endeavor to their own uses is palpable and real. And it deserves to be called out and shut down and analyzed. And I am glad someone has that sort of willingness and energy.

But also, I am as tired of critical analyses and exegeses as I am tired of those who prance around extolling spiritual excellence, another agri-business by-product. Conniving and smarmy hallelujahs are as wearing and bleak as acidic, scowling remonstrances... at least from where I sit.

Waddling, if sincere, group-think does not bang my chimes, whether pro or con.

And I feel fortunate to have gotten a whiff in my lifetime of a 'spiritual' persuasion not dedicated to agri-business mediocrity. I may fail and fail and fail again, succeed and succeed and succeed again, but the unassailably excellent encouragement remains:

Grow your own delicious tomatoes!

rich in order to be poor

The first Christian Beatitude reads, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The word "poor" is generally interpreted as meaning "humble" and is centered in the notion that the humble are aware of where the gifts of this life arise ... namely, for Christians, from God.

Sometimes I wonder if a spiritual endeavor that engenders humility is not preceded by a considerable wealth, whether literal or in the heart ... and maybe spiritual questing should be premised like this: You gotta be rich in order to be poor.

Rich folks can afford religion. Poor folks can't: The cares of the world already lie heavy upon them and they haven't got the wherewithal or time to be humble. Who would try to be humble when they already were?

Jean Shepherd, a tart-tongued and witty radio raconteur in the 1950's and '60's, once wrote a book entitled "In God We Trust: All Others, Pay Cash."

Maybe that explains why so many religious institutions are so well-funded... all those 'others' paying cash.

"the worst day of my life"

Passed along in email:

There I was sitting at the bar staring at my drink when a large, trouble-making biker steps up next to me, grabs my drink and gulps it down in one swig.

"Well, whatcha' gonna do about it?" he says, menacingly, as I burst into tears.

"Come on, man," the biker says, "I didn't think you'd CRY.  I can`t stand to see a man crying." 

"This is the worst day of my life," I say. "I'm a complete failure.  I was late to a meeting and my boss fired me.  When I went to the parking  lot, I found my car had been stolen and I don't have any insurance.   I left my wallet in the cab I took home.   I found my wife with another man and then my dog bit me." 

"So I came to this bar to work up the courage to put an end to it all, I buy a drink, I drop a capsule in and sit here watching the poison dissolve; then you show up and drink the whole thing!  But enough about me, how's your day going?"


"a day's work"

What once might have been a pleasant walk in the woods is now strangely exhausting ... as if I had actually done a day's work.

-- This morning I spent time writing a response in an Internet lion's den of Roman Catholic Church supporters. What I wrote wasn't very good and it wasn't very long, but it took some research and some thinking and now I feel a bit like a teddy bear that has lost much of its stuffing. You might think I had done a day's work.

-- Yesterday, by invitation, I went to visit Michael Erard and his wife for "lunch." Michael is the fellow who wrote the compelling narrative of his time as an Army medic during the Vietnam war ... a narrative I posted earlier on this blog. I arrived at Michael's home at noon and didn't get home until after 6. The food was delicious and so was the company. But I missed my old fart's nap and found myself utterly drained by the evening hours before bed. You might think I had done a day's work.

Aging gracefully may be a capacity others don without missing a beat, but I am not among them. There is still a mind and voice that remembers 16-hour days after which I was ready for more. What the hell?! Writing isn't "work." Thinking isn't "work." Eating a wonderful lunch and conversing with wonderful people isn't "work."

Compared to "work," that's sissy stuff, right?

Only, if I were more graceful, I would have to acknowledge that it is "work." I can tell it's work by the level of fatigue it engenders.

I guess I hate the facts of life as much as the next fellow.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

out-of-the-waste-basket article

I submitted the following to the local newspaper for consideration four days ago. Since I have heard no word back, I assume it was deposited in the no-thanks basket. But I would like to save it somewhere and this blog is, for me, a repository of sorts....


Veteran CBS television newscaster Walter Cronkite was once asked why it was that nightly news was so unremittingly bad news. With a serene authority, the man who was once voted "the most trusted voice in America" replied, "News isn't about how many cats did not get up on the garage roof."
The response was deliciously home-spun and true -- the kind of response that walking-around citizens could easily understand in their own lives: The conversations of daily life do not focus on the fact that Aunt Sally tied her shoe or Uncle Henry watched a Red Sox game: What is interesting and worthy of a good gab is the fact that Aunt Sally, while tying her shoe, fell out of her chair and broke her wrist or the fact that Uncle Henry got so peeved at a bonehead play that he put a can of Schlitz through the television screen.
But the question that Cronkite was not asked and therefore did not answer was this: If all the neighborhood cats get up on the garage roof, is it any longer news?
It was with this in mind that I sent a suggestion to the PBS NewsHour Friday night. I am not in the habit of writing letters to politicians or corporations which respond with computer-generated missives thanking me for my interest and ignoring what I have to say. And I wasn't picking on the Public Broadcast System as the one and only source of my petulance. I wrote to PBS because I found an email address easily and PBS was the closest television screen through which to throw a can of beer. And somehow I cannot imagine that I am alone in my frustration.
On Friday nights, the PBS NewsHour devotes four or five minutes to analysis of the week's news, usually with the assistance of New York Times reporter David Brooks and political commentator and columnist Mark Shields. The segment touches the tops of the waves of the week's news and, since the country is in the midst of a presidential campaign, a good deal of time is spent on the candidates and their adventures.
My suggestion was this: At the beginning of each analysis of  campaign news, devote one minute -- just one minute -- to the substantive issues the candidates did NOT address during the week -- education, climate change, job-creation, structural banking reform, the Pentagon budget, agriculture, air pollution, industrial out-sourcing, war, mortgage defaults, etc. The list could be kept short and sweet, but would reflect the topics that touch the electorate's lives and yet evoked no policy statement, no positive planning, no political plank asserting how and why the candidate might, as the leader of the country, actually lead.
After such a one-minute introduction, the analysts could return to the regularly-scheduled discussions of the latest political gaffe, the negative ad campaigns that candidates find so 'effective,' whether someone owns a horse, and the unveiling of tax returns.
The obvious sarcasm of this modest proposal carries with it a serious message to the candidates, the media and the electorate. When the cats that get up on the garage roof are just the cats that get up there over and over and over again, well, then it is time to consider the cats that did not.
In the Middle Ages, there were three "estates" (societal or political forces) recognized within countries: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners ... or, more broadly, those with power and those without. In the 18th century the term "Fourth Estate" was born when the press was first allowed to report on the British House of Commons. Implicitly, it was the Fourth Estate that assisted the electorate to understanding and perhaps do something about the activities of the other three estates.
In Water Cronkite's era, the Fourth Estate still carried with it a certain honorable cachet. It was the Fourth Estate that winkled out the scoundrels and took care to inform those who had no time or wherewithal to assess and perhaps defend against the activities of their leaders.
But when, as today, the Fourth Estate is battered by reduced ad revenue and a dwindling news staff and thereafter abdicates its role as a defender and nurturer of the 'commoners,' then I think it is time to ask for a little reflection and revision. Is it enough to succumb to the obscenely-well-heeled blandishments and legerdemain of those who might lead the country? Is it enough to play along with all those cats on the garage roof? Is it enough to hang the electorate out to dry?
I don't drink beer, but if I did, I think I might emulate Uncle Henry.

the piffle of spiritual endeavor?

Without any intent to convince or correct others, still, sometimes I do think that so-called spiritual endeavor is far too spendthrift and fruitless an activity for the likes of man.

Why would the unlimited dither and dally in the realms of what is so clearly limited? It's as if the blue sky were to pull up an armchair for a heart-felt effort to unravel the 'thorny' mysteries of blue sky.

Piffle ... but expensive piffle.

Wouldn't it be more fruitful, and less expensive, to simply sell Tupperware or plant petunias?

I suppose everyone has to fill their days with some activity, but spiritual endeavor?!

making improvements

An elderly Spanish woman with the best intentions screwed the pooch when she tried to improve a deteriorating fresco picture said to depict Jesus Christ.

Even if she had not failed in her attempt, I do sometimes wish that the insistence on "making things better" could be supplanted with "making things different" or just "being a part of the change."

alive and kicking and D.O.A.

Today, I was invited to lunch by Michael Erard, the fellow who wrote the account of his experiences as an army medic during the Vietnam war and I posted several days ago. Assuming I can find his house in Belchertown, several miles from here, I look forward to the food and the company: Michael is a nice person. Perhaps too nice, but still, nice.

For Michael, as for others, the talons of the past reached and reach out and tear at the flesh of the present. Not everyone is as riven as someone who has experienced combat, but still ... the talons of the past reach out and tear at the flesh of the present.

More politely, the past, whether joyful or horrendous or just plain boring, reaches out like some early-morning fog -- ravening or bright with deliciousness, it makes no difference -- and fills the day, the present day, the right-now day, the right-now right-now. It is as compelling and impelling as a malevolent creature on "Night of the Walking Dead" or as beckoning as some bathed-in-light saint pictured on a Hallmark calendar. Nudging or flesh-eating, still the past dances or nips its way into the present.

And the strange part about the past is that for all its force, for all its impact, the past is always D.O.A. -- the impersonal notation on a police officer's report to indicate the subject was "dead on arrival." The past cannot be held or remembered with perfect accuracy ... it is gone and yet here it is, both D.O.A. and very much alive and kicking.

In Zen Buddhism, some traditions make use of koans, the intellectually-insoluble riddles that force the mind to confront its own self-serving ends. "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or "What did I look like before my parents were born?" or just, "What is this?" In Zen Buddhism, such things are neat and tidy in their offerings. There are, by some accounts, 1,700 formal koans and yet it is hard not to wonder why anyone would bother with a formal koan when there are so many koans already facing a man or woman in a perfectly ordinary, walking-around life. Oh well, I guess if you want to build the Golden Gate Bridge, you might start with Tinker Toys.

The past is invariably D.O.A. and yet as alive a spry and sassy as Usain Bolt.

In my neighborhood, there is a chipmunk which has made an appearance. S/he skitters and zips from one place to another, hidden at one moment, apparent in the next. Whoa mama! What a speedster! Beautiful and silent and not at all D.O.A.

What an adventure.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"none of the above"

A Nevada ballot option that allowed voters to mark "none of the above" has been temporarily struck down Wednesday by a federal judge who refused to stay the decision until after it had been appealed.

Secretary of State Ross Miller said his office would pursue "an immediate and expedited appeal to protect the long-standing public interest of the 'none of these candidates' option."
Given the current state of political mayhem in this country, I do wistfully wish I lived in Nevada. Even if the law is struck down, at least Nevada thought enough of it to keep it on the books since 1976.

to die for

What would you die for ... or imagine you would die for?

In Westfield, a Massachusetts city not far from here, a 64-year-old man and his 61-year-old wife both died after their dog Sadie jumped from their boat. Daniel Cyr jumped into the water to help the dog and, when he grew distressed, his wife Patricia, who could not swim, went into the water after him.

Only Sadie survived.

"free your mind"

Strange (or perhaps not so strange) to think that the first thing anyone does when adopting the invitation, "free your mind" -- a line offered both in the movie, "The Matrix," and in countless spiritually-oriented books -- the very first thing anyone does....

Is to put this mind in shackles.

good luck with that

And, for the Buddhists in the audience:

Entertainers dance in front of statues of Chuchok, a greedy Brahmin who died in a story from the Buddhist Vessantara Jataka from gluttony due to his new found wealth, at Baan Chuchok in Bangkok August 21, 2012. Some Thai Buddhist's hire dancers to give thanks to Chuchok statues after their wishes have been fulfilled. It is believed that wealth and luck would come to those who believe in Chuchok.
REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom


the walls of Shangri-La

On the phone, my daughter informed me that she and her fiance were going to take a vacation in a couple of weeks -- back to the Dominican Republic they had enjoyed in the past. I was happy for them -- a place of delicious relaxation; a place that was different from the day-to-day work-a-day world ... yum, yum.

But one of the things I have a hard time understanding is how anyone could go to a foreign country and then remain behind the secure walls of one resort or another. My daughter and her fiance always return from these trips with pictures of swimming pools and dining rooms and bars within the resort ... and, oh yes, palm trees aplenty.

When I ask my daughter what it looks like in the nearest town or what historical sites or museums or farmer's markets they have visited or what bit of the language they have learned, well, it's too dangerous: Well-heeled 'white' tourists are ripe for robbery or kidnapping and so ... there are walled Shangri-La's within which to take their ease. It reminds me of a time when I was in the army and in Berlin and I would talk to other Americans likewise stationed there: Many of them never departed from the full-service enclave to which they belonged ... movie theaters, food stores, clothing outlets ... all of them speaking Amurcan and reminding these temporary residents of a home across the ocean.

And with the same fervor that I could not imagine leading such an insular existence when there was so much new and novel stuff so close at hand, so they could not imagine even bothering with it.

It confounds my mind to this day.

before standards took hold

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the American rich were rich and the American poor were more widely ignored, gentlemen of means were known to possess cigar cutters, devices described by Wikipedia as "designed to cut one end off a cigar so that it may be properly smoked." Those of lesser means who enjoyed cigar smoking simply bit off the end of a cigar and either spit it out or chewed it up ... a déclassé approach not approved by ladies or gentlement of  'good breeding.' There were standards, after all.

Cigar cutter
A similar imposition of standards was visible in the 18th century when an early-American primer I read once and have never been able to find again advised, "... and if you must spit, spit in the corner." There were standards, after all.

This morning I am thinking that standards of decorum and good behavior arise with a certain wealth and cultural stability. Up until that point, life could be, as Thomas Hobbes suggested, "nasty, brutish and short." It is only with enough food and enough safety within which to enjoy it that there is time to kick back and contrive social norms. And so, perhaps, standards are a reflection of a leisured society ... or leisured mind. 

It can be argued rightly that some standards are just the finicky secret hand-shakes of those who have too much time on their hands. It can also be argued rightly that standards oil the social wheels and restrain me from clubbing my neighbor when I notice s/he has something I want. The British television show "Monty Python's Flying Circus" used the former politesse as the butt of innumerable jokes. And police departments everywhere stand testament to the latter usefulness of standards.

What got me off on this cigar-smoking kick this morning was the thought that everyone possesses a leisured mind when it comes to spiritual endeavor. Spiritual endeavor is for those with the wherewithal to reflect -- a luxury not afforded to everyone. There is "right" and "wrong" in personal spiritual endeavor and these luxury items deserve attention because they rest and rely on a foundation in which right and wrong do not play a role. Failing to investigate and acknowledge this arena relegates spiritual endeavor to an endless world of cigar-cutter politesse. Such politesse may be a social wheel-oiler, but it misses out on the wide and living richness of life in general and spiritual life in particular.

Oooooh shit! I can hear the dogs of ethical behavior beginning to stir in their den. In my own chosen persuasion of Zen Buddhism, all sorts of fisticuffs have evolved from the suggestion that "Zen has no ethics." Some have even acted on such a statement or persuasion and the results have been predictable -- plenty of harm done to others ... as vile an approach as ever there was. 

Zen -- or any other spiritual persuasion -- does have ethics and it does have the standards of luxury. But my suggestion is that it is important to investigate and acknowledge what came before such standards, what realm (not necessarily "nasty, brutish and short") gave rise to those standards and pointers.

This is a personal effort, not one to make into the laid-back luxury of a standard. It is an individual willingness to go the distance within, to look and see rather than to elevate or excoriate. There is "right" and there is "wrong," for those with the wealth to afford it, but before "right" and "wrong," well ... what was that like?

Everyone who travels this route may come up with an individual appreciation or understanding, but maybe this world without standards might be described as one in which there is stuff "to do" and stuff "not to do." Why's and wherefores and meanings and explanations and beliefs and cigar-cutting breeding are not yet in play. To call it "animalistic" is to resort to more standards. Good and bad are not the point. The point is -- for individuals bent on spiritual honesty -- what is. And not just "what is," but "who is."

It's a sticky wicket and a razor's edge because those who choose to investigate here sometimes get stuck or fall off into "undifferentiated" realms and other well-bred nonsense. There are standards after all and they plan to adhere to them... and they get stuck in the oooooeeeeeooo of things.

What coming to terms with the "to do" and "not to do" carries with it is a very normal, down-to-earth, simultaneous and inescapable necessity to act in ways described by others as "ethical." But their descriptions no longer hold water and no longer freight the scene. Being "good" or "kind" or "clear-eyed" is no longer a standard adhered to by the well-heeled mind. 

There is just "to do" and "not to do" according the circumstance.

And circumstance is all there is ... or not, depending on your point of view.

Pass the cigar cutter, please.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

successful failure

Diana Nyad, 62, was 55 miles from Key West, Florida, when she was pulled from the water Monday in her 103-mile bid to swim from Cuba to the United States.

It was her fourth attempt, the first having been in 1978.

Somehow her effort sticks out in my mind as a wildly-successful failure.

acrobatic suicide?

In Jonesboro, Ark., a black man, hands cuffed behind him in the back seat of a police cruiser after having been patted down twice, managed to produce a pistol and shoot himself fatally in the right temple, although he was left-handed.

Such was the ruling of an autopsy report on the death of Chavis Carter, 21, who was mourned Monday night with a candlelight vigil in Memphis, Tenn.

The questions are obvious. The answers remain obscured.


My son bounced cheerily up the front stoop last night as I sat on the porch having a smoke. I asked him where he had been. He started by telling me he had been to see a longtime female friend at a nearby college where she had just checked in as a freshman ... then he paused and reversed course and told the truth because it was pulsing in his veins and said, "Now don't tell mom, OK?" ... and he waited for my assent. I gave it much as I imagine his mother had given similar assent in the past: "Now don't tell pop, OK?"

Actually, he said, he had been to visit another girl at another college ... someone he had been texting with for a week or so and had been dying to meet ... and the meeting had been every bit as delicious as he imagined it might be. His voice and presentation and posture told me he was ass-over-appetite in ... infatuation... which he readily admitted ... but don't tell mom ... you know how mom's are when their male offspring hook up with another female ... and he wanted to enjoy his joy without interruption or contradiction or caveat.

Well, amen to that!

Who hasn't felt the same? The deliciousness may be a bubble, but I'm not in the mood to have it popped at the moment: It's too damned delicious. As far as I was concerned, as long as my son hadn't stuck up a convenience store or gone into debt with a loan shark or run over a Volkswagen, his secret was safe with me.

And what name did this beautiful bit of deliciousness go by, I asked? My son paused a moment before uttering the name as if he were a swooning postulant speaking the name of the savior:


Brittany, Ashley, Courtney -- popular names in this day and age and yet in my mind's spectrum as I felt my son's adoration, a somehow tinny punchline on a tale of soaring savor. It felt a bit as I had felt once when I sent away for a BB gun advertised on the back of a comic book and then, because I had been stupid enough to give my true age (eight or nine) on the application, received a popgun and a space pistol. What a letdown.

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once noted tartly that "youth is wasted on the young." It's one of those apt yet sniveling observations that leaves out the delight that older people can take in dissecting and complaining about the young. If youth is wasted on the young, how much the more so is age wasted on the elderly?

And still my mind wasted its time ... "Brittany?!" what kind of a flat-tire name is that?!

On the phone yesterday, a friend whose age was somewhat behind but still close enough to my own and I took a trip down memory lane and recalled the education we had received -- an education largely cast aside by our offspring. We had learned a bit of Latin and perhaps Greek, choked down the works of the Founding Fathers, slogged through Alexis de Tocqueville, did science and math, Aristotle and Plato, Dewey and Nietzsche, Shakespeare ... memorized poetry, fattened up on history, studied the Bible, wrote papers on wars with purpose and some without ... the list went on and on and, even if we had forgotten the better part of it all, still, it was meat on our bones. Perhaps most important, we flunked: Academic mediocrity was not greeted on every hand with the invariable, pseudo-supportive "Good jooooob!!!"

And what did the kids have today? As often as not, the answer seemed to come back, what the younger generation seemed to have was texting and tits... and the same assured certainties that we had expressed at a similar age. The culture and community we had grown up with was gone and what remained was ...  "Brittany." Of course the well-to-do were still privy today to good education and more 'substantive' names, but in our day, everyone seemed to be welcome and the names sounded less like some advertisement for "lustrous hair."

Basically, my phone friend and I were wishing things might be as we looked back on them through our rose-colored glasses. It wasn't ever going to be that way, but that didn't diminish our between-the-lines whining.

Funny how no matter what the framework and no matter what the names and no matter what the age, still things remain ... changed but unchanged: Deliciousness remains delicious; secrets remain secrets; bubbles of delight remain bubbles of delight ("don't tell mom"); sorrow is always like swallowing barbed wire; certainty jostles with uncertainty as sure as the sun rises in the East; and it all, as ever in the past, comes down to...


PS. And in some kind of serendipitous melding, the Associated Press ran a story this morning about the mindset of incoming college freshmen -- a reminder to teachers in one sense; a reminder to the rest of us in another.

Monday, August 20, 2012

a Vietnam medic's tale

In an earlier post, I referenced what follows -- a piece by Michael Erard, one-time American medic during the Vietnam war. Erard came home in one physical piece, but like the victims of Vatican-sponsored priest sexual abuse of children, it took decades for the wounds of the past to make themselves fully felt. Like a scream or a nightmare, the tale lacks polished edges. But what it lacks in polish and completeness, it more than makes up for in honest and heart-breaking effort. Despite its war-time environment, I think it is a very human tale.


                                By Michael C. Erard
                             Belchertown, Mass. U.S.A.

I sing of men returning from war and healing. In 1969-70 I was an E-5 combat medic assigned to 3rd Platoon Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. We were a quick reaction force -- the best fielded unit in the Army. Our mission: search and destroy,
count the bodies, pacify the indigenous population, support the South Vietnamese Army, and do it over and over and over again. Oh yeah, there was friendly fire, the dark jungle and the inevitable accidents too. I just did my job, tried to stay alive and treated the wounded. We took a lot of useless casualties in the whole bloody process. The Viet Cong didn't win, but we still lost.

The rainy season had just begun. Our company had just come back to our forward base, landing zone (LZ) Uplift after three weeks of a futile, frustrating search and destroy mission in the jungle highlands of Bao Loc. We were very tired, ragged and moldy. First, we started the drudgery of cleaning our weapons, stocking up on supplies and getting new equipment. In the mess tent over a hot meal the colonel of the battalion debriefed us and told us we were doing an outstanding job of fighting for freedom and stopping the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.

As we began shuffling away to finish our clean-up, my friend Ed came up to show me a marshmallow size infected leech bite on his leg that was all pink and puffy on his black skin. Part of that sucker was still in there. He was an African-American from Detroit. Big strong guy, six feet, who carried the heavy M-60 machine gun and ammo. He was a gung-hoparatrooper. Everyone liked him. I, too, was from the Detroit area and so we shared this common bond. He had a serious girlfriend and we shared pictures of our families. His dream was to become a boxer. "I'm going to have to do some whittling on that infected wound," I told him. Sick call was at 0700.

That evening we kicked back a little. Everyone was engaged in their own form of decompression: Jack Daniels and beer or marijuana. Inevitably, grievances, arguments, prejudices, and sometimes personality clashes would mix and sometimes came to a head with a fist fight and then it would be over.

This night, however, someone picked up his M-16 and it "went off." The round hit Ed in mid-thigh. He was brought moaning to the battalion aid station where I usually hung out with the other medics. It was chaos with a lot of blood, screaming and swearing. The aid station treatment room had two gurneys and space for about six people. Suddenly, the soldiers and MPs were pushing through the doorway arguing and hurling accusations at each other.

I took charge and yelled at the top of my lungs. ''Everyone not a medic, get the fuck out of my aid station!" Then I started to do what I was trained to do. Ed lost consciousness, and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. I had seen it dozens of times; Ed was going into shock from loss of blood. Stop the bleeding. Bulky compression dressings on the entrance and exit wounds. Next, with a quick Betadine and alcohol prep, I did an IV cut-down, threaded the 6 inch long tube into the vein in his forearm and sewed it in place so the vein would not collapse. I shouted for serum albumin and Ringers solutions -- wide open and fast. With the help of the other medics, we wrestled his leg into a cumbersome metal Thomas splint to stabilize his leg sothe femur would not move around if it was fractured. Ed was responding as we carried him on the stretcher to the medivac chopper pad. Above the whining sound of the engine and the vibrations of the chopper ready to take off, Ed lifted his head, looked at his leg and cried out wildly to me, "Hey, Doc?-- Oh man, shit, shit, shit!"

I hollered back, "Listen up, you're going to be okay, ya hear!" I gave the on-board medic more fluids and sign languaged, "Keep it wide open." The medivac lifted off, nose low, tail rotor high -- red and white strobe lights blinking back at us. Because I was the senior medic
for the battalion, I couldn't leave the LZ. But damn, I wanted to go with him! He was out of my hands now. I had done everything to save his leg and his life.

When a company returned to the LZ after a mission, it was standard operating procedure to be put in a stand-down condition with one caveat -- you remained battle-ready and on alert to be choppered out to reinforce any company or reconnaissance patrol that might get
in trouble. Most of the time we were lucky and life was "good." At least we weren't in the field.
But not this time.

Two days later, a platoon of Alpha Company was ambushed in the late afternoon and were pinned down. The radio crackled for help. This time the Viet Cong wanted to fight. I was soaked to the skin before I boarded our Huey slick. As usual, my medic rucksack was unwieldly and
heavy, packed with extra supplies. We were going back to the same area that we had "secured" three weeks earlier. The landing zone was "hot." The Viet Cong opened up with their rocket propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and mortars as the first wave of six helicopters landed. I
was in the second wave. We were the real intended targets of the ambush. Mortars were exploding right where we were supposed to land! Then from the air I saw our Cobra gunships swoop in and rake the tree line until the VC bombardment lessened up. One Huey was down on
its side with white smoke spewing out from its still whining engine. The smell of aviation gas was sickening. My work was just beginning with a house call to that downed chopper. After about an hour the LZ was finally secured with sporadic firefights echoing into the LZ. The rain let up, but the wet fog was covering us with its damp, smelly, grey sheet.

I informed the Captain, "We need to medivac these three seriously wounded."

"No way, Doc; it is too dangerous! Do the best you can."

Night sealed up the fog and we dug into defensive positions. I gathered my three wounded comrades around me under a makeshift poncho tent. I tried to heat up some water in my canteen cup with heat tabs. It was going to be a long night. This was so damn useless!!

The next morning there was no contact at all with the Viet Cong; they had vanished into the jungle taking their dead and wounded with them. I had two KIA (killed in action) and three seriously wounded. The life of one of the wounded had ebbed away in my arms during the night. Unconscious, he moaned himself into death. Despite all my training andpreparedness, I just couldn't save him! By early afternoon, the clouds cleared enough for us to be evacuated.

The Medivac airlifted the wounded. I chose to ride back in a slick with the three dead soldiers at my side in body bags. On the flight back to LZ Uplift I became sick to my stomach. I was very thirsty, but water just left a metallic taste in my mouth. I was exhausted! I just wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep. I rested my arm on my dead comrade in the body bag. Had I done everything possible to save him? Nothing had gone right. My God, am I going to survive?

After we landed I trudged, as if in a daze, over to the aid station to ask about the condition of my friend Ed. Hopefully, I could garner some good news to lift my spirits. A medic friend shook his head and told me that he was alive, but they had to amputate his leg.

"What the fuck?!" I yelled. I couldn't believe it.

I blew up in a rage. Cursing everyone and everything about this stinking war, I ran back to the chopper pad and barked that I had an emergency at the field hospital in Phu Cat. Squirming in the bench seat during the loud, twenty minute ride, no one heard me bang andgrind the butt of my rifle into the deck of the chopper. Jumping out of the medivac even before the skids settled on the runway, my anger was at a full boil. How could they amputate Ed's leg when I had done everything to save it? I was in charge of Ed and, by God, he was going to have his leg. They fucked up my work! Someone is to blame. Someone is going to have to answer to me.

Ignoring the lax security, I stormed through the field hospital's sand--bagged entrance. I was a sweaty, angry medic just out of the field. I was filthy with bug repellant and dried blood caked on my hands and fatigues. With my medic-issued 45 revolver holstered at my right
side, I gripped my M16 in my left hand. My eyes squinted while they adjusted to the glare of the red light bulbs. I scanned the hallway from side to side shouting his name. Where would he be?

Suddenly, from out of nowhere a petite woman, maybe 5'3" blocked my path. I made out the blurry Major's oak leaf on the collar of her nurse's fatigues. I was panting -- out of breath. Our eyes met and I glared at her. Abruptly, every thing screeched into slow motion.
Then she confronted me saying,

"You better not go there." She pushed her Major hand full on my chest. "Please, you don't want to go there." With a firm voice she ordered, "Take off your weapons and put them on the floor." I unbuckled my holster and set it on top of my M16. Then she said calmly, "Come with me. I think I know why you are here."

In the nurses' station she sat me down in her chair. She took off my helmet and set it on her desk. Her manner was soothing and empathetic. I felt like an overinflated tire slowly loosing air. She talked all the while but I don't remember everything. There was something about Ed's artery torn amid the fractured femur; it was his leg or his life; he had been flown to Japan five days ago.

"You have to know we did everything possible to save his leg. If you hadn't stabilized him, he would have died. You medics in the field can only do so much. Listen, we did our best and you did your best. I have so much respect for the job you guys do." She looked kindly at me and kept trying to make eye contact. All I could do was stare straight ahead. "I know what you are going through. It's hard, but you'll be okay. Hey--you're gonna be okay." With a half smile she told me how close I had come to spending the rest of my tour in the Long Bin Jail. "All I had to do was call the MP's. It's alright now. You are okay." I couldn't say anything. I didn't even thank her. She picked up my weapons. "Here, you'll need these to protect your wounded. You need to get back to your unit." She walked me slowly back to the chopper pad -- her right hand in the small of my back. We didn't speak. Before I got in the chopper she handed back my helmet.

The whine of the engine grew louder then changed to a slap ... slap .. slap as the rotors adjusted their pitch for take off and became so loud that even if I wanted to speak, I wouldn't have been heard. Everything was in slow motion again as I turned slowly and looked out at her, face-on, for the first time. Still, I couldn't say a damn thing. I lifted off, and in the swirling muddy puddles, she stood there with her eyes closed, head turned away, loose hairs swirlingabout her face, hands in her pockets, as the down-wash buffeted her.


Within days of returning home from VietNam in 1970, I began a civilian program to become a Physician Assistant. The world was still hurting itself and I had become comfortable around suffering. For the next 33 years I have worked in trauma, the operating room, orthopedics and
pediatrics. I loved my work; it wasn't as chaotic as Nam and there were
thank-you's. Without missing a beat I had become a civilian medical provider and continued to help heal others. There had been no time to decompress; I didn't need it -- I had a loving wife, family and job. I was still treating the injured, but without the futile danger of war. VietNam was just pictures, letters and a country that was probably going to become communist. No one seemed to want to
talk about the war - certainly I didn't. The war was all in the past. Just forget about it.


About ten years ago things began unraveling. At first it was small stuff: The Memorial Day speech made me sad because I had survived. One particular time loneliness suddenly chilled the little celebration my wife had planned for the anniversary of my return from VietNam. No longer could I watch a violent movie. "Platoon" had made me feel anxious then depressed. Even the embedded news reports about troops in Iraq made me feel like I was in VietNam again. For no good reason I began to swing between melancholy and anger. I had always thought of myself as a pretty stable, happy person. My anger would let loose over the smallest things. Increasingly hard liquor helped numb my edginess. I knew that being a perfectionist was my persona and anger was the catalyst that helped me accomplish tasks. But now, my anger was different. I lashed out at the people I loved and hurt them. My anger wanted to control. What? Everything! People, situations, outcomes.

One incident finally unnerved me. My wife and I were visiting our son at a hotel where he worked. On Sunday morning I borrowed the New York Times to read the news -- the lead story was the massacre of children and teachers in Beslan, Russia. I sat frozen.

"What's wrong, Dad?"

"I can't believe what happened in Russia. Chechen terrorists, with no mercy, had executed the children."

A sudden shroud of grief engulfed me. I ran up the stairs to our room to get away. I began to cry, then sobbed uncontrollably. After about 15 minutes, my worried son walked me slowly back down the stairs and out to the rocky seaside hill overlooking the Atlantic. He hugged me tight, then kept vigil over me until I composed myself.

Why had I lost control? A wave of sorrow had swallowed me up and I couldn't breathe. I had lost my bearings. Even after ten minutes my body was still shaking. Suddenly, I felt relief like the dark silence after a firefight when you realize that you had survived. Could
it be that once you have lived through violence, it can suck you back in when you least expect it? Was this how it feels when you are first able to respond compassionately to the victims of violence; when you
see killing for what it really is? You have a totally new perspective. I was that person killed. I was the father or mother holding my dead child. I am even that desperate Chechen rebel with the AK47.


Four years later when I retired, I had the motivation and time to digitize the slides that I had taken in VietNam. Gradually, I let myself recall more and more about the people and places and
what had happened. I kept these remembrances to myself Some photos brought back pleasant memories; some brought back sorrowful memories. Did it really happen as I remembered? I was hesitant to talk about the events for fear that they might not be "true." I've heard skeptics say that war's recounted memories are subjective, unreliable and lack corroborating evidence and it's best to just let them rest overnight like a hangover; forget them or you'll end up like some crazy Nam vet you've seen in the movies. I asked myself: "Doesn't time heal trauma and you forget? Why are these memories causing me such strong emotional responses after all these years? Is there something wrong with me?" I'm not a macho kind of guy, but I feared that admitting this as the cause of my anger would be seen by others as sign of weakness.

A crisis was on the horizon but I couldn't see it coming. However, my wife saw my repeated anxiety. She was in training to become a psychotherapist and was becoming alarmed at my frequent angry outbursts. I wanted her to follow my directions exactly, take my
advice, be careful, be over prepared. If she didn't, I found myself insisting:

"Because in Nam if you didn't do as you were told, you could get yourself killed!" I was hurting and I had no outlet to express myself. One Sunday afternoon after a particularly insensitive, angry outburst, my wife sat me down; she had something to say to me:

"Michael you have been helping everyone else heal; you have not understood the need for your own healing." She was right, but it was difficult to admit. I couldn't see that I was crying out for help. I wasn't willing to ask for help. And even if I were ready, where
could I get help?


I found it, of all places, at my 50th high school reunion. One of my old classmates lay dying in a nearby rehab hospital in Cincinnati, close to where the reunion was being held. Since he was not expected to live out the week, my friend Paul and I visited him. When he closed his eyes, we said our goodbyes. Quietly leaving the room we were somber and sad. While waiting for the elevator, we walked over to the nurses' station and thanked them.

Suddenly, we heard some commotion coming from the corner of the nurses' station where a woman sunk deep in a big wheelchair was trying to break free from the nurse who was pushing her. Her right leg had been recently amputated. Her grey hair was combed neatly around her face. Her complexion was sallow. She rolled to an abrupt stop in front of me and looked up at me with a quizzical, penetrating stare. After a moment she said in a loud voice,

"I know you. I know you. You were in the military, the Army. You were in VietNam." She smiled, "I know you." Then motioning for us to come closer and so only Paul and I could hear, she looked at me and said softly, "You are a good man. You are honest, but you have something
to hide."

I reached out and touched her arm asking, "What is your name? Do I know you?"

"Helen Jab .. lon ... ski," she replied, though I didn't quite understand her last name. A goodbye smile came across her face.

When the elevator doors opened Paul and I stepped inside. It all happened so fast. That was that. The elevator doors closed. Paul paused, turned to me and asked,

"What was that all about?"

I thought to myself that this woman, whoever she was, was totally with it. She seemed adamant that she recognized me. Her conviction was compelling; everyone stopped what they were doing to listen. The baffled expression on Paul's face continued to ask whether I had any idea what she was talking about. Had I ever met her before?

Paul pushed the down button and we jolted into a fast descent. I became a bit light-headed and felt myself sinking into a forgotten memory that swirled around me like a hot, humid breeze. I was back VietNam. I continued to talk as we walked out to the car and sat there as I told him the story about Ed, the fire-fight and the nurse in the field hospital; something I hadn't recalled in forty years.

Whatever or whomever this event pointed to, I felt that something mysterious had just happened. It didn't matter that the nurses had nervously tried to scoot the woman along, apologizing to me. It could only make sense to me if she really was the same woman who had confronted me in that field hospital in VietNam. Yes, I believe she was. I wanted to believe it for me to begin to heal. Was "Helen" trying to tell me again what my wife had urged me to realize? I needed to heal and I didn't know it.

All of a sudden now, I felt that I was being called to begin a pilgrimage to find out what "Helen" had meant by her enigmatic phrase: "You have something to hide." I went to a psychotherapist and he listened intently to my story. He acknowledged it was certainly amazing and mysterious. He told me that I had to tell this story to as many people as I could trust and listen to their reactions. The therapist that my wife and I went to said that I should not be afraid of my strong emotions; it just shows that I am human. VietNam was a lifechanging event. I am so thankful to have survived.

How was I to know that stressful memories of war have a life of their own and some become too powerful to ignore? Other veterans testify to the fact that these demons have a hair trigger that sometimes goes off for any one of many possible reasons. I have learned that the stressful
memories of war and violence live somewhere in one's psyche. It's always an unexpected scare when they do come back unannounced. It's like they are smugly saying: "Didn't you know we'd be coming back?" They can be like that smirking bully in 7th grade who may or may not be waiting to beat you up after school. But I say, "I choose to be here. I'm not afraid of you any more. You can't hurt me."

No, I don't have a Purple Heart to wear on my chest. Yes, I wear an invisible purple heart on my soul. I have been unwilling to admit that my soul was wounded and I have been hiding that fact behind my anger for too long. Now my wound is feeling more and more like a scar; it doesn't hurt to touch the feelings of helplessness and frustration that I experienced in VietNam. I did my best as an U.S. Army medic and cannot change anything about that experience. I am not ashamed. My memories of war are now in a different chapter of my life. I realizethat I am not perfect and I cannot control other people's actions and words. I'm not afraid of my emotions. I am beginning a search to find my true self I have soul work to do. I'm writing another chapter of my life; I'm moving forward. Finally, I no longer feel like I am unraveling.