Friday, May 31, 2013


More than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the segregation barrier in baseball in 1947 and President Harry S. Truman ordered the armed forces integrated in 1948, there were the Bismarcks (later dubbed the Bismarck Churchills), an integrated semi-professional baseball team created by a Neil Churchill, a man who ran a  Chrysler dealership in North Dakota. The team won the National Baseball Conference semi-professional baseball conference in 1935. When visiting other towns in which segregation was enforced, the team as a whole would not patronize restaurants that refused to serve blacks.

Today, a speculative story from the Associated Press suggests a disconnect or dissonance between next month's visit by to Africa President Barack Obama, the man in charge as the gay rights movement gathered concrete steam in America, and the criminalization of homosexuality on much of the African continent.

Strange to think that what harms no one else in action (playing baseball or affection between individuals) can arouse a blood lust of reaction from those who believe something else.

I can climb on the caterwauling social-agenda band wagon as well as the next fellow, but I think the lesson from all of this is most compelling at a personal level ... keep a close and wary eye on dearly-held beliefs ... of any kind.

Segregation within or without ... does it really -- honest injun -- stand up to an attentive scrutiny?

An occasional reality check never hurt.

here comes the sun

Suddenly, like a brown bear's jaws around a spawning salmon, the heat arrives.

The newspaper promises 94F (34.4C) with high concentrations of debilitating ozone at ground level.

The elderly, the heart-impaired and children are warned to exercise caution and since I fall into that category, I will scurry like a cockroach in the light to finish my shopping chores and then find some sedentary pastime where once I might have gloried and embraced the light.

Different conditions call out different abilities. How graceful anyone might be is entirely personal.

to joy

Under the title "quote of the day," a friend sent along some words attributed to the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut:
The arts are not a way to make a living.  They are a very human way of making life more bearable.  Practicing an art no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.  Sing in the shower.  Dance to the radio.  Tell stories.  Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem.  Do it as well as you possibly can.  You will get an enormous reward.   You will have created something.[Italics added]
Kurt Vonnegut
As someone habituated to writing, I don't much like the effete smugness that can be brought to bear by artists themselves or the sycophants of art... everyone swooping and smarming and bucking themselves up with meaning and importance. I don's suppose it's much different from any other endeavor -- gotta find importance! gotta find meaning! gotta elevate my religion or philosophy or profession or love! -- but the blinding and debilitating qualities of such smugness make me want to ralph. The cocoons of meaning are in many senses worse than the hangman's noose.

But where I take umbrage at one potential suggestion from Vonnegut, I agree incoherently with another: "You will have created something." I agree in the strongest possible terms -- the agreement seems to dwell at a molecular level. I agree and have not one scintilla of evidence to support or prove or improve it. It is simply true-true-true ... and I cannot prove it with my effete smugness:

To live is to create. To create is to joy. And no one can escape this life.

Never mind my bullshit. Stick with your own bullshit. Plant a bit of lavender, hike a woodsy trail, finish a mind-numbing report, mow the lawn, sing loud, do a little meditation ... never mind the talk of "joy" -- that's just more bullshit.

Little bits of creation come and go justlikethat and they are as vital as blood ... nothing out of the ordinary; nothing far away ... just closer than "close." Do not smother it with "meaning." Creation cannot be "helped" -- it is what is and any "help" offered is ludicrous ... like looking at a picture of an ice cream cone and imagining it were ice cream.

As I say, I have no proof -- not one iota of proof. But there is a molecular voice I choose to heed and would willingly die in its certainty ...

To live is to create. To create is to joy. And no one can escape this life.

Another voice in the chorus of effete smugness.

A creation come and gone.


Thursday, May 30, 2013

"French kiss" anointed

Finally, the French have acknowledged the "French kiss" with an addition to the dictionary.

The slang verb "galocher" found a rightful home in the "Petit Robert" dictionary today... a somewhat delayed entry as it may seem to those who credit the French with amorous dispositions.

Up until now, there had never been a specific French word for the activity, according to Laurence Laport who works at the publishing house.

"The word expert added a caveat about the power of language. The lack of a specific term 'never stopped us from doing it.'"

Très drôle.

being and becoming


If being is becoming
And becoming is being,
What is the usefulness of discussing being and becoming?

where agreements falter

In Zen Buddhism among other formats, the enlightened being Jizo (Ksitigarbha) is very popular, not least because his mythology/activities take place in realms that are quite human and mundane: Life sometimes sucks and this bodhisattva lends a hand -- this enlightened being of the hell realms. Human beings know quite a lot about hell in one way or another, and it's nice to think that someone's on our side.

On Wikipedia Jizo has taken a "vow not to achieve Buddhahood until all hells are emptied." He's fighting the good fight and I, for one, am grateful.

Jizo, like other so-called bodhisattvas, can have a magical-mystery-tour attractiveness. One way of approaching him is to envision some wispy, other-worldly sylph or god who is out there somewhere ... sort of like God or the Tooth Fairy or Santa ... you know, someone else, some other force that can lighten my load and get me out of hellish predicaments. And if worship floats your boat, a little worship never hurt anybody.

But Buddhism as a practice is largely the study of hell -- the quite mundane, get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning hells that can gnaw and clutch and shred ... death, disease, drugs, divorce and a hundred other hells, little and large. You know -- the stuff that sucks.

Patiently and firmly, the practicing student is attentive. Worship is OK, but a solution would be better. So the practicing Buddhist is attentive... kinda like Jizo, except that attentiveness is tooth-ache personal and does not admit secondary figures like "Jizo." How could anyone escape from hell without first addressing its fires in very personal terms?

So, OK ... any sensible person might seek out the parameters of hell. And at first, hell is the bad stuff, the sucky stuff, the ouch stuff. Raw as a rug burn. Get me out of here! Attention, attention, attention. Working through intellectually- or emotionally-delicious touchstones of "attachment" or "ego" or "compassion" or "enlightenment," "you are none other than Jizo" -- the stuff that beckons but cannot blow out the fires of hell. Attention, attention, attention.

Last night, as the sky lit up like some Wagnerian opera and the rain rushed down from on high -- my son and I sat on the porch to enjoy and be awed by it all. And we talked. Or more aptly, he talked -- gushing out with his attempts to straighten things out in his mind. He had finished military basic training, an accomplishment he was rightly proud of. When he was in basic, he thought he wanted to be home, but now that he was home, well, "no one understands" and he felt "lonely" where once he thought he might be fulfilled.

He was in some measure angry that others did not see things his way. He spoke warmly of sergeants and other instructors who had guided his training -- credible people whose world outlook he had in some measure assumed as a part of his belonging to the military group. There were opinions and prejudices he held because those he had come close to likewise held them. He had been at home during training, but now he was at home and the hand-holds of the recent months, the ones of which he had been so assured, had taken on a fragile and unsustaining quality. He had been sure then, but he was not sure now. He desperately (I'm guessing as someone who was likewise 19 once) wanted to be sure. Wasn't there some way to be sure, for Christ's sake?! I know people who are 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 who ask the same question, so looking down with an 'adult' perspective on a 19-year-old strikes me as self-aggrandizing at best.

Welcome to hell. Welcome to life. Not "Buddhist" life or "deluded life" or "confounding life" or "serene life" ... just life. Just hell.

And as I listened to my son's stream-of-consciousness reflections -- the uncertainties often cloaked in mantles of certainty -- I wanted to make things easier, I wanted to play the wand-waving Jizo ... I ached for him and in so doing, entered a hell realm I could not escape: I love my son and will not feign otherwise. Hell is not so bad.

But one of the things I desperately wanted to tell him and simultaneously realized would be utterly useless was this:

Within the parameters of hell, one of the most egregious errors is to seek escape through agreement with others. Or disagreement either. True, a little worship, a little imagining that Jizo will still the waves, and a little mortaring of a sure-thing home is a place to begin. Man is a social creature. No one likes hanging out with assholes. And in Buddhism, "sangha" (or the group) is designated as one of the reliable supports. It may all be true-true-true, but finding out whether it is indeed true can be a hellish business.

Hell is a realm of delicacies and, when hell is not busy knocking anyone's block off with horror or despair, one of its most subtle delicacies is the matter of agreement/disagreement that serves as a comforting, sure-thing home. The group-hug of agreement about philosophy or religion or politics or psychology or which soccer team is best can inspire wonderful actions and a terrific sense of belonging. What a relief -- I am not alone. And more than that, I am raised up, as a 19-year-old might be raised up in a loving household. This is the authentic way ... that sort of thing.

The hellishness begins to singe the toes when it crosses the mind that agreement with others is not the point -- that such agreements, while warming and pleasant, cannot build a reliable understanding. It is not whether I agree with you or you agree with me that holds water ... it is whether I agree with myself or you agree with yourself. Do I like Buddhism or despise war or vote Democrat because others do the same and because I admire those people? Do I credit Jizo or cheer for the Red Sox because others do? I may claim to stand on my own two feet but whose feet am I standing on? To what extent do I rely on others for my own peace of mind, my own home, my own peace?

It's a delicate matter, worthy of the delicacies of hell. It is not something one person can tell another in any other than a conversational bit of fluff. I choose ... and it's not really so important what I choose ... it is that I choose ... and that choice is not so all-fired important. This, to my mind, is the escape route that beats the socks off the coziness of agreements and disagreements. It may seem a fearful and lonely route to follow -- too lonely and dangerous by half -- but it is the fires of hell that inspire Jizo and might inspire anyone else ... and lead to a place where being a Buddhist or a Red Sox fan or a soldier is OK because hell is just another name for heaven... the place where everyone finds themselves in good company.

You can tell from the length of this lumpy disquisition that I probably don't know what the fuck I am talking about.

So it goes.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Foyle's War"

With the absent but insistent enthusiasm of a man eating potato chips, I have been watching the British TV serial, "Foyle's War." The series is set during and shortly after World War II and centers on a detective who unravels one sort of crime and another.

Its style becomes vaguely predictable over time (I've watched three of the six episodes available on Netflix), but the characters are appealing and quirky and flawed and touching and intelligent, so I keep munching. Aside from anything else, it is a pleasure to watch a drama in which the actors don't look, over-bearingly, like actors.

The show, with its setting in a time of idealized danger, makes me wonder a little if the deliciousness that is applied to moments in the past is ever brought forwards ... into memories of the present.


Perhaps the consolation prize as time passes is that stereotypes lose their grip.

Not that they are absolved or dissolved (they still natter with the self-importance of school children gathered at the ice cream truck), but a gentle skepticism comes with them as time passes.

Yes, the swath of Velcro that once held personality in place is still effective, but the hooks and eyes have lost their credibility. There are stereotypes aplenty, but is that a reason to accede to their swagger?

Who does not, invariably, boil things down to a three-by-five card that fits in the file box of social interaction and importance and conviviality and seriousness?

As time passes, how I wish I could muster the once-bright energy that made for lively discourse and connection and coherence. To don the mantle of ...

Some brisk and unencumbered Brit ...
Some Japanese person whose face is smooth and serene as a katana blade, oozing a thousand-year history that is kept openly secret...
Some banner in the social breeze, mustering others to good-better-best...
Some oration about connections that were already 'connected'... 

Stereotypes. There are nothing but stereotypes in the mind ... hook-and-eye, hook-and-eye, hook-and-eye.

It is sometimes lonely, getting old -- lonely and tiresome in its self-referential swim. It is as if the skin no longer fit and when, from time to time, welcome visitors appeared, their taut-skinned stereotypes were too tiresome to endure for long. It's not that stereotypes are somehow wrong or in need of some corrective counsel -- though sometimes they do -- it's just that these long and cohesive companions ... what? ... well, it is as if the skin no longer fits and the tailor who might take a tuck here and add a pleat there were out to lunch.

This morning, against a grey and misty sky whose light was evenly 'connected,' a single swallow swooped and soared and then was gone behind the rooftops.

And for a moment ... the skin fit.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

man up!

When I asked, my army-basic-trained son gave me bits and snippets of the two-month schedule he had recently completed. Breakfast was the best meal. Sometimes they got up a 4:30 and sleeping till 6:30 was a luxury. No phones, no TV, no video games. Religious services were offered for Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, but my son, when he did go, went with the Catholics because the service was in the early afternoon: He really didn't want to miss out on the much-needed sleep the other religious schedules cut into. By the end of each training day, he and his fellow trainees were tuckered out ... there was time to write letters or BS with buddies and then, "I would say my prayers" and go to sleep.

Said his prayers?! Where the hell had he gotten that? Certainly not from me, though he did say he always included what I had told him about counting the breath, something I couldn't remember telling him. I suspected he got his prayers from his grandmother, a woman who used to go to Catholic church every day and never pressed her faith on anyone ... at least within my hearing. But my son told me that he had made it up on his own: "I believe in God and I pray and then whatever happens, happens."


My son also said he wanted to get a new tattoo for his 19th birthday, which had come and gone during basic training. "Right here," he said, pointing to the inside of his left bicep. Maybe his mother and I would chip in for that, he suggested. And what would it say, I asked. He said he wasn't exactly sure, but something like "I would sacrifice for those I love." He said that eventually he wanted to have a "sleeve" -- an arm covered in tattoos -- and pointed out aptly, when I suggested he might not be happy in the long run, that "it's my body."

My son left home for basic training with a background in the bell jar of home and high school -- a world fenced off with security, a world in which uncertainties might nag, but they nagged within a quite cozy framework. He returned after having jumped into the twelve-foot end of the pool, an arena in which the world is immensely wider ... a world in which security was spelled out in a quite adult pastime among newly-found brothers and kinship, and most important, a world in which he had an assured role and capability. It was a world in which he could assert with a new, wider understanding, "it's my body." Irrespective of a profession that included guns and cussing, my son was manning up, finding his place within a wider world, a bell jar redefined.

It is the nature of bell jars to keep things fresh. To keep them safe from the air outside the bell jar -- the air that might bring on staleness and rot and an eventual uselessness. It is also the nature of bell jars to hoodwink that which is protected: What person ever wanted to or was entirely capable of recognizing his or her own bell jar? Marriage, employment, possessions, beliefs ... for better or worse, here I am and I can do it, whatever the "it" might currently be. With the capacities found from within this bell jar, I can man up and go forward and succeed and fail, don my laurels and lick my wounds.

And then too, there are prayers.

Was there ever a better indicator of a wider -- much wider -- world than prayer? If the man-up bell jar were doing its job perfectly -- as I can sometimes boldly assert it is -- what need would there be for prayer? Somehow, the wider air seems to creep in around the edges of this bell jar and my man-up persona needs more support, more safety, more assurance that things are really all right and won't go stale... that things could really be all right.

Of all the sneaky, inescapable slivers of life that seem capable of outwitting the bell jar's ramparts, sometimes I think the most compelling is simply this: Experience cannot be shared. Some may prefer the lurking understanding that death is not just something that happens to the other guy, but death, while wide and frightening, still is not something I know anything about ... at least in the bell jar sense. Death may be something to fear but the truth is I don't know what I fear when I fear death. The matter of not being able to share experience, by contrast, is something I do know quite a lot about ... empirically, emphatically ... try as I may, I cannot know in any real sense what you have experienced and neither can you know mine. Yes, we can bluster in man-up fashion that "sharing is caring," and we can add fuel to our heart's content to the man-up fires ... but at 3 a.m., the bedroom ceiling sends a different message.

The initial reaction to this revelation can be one of utter horror. But it can't be true! It's so unfair! All that man-up effort and this is the payoff?! If I am utterly alone ... it is a loneliness beyond bearing! It is so inescapably factual and ... and ... how can I escape? Please ... please ... please...!


I wonder which is worse: Fortifying the man-up social assertions or acknowledging that the bell jar has been outwitted. My own feeling is that uncertainty is a key, however rusted the lock. One of the interesting things about uncertainty is that it could not have any force or meaning without some previous certainty. However elusive that certainty might be, still, uncertainty finds no footing without some certainty to water its roots. Certainty and uncertainty are not gnashing, clashing opposites. The entire matter is not a matter of either/or. Right and wrong, stupid or smart, wise or ignorant ... slicing and dicing amount to a fool's errand.

Still, uncertainty sucks. It's scary. It's a part of the reason your bell jar and mine were created in the first place. And so, once reliably challenged from within my man-up lair -- staring at the bedroom ceiling, perhaps -- there are prayers that this deep uncertainty might be resolved; that I could come to terms with the fact that I cannot share experience with you and you are equally incapable.

How this play plays out -- if ever it actually does -- is purely personal. We may 'share' the uncertainty, but the solution lies in my own prayers or yours ... prayers and...


Once the bell jar is recognizably breached and the uncertainty becomes quite certain, then what? The answer lies somewhere beyond horror and fear, tears and fetal positions, prayers and imprecations. It lies, I think in a willingness to turn around and face the facts, however they state themselves.

Gently but firmly ... gently but firmly ... gently but firmly... gently but firmly: Welcome the stranger. Pray, if that's what it takes. Gently but firmly ... welcome the stranger. Gently but firmly, dispense with the bell jar and ... welcome the stranger. Sweat and ... welcome the stranger.

Chances are s/he's not so strange after all.

"Sharing" is a way of describing separation.

Separation informs uncertainty.

But is separation really true?

Gently but firmly ... welcome this stranger.

Man up. :)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Ave Maria

Boosted from elsewhere: Josquin Desprez (1450-1521): Ave Maria, for four voices

Memorial Day

Memorial Day -- a day to be reminded of the vast human capacity for forgetfulness.

If anyone actually remembered the technicolor horrors that politicians boldly declare to be "noble sacrifices," then the historical record would not be cluttered with another and another and another war. But instead of remembering, we honor the tears and speak of "heroes" and seek to sidestep the shame.

It is as if, once the tears had dried, the need to weep were too inviting, too compelling, or too necessary.

The need for greed, sorrowful as a wet hound, scratching at the back door.

If you want to honor the veterans who have come and gone ... stop making them.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Tim DeChristopher

If you're looking for a reason to hope, I think this guy stands pretty tall.

missing Alexander Pope

As if from some free-floating iceberg in the Atlantic, chunks and bits and pieces of memory slip silently or with some Homeric splash into the silky and embracing deep.

Today, it was Alexander Pope (1688-1744), a piece of whose writing popped to mind, but left me unable
to recall any of his significant works. Once I could rattle them off like colors of the rainbow. Does it matter? I hardly know anyone any more who knows or cares who Alexander Pope was and his stylized, scalpel-sharp presentations that both skewered and adored the beau monde fit poorly if at all with the world of Twitter and Facebook. Still, he was once a stilletto of strong white ice in my mind (at once a Titan of the intellect and a sissified, crabby intellectual) and whether anyone else knows him or not does not bother me so much as losing touch with this old bit of information that clung and gave substance to the whole.

The old chestnut that sprang up, minus a surrounding environment that once existed, was:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.
Strange to think how far from home anyone might travel in search of wisdom and worldliness. Lake Victoria, the Gobi, the Taj Mahal, Tierra del Fuego, the land of the Jabberwock .... Travel and travail ... when all the time, if the eyes had been somehow wider, the information was no further away than a pinkie either culturally or personally. Pick a point, any point, and, with diligence and courage and love, home is not so far away after all.

Still, I guess, travel and travail bring resonance to the symphony, so, OK ... travel and travail, load up with Alexander Pope or other kettle drums of experience or knowledge, and then, and then ....

Miss him when he's gone.


Every morning I light two sticks of incense in the house, one in the kitchen in a bowl on top of the fridge
and one in the front room in a bowl in front of a Kuan Yin representation. Who knows why I do it -- it has been too many years to remember "why" and even if I could, I probably wouldn't believe it. It is, however, what I do. It is good incense, nothing chintzy, and I like it.

This morning, I was late in lighting it. First, I went downtown to get bagels for a houseful of children ... a dozen that will be gone in no time with a little cream cheese laced with onions and chives. Second, there was a rewrite of a piece written by a former Vietnam Special Forces medic who is trying, even after so many years, to come to terms with ... with ... with all of it. It was perhaps the third or fourth time I have read the latest incarnation of the piece and each time it calls me out, makes me ouch, inspires me to make some remark.

Bagels and Vietnam took precedence over the incense. And bit by bit, the house filled up with chatter and laughter as people got out of bed. But finally I got around to lighting the incense.

Good incense.

An old friend.

Conforming without remark to the laughter and chatter and Vietnam and bagels with cream cheese and onions.




Is anything any different?


When everything is already a blessing, seeking blessings seems like an odd pastime.

Still, perhaps that too is a blessing.

Who the hell knows?

Saturday, May 25, 2013


My younger son Ives waltzed through the door today, having completed his Army National Guard training at Fort Benning, Ga., yesterday. His sister, Olivia, and her husband, Rich, picked Ives up in Hartford, Conn., about 40 miles south of here. I was under the impression, based on what my older son, Angus, told me, that Ives son was headed to Alabama for some R&R with some army buddies. Suddenly, the kids who are no longer kids are all back under what seems like an incredibly shrinking roof.

Talking with, who else, mom, who is on her way back from Ga.

No matter what the situation or age, the big sister rules.
L-R: Angus, Richard DiStefani, Olivia, and Ives 5/25/13

upstairs hall

Yesterday, my older son pretty much completed painting the upstairs hall. It looks good and fresh and clean and what flaws there are remain pretty much camouflaged by the overall newness.

The rugs are where they had been and the pictures likewise. He scrubbed up the paint zits. He vacuumed.

Much to my gnawing dismay, my physical contributions to the project were limited, though I did have 13 years of experience in the past to call on and kibbitz with.

The upstairs hall is painted.

Now, as with all efforts that require actual and sometimes extreme effort, there is nothing left to do but forget about it.

Forget the unforgettable.

designer frock

A woman wearing a dress of fresh flowers designed by Zita Elze poses for photographers in the M & A Centenary Garden during media day at the Chelsea Flower Show in London May 20, 2013.
REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Bowatte Indaratane sets himself on fire in Kandy May 24, 2013. According to local media, the monk had set himself on fire in a form of protest against the slaughter of cattle.

15,185 lanterns

In the Philippines, a record number of paper lanterns were released into the night sky under the sponsorship of the Middle Way Meditation Institute, a Thailand-based organization. The organization said Friday's event celebrated "world peace through meditation".

The Guinness Book of World Records confirmed that the previous lantern-release record of 12,740 had been broken.

Wouldn't it be nice if peace were as easy as a record-breaking beauty in the night sky?

what is reliable

Living a life in accordance
With the successes of others --
How reliable could that possibly be?

Living a life in accordance
With the failures of others --
How reliable could that possibly be?

It's not my call, but relying on the successes or failures of others, however popular it may be, sounds like a recipe for uncertainty and dis-ease.

Courage and patience and doubt strike me as the tools most likely to winkle out what is reliable.

Applause and catcalls won't cut it.

Friday, May 24, 2013

access to intimacy

"Intimacy" is one of those $5 words that can arouse a sepulchral hush ... this is deep, this is important, this is meaningful, this is the me that is the rich soil of me.

Intimate stuff is not often every-day stuff. It arrives unbidden -- sometimes in wonder, sometimes in horror. Like as not, it whispers ... which is not to deny its enormous power. Lurking or open-as-the-sky, it infuses ... whatever it infuses -- perhaps a friend, perhaps a thought, perhaps a feather on the sidewalk. And whatever it infuses is richer than what it does not infuse.

I guess I was thinking about this stuff in somewhat the same way I think of Internet activities like Facebook, which, if I get it correctly, allows one individual to "friend" another -- to assert a connection and relationship electronically. And it occurred to me not so much that such friend-ships were pretty thin when compared with the real-life friends that might take years to make, but that if a person created a lifestyle that depended on an intimacy that could hardly be called intimate, it would be pretty crippling.

I'm not trying to imply that relationships or thoughts or emotions need to be hushed and thin-lipped with seriousness. I am as big a fan of the superficial as the next person. Giggling is a lot of fun. Stupid conversations can be salutary ... though personally I have a hard time with long discussions of the weather or baseball.

But I do think it's a smart move to find an access to intimacy -- some framework in which to acknowledge and honor and perhaps till the rich soil. Imagine the emptiness and uncertainty that might exist if "friends" existed solely on the Internet. Or if god were merely "God." Or if a homer were only what other people hit. Wouldn't the lack of intimacy eat anyone alive?

What framework? To each his own. When and where and how to slip into a personal intimacy is a personal matter. My thought is simply that that framework deserves to be acknowledged and cultivated, not because it sounds kool in "Psychology Today," but because good friends are hard to find and are worth the effort.

Turn the volume up; turn the volume down ... it's the music that's important.

"May I become the person my dog (which I don't have) thinks I am."

Johann Strauss Jr.

On a grey and gloopy day, for those like me who may like to wallow in a little schmalz, Johann Strauss Jr. wrote one version of a prescription:

"As Good as It Gets"

A nice, slight 1997 movie ... "As Good as It Gets" with Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear and Cuba Gooding Jr.

The premise is small, but the characters are, for once, credible and interesting.

I liked it and wondered, not for the first time, why fictions shy from the weird and helter-skelter qualities that human beings can exhibit. What's wrong with a symphonic truth ... even in fiction? One-note characters may be consoling, but they are exhausting.

let's assume

For those who travel in the Buddhist countryside, one of the central arteries is "everything changes." Intellectually, this is somehow satisfying, as if noticing what had not been noticed before conveys on the visitor an improved understanding and ease. Intellectually, it's kool because it calls into question assumptions that were previously given an elevated or even not-so-elevated status.

Intellectually kool.

Palpably true.

It is as if, but quantifying the truth, there might be some immunity from it.

Assumptions ... can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

In the state of Washington,  a portion of a bridge over the Skagit River, disappeared in "a big puff of dust," according to driver Dan Sligh, who, together with his wife, was unable to stop in time and ended up in the drink. The assumption that the road was smooth and reliable ... poof.

In London, there is shock and horror after a young soldier was brutally slain Wednesday, apparently by
Lee Rigby
two men wielding knives. "Terror" aficionados have gone into high gear, but generally the assumptions and their fallout went unchanged:
Britain's terror threat level has remained unchanged at "substantial" - the middle of five possible rankings.
(An AP story, linked above, was so intent on the "terror" aspects that it failed to mention the name of the young man slain, Lee Rigby.)

When has the quantification of "terror" ever adequately addressed the problem? Yes, you can frighten people; yes, you can support an amorphous bureaucracy; yes, you can pretend to understand (and thus, maybe, sidestep) the reality ... but in a large group of individuals, terror, so-called, is an option no matter how much money is spent. Where peace is gift-wrapped, war is sure to follow.

Assume change.

Assume dissolution.

Assume terror.

Assume love.

Assume joy.

Assume sorrow.

Assume the rug is there and, when that doesn't quite work, assume it will be pulled out from under you.

Assume that there is safety.

Assume that there is danger.

Assume that assumptions are good or bad, right or wrong.

Building up or tearing down, assumptions seem to form a Miracle Glue that holds "it" all together.

I assume you're old enough to know the usefulness of miracles.

religion ... the proof

How much of what passes for religion is little more than an effort to prove to others what anyone might lack the courage and kindness to prove to themselves?

Perhaps the question points out in some measure why religion is called -- often with a swirling and lubricated smugness -- a belief system.

It's not a question I can answer, but to the extent that it might be true, I think it's a pity.

Courage and kindness are nice.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Boy Scouts vote

The Boy Scouts of America voted Thursday to accept homosexual youths into its ranks, but made no similar provision for gay scout leaders.

Total youth membership stands at about 2.6 million. BSA's adult leaders and volunteers number about one million.

The many organizations that support BSA -- most notably churches -- were sometimes painfully divided on the issue.

Layman P'ang

The words were once attributed to Layman P'ang:
I am not a Buddha. I am just an ordinary fellow who understands things.
It probably doesn't bang everyone's chimes, but as a gentle and direct summing up of intention, effort and attainment (or no attainment, if you insist), it certainly bangs mine.

enough, already!

This morning, my older son wrapped up several days of painting the the upstairs hall. There were three colors (white ceiling, off-white walls, and a kind of mauve-y trim) and everything had to be painted at least twice. This morning, he was sick to death of it all. His voice positively dripped with get-me-the-fuck-out-of-here. He was fried ... frazzled ... bored ... and pissed off. Enough already!

The hall, be it said, looks pretty good.

But feeling his tenor and hearing his voice and watching his movements made me think ...

How often is it that anyone sets out to do a good job? Intention and enthusiasm are glowing. Yessiree, I'm gonna knock this one out of the park... do a really good job; something I can be proud of; something others might notice ... but mostly, I am going to do a really good job. Writing, meditating, banking, marriage, running, singing, bringing up baby, garbage collection ... a really good job.

And then there comes a point at which, like my son, the humdrum and the expectation kick in: I could be doing something more exciting, more important. I could be finished and forget about the "good job" that once lit my fires. Enough already!

I think this experience is a good one, however annoying. It is a wonderful warning that now is the time to redouble the effort, to slow down and really dig in, to keep going although keeping going is the last damned thing in the world anyone might want ... if IN FACT anyone wants to do a really good job.

Does such a redoubled effort guarantee that something will actually turn out to be a good job? Nope. But it is good training (like lifting weights): This moment is the fact, and the facts are worth paying attention to, if for no other reason than that escape is not possible and if there is no peace with the inescapable, then there is no peace.

"the Absolute" ... kiss my grits!

An early-American primer on comportment (sorry, I can't remember which) suggested:
Now and then, I encourage myself to be patient and caring and more or less decent. And then ... and then ... and then the spitting fires of hell spring up and I really do get impatient.

One of those fiery jets exploded this morning when I read the words "the Absolute."

Suddenly, I was infuriated.

In the spiritual environs, "the Absolute" is one of those bright lights, a treasure trove that cannot be adequately expressed ... and yet is expressed over and over and over again. It is an understanding which brings all things into perfect and peaceful alignment ... unless, of course, it is expressed as the vast emptiness that cannot be called empty. "The Absolute" is the yardstick without compare. And like as not, within the hearts of the courageously devoted, it is what you haven't got a handle on. It is to be attained or realized or actualized ... even where the diffident and patient and caring suggest mysteriously that it cannot be attained. "The Absolute," whatever it is, is the big-banger good stuff and if we talk about it enough, maybe people will be encouraged ... blah, blah, blah.

OK, wallow to your heart's content. Sweat and strain and weep and laugh joyfully ... but do it in the corner, will you? Stop drooling on others' floors. If you want to imagine "the Absolute" has some meaning worthy of discussion, at least have the decency and comportment to find out if it's true without selling fucking Tupperware! Spit in your own corner.

And in the course of mewling and drooling and being ever so caring and wise, maybe there is something worth considering in ....

If the Absolute were one iota's different from the Relative, how the hell could it be the Absolute?

And maybe it's time as well to knock off the capital letters.
My blog, my corner.

When did playing the scaredy-cat ever improve anything

I have a good deal of sympathy for the suffering that afflicts anyone. But that does not mean I am in sympathy with the solutions prescribed.

not as a threat

Not as a threat...

If, for just a second or two,
You were to switch off or somehow magically lose
The belief in your favored god,
Religious or secular,
Would that god
Be in any way diminished ... or improved?

If, for just a second or two,
You were to switch on or somehow magically attain
A belief in some new-found god,
Religious or secular,
Would that god
Be in any way diminished ... or improved?

I think gods, like beliefs, are rather odd and deserve some consideration beyond a warming consolation.

But suit yourself.

The line that sticks in my mind like bubblegum on the sole of a summertime shoe is:

Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help.

Or, alternatively, smile just one smile.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

at the altar of despair

Mr Venner, 78, walked up to the altar of Notre-Dame, one of the most-visited attractions in France, and shot himself in the mouth with a single-shot pistol on Tuesday afternoon, in front of some 1,500 visitors.
Mr Venner condemned both same-sex marriage and Islamist influence in France in writings before his death.
If death were to cease being the final and somehow most horrific frontier, what view would anyone have of Mr. Venner's or self-immolating Buddhist monks' actions?

cat house conclusions

Did an unexamined or sloppily-examined premise ever stop anyone from reaching bold conclusions? Whether profound or superficial, I don't think so and I certainly wouldn't claim to be somehow sagely exempt.

This morning, for example, an old question -- we're talking Totally Useless Information here -- cropped up again. The conclusion is roughly set in my mind -- pretty insistent, actually -- but the basis for that conclusion has to be called flimsy at best... and since I delight in the conclusion, I am really unwilling to find out if it is true. How many other conclusions are like that, I wonder?

The conclusion: Shrinks, by ratio, have more beards than the general male population. These are not the beards of some rough-and-ready Canadian logger who can swing an ax or a beer stein with gusto. Rather they are the somewhat simpering, quietly-arrogant beards of an Edwardian aristocrat who keeps the world and its unwashed at a careful, if purportedly-caring, distance.

Is any of this true? I honestly don't know, but the conclusion pleasures me like a $5 hooker. Does my rock-solid ignorance of the facts suggest to me that the whole matter deserves to be thrown out? Not for a minute! It's too much fun thinking I know something I clearly know nothing about. It's sorta like God.

And shrinks are just a starting point. How about firefighters, who seem to sport a socially-disproportionate number of mustaches?

Or further afield, why am I content to let Middle Eastern men or Central American males off the hook -- those who disproportionately sport the hairy upper lips: What the hell, it's social testosterone and a guy without a mustache is probably a guy without balls. A pussy-tickler. And of course there is some input from religions that inveigh against shaving.

And that in turn brings attention to yet another conclusion: African and Oriental males disproportionately don't seem to have facial hair. Why not? Do they own an over-abundance of razors?

And then there's the coup de grâce question: If I knew the answer to any of these questions, what would I actually know and what use would it be to know it? Would a statistically-based and eloquently-argued conclusion really put a period on the sentence? Or would it just be another $5 hooker?

Silly or profound, I guess the only yardstick I can come up with is to enjoy whatever cat house anyone might employ. A conclusive ignorance doesn't settle matters and a dissecting intelligence isn't a whole lot better.

But there's something to be said for not inflicting beard-stroking and delightful conclusions on others. Or, perhaps more important, the self.

Or anyway, that's my $5 conclusion

Enjoy it? Sure.

Believe it? Oops.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

in the NOT room

Spiritual life is often imbued with good news. There's enlightenment or heaven or clear understanding or compassion or just simply being awake for a change. It's pretty good news and sometimes it's insufferable.

And this is something I think that spiritual formats too often lack. At the same time that the good-news tabernacle rises up in the heart and mind, at the same time that belief and faith and conviction begin to glow like candles in the darkness, at the same time that the altar is heaped high with wonderful offerings, at the same time that this new friend becomes a better and better friend, at the same time that shallow or profound teachings are ingested and digested, at the same time this wondrous and holy place is plastered and painted and the stained-glass windows applied....

At the same time that the good news is given an honored and honorable place in this life ... at precisely the same time and with precisely as much care and devotion, I think there needs to be a side room, a place of equal gravity and honor and devotion and delight, a room whose door might bear the simple sign, "NOT!"

Devotees may quail at the thought, but how many times has anyone tried to steamroller their grumpy-as-shit moments with good-news platitudes about serenity or kindness. "There, there," the nostrums admonish, "just do some metta or breath exercises. There, there, dear. Let me see if I can't tamp down what currently rises up with a will. Let me tell you how to correct things."

Do the not's need or deserve correction? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe at the moment any attempt to rein them in will only prove how intractably strong they are.

Treating the nots -- the pissed-offs, the depresseds, the anguisheds -- as if they were rag tag cousins who could be bought off with good-news corrections is not really enough. They deserve better ... a tabernacle that, for the moment, is separate and distinct, a place of honor and devotion and wonder. When the good news gets insufferably out of synch with the muck and mire oozing from every pore ... then go into the NOT room and rest easy. Don't correct a thing. Where once something was holy, then welcome it as NOT holy at all. Where something was kind, then worship it as NOT kind at all. Where something was wise ... well, fuck it -- enter the NOT room and give it an honorable chance to breathe and weep and scream and beg.

Don't buy off the bad and painful with what is good and relieving. Let the NOT room be a refuge that is every bit the refuge that good-news spiritual adventures are. Stay as long as you like.

If you don't do it now, you sure as hell will have to do it later.

something old, something new

transmission? fuggetaboutit!

Since man is an animal, it's a bit peculiar that anyone might refer reprovingly to his "animal nature," that aspect of humanity that can 'devolve' into blood lust and cruelty. True, these may not be the most nourishing of human capacities, but still, human beings are animals. Shit happens and all animals shit.

On Friday, my younger son will graduate from his Army National Guard basic training course at Fort Benning, Ga. He will be, at whatever remove, a soldier. Soldiers are in the business of killing, not as other animals might, in order to survive and thrive, but uniquely within the animal kingdom, as a matter of asserting some version of self.

The strength and courage and horror of the battlefield is not something I am not in a position to question or acclaim. I have not been there.

But, when it comes to my son, I do have an impossible wish rattling around in my mind and heart: How can one man convincingly tell another that if it takes balls to make a war, it takes infinitely bigger balls to create peace? This is something of which I am utterly convinced and yet have no way -- no way at all -- of transmitting. Sure, I can do the dithering peacenik two-step, wringing my hands in lawsy-lawsy dismay, explaining and dissecting till I'm blue in the face ... but transmission is simply not possible.

Every man -- every shit-for-brains man or woman -- has to learn such things for themselves.

And when it comes to my son, I hate it.

I am stuck with the fact that all I can do is all I can do.

Transmission is just another pile of bear shit in the woods.

into the jaws of ... something

It was an odd venue for a performer who might otherwise bring together polished Bentleys disgorging evening gowns and rubies, tuxedos and monogrammed gold cufflinks ... people speaking quietly from behind their cupped playbills, the scions of a self-assured comme il faut.

The college gymnasium at Berkeley had lousy acoustics. Its backboards were tilted up in deference to the event, but there was no mistaking the tinny rattle of the folding chairs laid out on the basketball court. The raucous cheering of the past, though stilled, seemed to lurk in every corner.

The Soviet violinist David Oistrakh took his place beneath and a bit behind one of the up-folded backboards. Everyone quieted down. I don't recall his standing on any bit of elevation. He stood, rather, at the same altitude as his seated audience. In that vast expanse, he seemed lonely and small from my vantage point along the running-track mezzanine of the gym.

A man with an instrument. No supporting cast. No foot soldiers to protect his flanks. The king without retainers. Alone.

It was 1962 and I was visiting my then-girlfriend on a weekend break from what was then called the Army Language School that lay to the south on the California coast.

And then he began to play.

Don't ask me what, but whatever it was, it was the kind of music I could accede to ... nothing dissonant or cubist in the way of 'modern' classical music ... something tuneful and alluring, and a little at a time, I was allured. Oistrakh was not my favorite violinist -- he was too etched, somehow, too perfected -- but on that evening, he drew me in. It was pleasant at first.

Pleasanter and pleasanter it became. I let myself go and sank into the beauty. But the beauty went on and on and on and on. Deeper and deeper. Stronger and stronger. I loved it and yet there came a moment where I realized that I was somehow being overwhelmed ... I was drowning ... I was being stripped bare ... I was, if I didn't pull back, going-going-gone. I loved that music to death and I was being threatened with precisely that -- a death I lacked the courage or wherewithal to embrace. I panicked. And later I would say, as if it explained anything, "I had to stop listening. It was like staring at the sun."

Of all the anythings that can take anyone to an honest home, I like music. Music has no explanation and no meaning. Music has no nothing and yet asserts a something that might be described as music: Where the music ends, the music begins.

Like love, anyone might dance around the peripheries of music, but come close -- close, closer, closest -- and it will burn you to the ground. No more religion, no more philosophy, no more belief or explanation, no more Bentleys, no more "nothing." Since there is no one to be naked, nakedness falls far short. Speak and you fail; remain silent and you fail.

Music is extraordinary only to the extent that the music has not yet expressed itself fully... like a partially-eclipsed sun. Extraordinary stuff is for door-to-door Bible salesmen. But the same is true for ordinary stuff ... salesmanship and rubies in an effort to elude the sun. Comme il faut can't cut it and yet the back-thumping agreements of the great unwashed work no better. Embrace? Elude? Cut the crap.

Things can burn you to the ground. Pick your thing, whatever it is.

So perhaps there comes a time when feeding the fire must stop, a time to stop acceding to back-thumpings like "be the music," a time when immense and minute are chickenfeed, a time when birthless and deathless are OK, but remain in the secondary, a time when IS is saying too little and too much, a time of, perhaps ...


Monday, May 20, 2013

Vatican abuse forum

It breaks my heart when I hear tales (inescapable adventures I suspect) of individuals who sought the light with open arms and open hearts and then were rewarded with a heinous darkness. The callous cruelty is ... is ... beyond my words.

Such is the on-going nature of the sexual abuses of the Vatican and its minions. I just finished listening to a discussion of Thomas D'Antonio's "Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal" and had the matter called to mind anew. The book aspect didn't interest me much, though I'm sure it's fine. I watched because a lot of heavy hitters were on the panel: Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe, Patrick Wall, Jeff Anderson and Barbara Blaine. These were the people who knew their shit from the inside, people who had been, in some instances, priests, or had fought one aspect or another of the legal or tragically human battle. Centuries of horror ... literally, centuries.

Every recent 'reform' instituted by the Roman Catholic Church has been shaped not as a matter of will and caring, but as a matter of having been forced to do so. The Vatican is a corporation and any moral trappings it may claim or sell are just that ... trappings. Don't believe me -- check the history.

But all the battles and all the announcements and all the posturing cannot erase from my mind the people who suffered and in some cases continue to suffer. People -- sometimes children, for Christ's sake! -- who sought the light and ... and ... found a darkness for which words are not enough.

Those on stage during the talk are all fighting the good fight from my point of view. Bit by arduous bit, the hides are being nailed to the barn door. It's a painful business ... painful and endless by the look of things. It needs to be done, I'd say.

But because I am old and lazy and incapable of the energies these good people exhibit, I wonder as well:

If the Roman Catholic Church were obliterated (a suggestion no one entertained during the talk), what provision might be made for the utterly human seeking of the light, whatever the format? A fuck-the-light atheism or humanism strikes me as cavalier when it comes to human behavior. Common sense distances may be appropriate, but are they true? I doubt it. Whether in religion or under some other banner, still the light beckons the human heart. Am I wrong about that? Maybe so, but it is a hypothesis I find credible.

Is every light destined for darkness? I guess I think so. But the depth and viciousness of that darkness varies and is more and less informative.

I dunno. Just noodling.

if you had your druthers ....

Wouldn't you rather be laughing?

"who is God?"

Not that I can sort it out entirely, but today the phrase "liberal religion" catches my attention again.

Because of my upbringing in spiritual life (Hinduism, Zen Buddhism), the notion that religion could be liberal or conservative seems quite peculiar. At the shallow end of the pool of meaning, liberal religion
suggests that religion is a social strategem adorned with kindly spiritual trappings. Do good, be nice, do no harm and the essence of things will naturally express itself. If I get it correctly, this is basically the Christian approach: No one can know God, but God's hand is seen in the actions of his/her/its disciples.

Within this framework, "liberal" and "conservative" make some sense. Social stratagems have playbooks and guidelines and emphases that need to be adhered to. More and less strict can find hand holds. It's warming to act in concert with others ... not as lonely as it might be otherwise ... and perhaps quite a lot of good can be accomplished: Be gentle and decent and the well-spring of that gentleness and decency may one day reveal itself... or, to take a more convinced approach, reveals itself in every thought, word and deed: There is no God but God.

Who could fault such an approach? If it is true, who would bother to  point out its fragility or falsehood? When every act is God (to use that as shorthand), why bother with God since liberals and conservatives are all creatures of action? Leaving God out of the discussion is acceptable because there is no escaping God's hand.

It's perfectly true, I imagine. And too, for my taste, it reeks of the very kind of uncertainty that might have put someone on a spiritual trajectory in the first place.

Assuming anyone might be allowed to ask the question, who is the God who precedes and permeates social stratgems? I don't mean this as some sort of philosophical or religious gewgaw to be fed into the social stratagem meat grinder. I mean it as a strictly personal question that some might ask and others might not. It just seems to me that without addressing this question, or something similar to it, social stratagems are given the opportunity to become safe havens and hideouts that are precariously glued together and founded in a wobbling uncertainty ... cozy and approved, perhaps, but shuddering below the waves.

What is it like before the social strategies were born? It may take guts or insanity to ask such a question ... but still, if the question is not asked, doesn't the coziness of social stratagem become a defense mechanism in need of constant oiling. There is no steady ground even as steady ground is repeated ad nauseam.

What is the basis of the social stratagem to which I adhere? There is no overarching, free-standing imperative to the question -- no "better" or "worse." It is a personal matter -- gutsy or crazy, depending on the point of view. But without answering it satisfactorily, in places where no applause resounds, how can the social stratagems, whether liberal or conservative, help but suffer some doubt, help but place one Band-Aid after another on the stratagem at hand, help but be lacking in a steadied peace?

To answer such a question satisfactorily is simply a matter of laying doubt to rest. And it is from that understanding that anyone might go forth with whatever social stratagems s/he chooses. It is from that understanding that social stratagems take their rightful place as realizations/actualizations of God. Which is more important -- to say so or to know so?

What is the basis of the social stratagem to which I adhere? No (wo)man can answer such a question for another and the attempt to answer can be a lonely business (often lacking the convivial warmth of the social stratagem), but what other choice is there for someone who seeks some peace, who is tired of uncertainty and Band-Aids?

Who or what is God? There are as many true answers as there are people to give them. Likewise, there are as many false answers as there are people to give them. It can't be helped. But for myself, I will honor the man or woman who does what s/he can to give liberal and conservative social strategies a rest and seeks out to a certainty that which has nothing and everything to do with social stratagem.

No more eating others' dust.

God is more interesting than that.

The social stratagem of the day is ... whatever you choose.

And who chooses.

Silly question, right?

sick call

Yesterday, my older son and I bought paint supplies and attacked a small upstairs hallway. He did the ceiling and I did prep work. I cooked dinner, we watched a movie and, starting at about 3 a.m. today, I heard what I imagined might be an intruder moving around downstairs, though I have a hard time imagining any but the dumbest intruder targeting our house.

There was no intruder. My son was sick and making bathroom visits. I'm feeling queasy as well. A menu of chicken, rice and broccoli played a role, I suspect. We'll probably have a sick day today.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

meeting my hero

When I think of heroes or role models, I agree with former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins who commented once in a radio interview, "Meeting your favorite author is one of life's most reliable disappointments."

Others might wish wistfully that they could spend time with Buddha or Gandhi or Jesus or Einstein or some knock-it-out-of-the-park baseball great, but I have a very strong hunch that if the wish came true, the most notable reaction might be to wish the wish-come-true had never occurred.

And yet for all my rule-of-thumb certainty, I do sort of wish wistfully that I could meet a pig farmer I once heard interviewed on the radio. Later, I would search in vain for the interview I listened to with half an ear as I drove the 20 miles between work and home years ago. I never did find it and yet the tenor and taste and deliciousness of what my half-ear caught remains ... and whispers wistfully.

What I remember is sketchy: The pig farmer lived with his wife in one of the southern states -- Alabama or Louisiana or Georgia, perhaps. His kids had left home and had no desire to continue the business that had nurtured them into adulthood. The farmer said this with some sadness, but he did not seem to be overwhelmed by it. He knew what he knew and did what he did and loved what he loved ... or anyway that's what I heard in his words. A man, without asking, of substance.

His wife and he were a team. When he came home at the end of a long and tiring day, she would cook supper for him. But if she had had a particularly tiring day, he would cook supper for her. During difficult deliveries of piglets, it was she who thrust her hand into the pig's birth canal to ease the transaction: His hands were too big. Both had been through hard times and easy ones ... or anyway that's the recollection I have without remembering specific testimony.

There seemed to be a certain serene dignity to this man. Nothing sage and nothing but sage.

No doubt I would be disappointed if I met him.

But wistfully and wishfully, I'd risk it.


Despite Iran's hanging execution today of two men, one charged with spying for Israel's Mossad and the other with spying for the American Central Intelligence Agency...
And despite Syria's pedal-to-the-metal assault on Qusair, a rebel-held town near the border with Lebanon ...
And despite the single Florida winner of last night's $590-million-plus lottery jackpot ...
And despite suspicions about the picture-perfect AP report summing up a police officer's fatal shooting of a 21-year-old intruder in Mineola, N.Y....
And despite Nigeria's crackdown on militants and all that that implies ...

Despite all these things and a lot of others like them, my mind is focused on the upstairs hall.

It's selfishness in one sense -- selfishness aggravated by old age. I want to get the upstairs hall painted and my older son has agreed to do it, but I am the one who knows about painting -- what it takes, the supplies necessary, the skills required. In another time, a time with more energy, I would have knocked it out without blinking: Painting a hall is hardly rocket science.

But not only do I lack the physical strength to do the job, I also balk at the expenditure of energy that both projection and recollection require... seeing what's needed, seeing the possible problems, opening dusty memory banks and consulting relevant files. It even pisses me off that I expend the energy to balk. The aches, pains and fragilities ... isn't that enough for any man?! Get the fuck away from me with do-good and household chores!

Selfishness compounded by the selfishness of old age.

I don't suppose any of this is especially unusual. Selfishness is one of the reasons that altruism has such a good name. Caring about the world and its woes, bringing effort to bear on the world's behalf or on behalf of a neighbor ... this is serious, to hear the activist, caring mind tell it. But then, whether by old age or other circumstance, the activist mind gets overwhelmed: There's too much sorrow, too much woe, too much to care about and all the virtue-spouting in the world cannot lay it to rest. Giving up seems selfish and selfish seems bad, but ... give it a rest, will you?! I am running out of energy for "enemies" and "good deeds."

Later this morning, I will go out and do zazen as I have for hundreds of times in the past. It's a habit that once was a struggle and sometimes a mortal combat. Now it's a habit. If I didn't do zazen or seated meditation well in the past, now I do it even worse. The demons of "attachment" or "ego" or "concepts" or "enlightenment" have lost their spectacular zip. Selfishness is too selfish to worry about. Ditto nitwits like Ayn Rand.

All things boil down to this and this has an agenda that only a fool would claim to understand or improve or explain or believe: Do it; don't do it; attach to it; let it go; battle or surrender; selfish or selfless; mistake requiring correction; correctness that warrants a repeat ... others may do all this extremely well. I will applaud, if you like. But a little caution wouldn't hurt: Acknowledging enemies is OK. Watching them and acting as circumstance requires is OK. But battling them just makes them stronger.

Strength is not my strong suit these days.

Just now, I'm worried about the upstairs hall.

It takes everything I've got ... which, when I think about it, sounds about right.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

special and important

Is it true of spiritual life? I think it is:

The less special it is, the more important it becomes.

Not that there's anything wrong, exactly, about what's special ...

It's just not that important.

Saudi woman tops Everest

Raha Moharrak, 25, has become the first Saudi woman to make it to the top of Mt. Everest.
A biography on the expedition website said convincing Ms Moharrak's family to agree to her climb "was as great a challenge as the mountain itself", though they fully support her now.

discomforting comfort

A strange confluence, perhaps:

If I had to guess, I think I'd say most people take up spiritual efforts in a search for what will reprieve and relieve. Something hurts, something is uncertain, something is out of kilter and there is a longing to correct matters ... with luck, for the better.

Enter Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam or Christianity or Judaism or the Cult of the Spaghetti Monster...a place that seems to promise comfort and relief.

And yet, once having entered a place of comforting promise, what good is it if it doesn't knock you on your ass? What substance of understanding does a purely comforting realm provide? Doesn't it become a jail cell if it does not rip you to shreds? Is a "good and faithful servant" really a good and faithful servant?

Seeking spiritual comfort strikes me as fine, a good starting point.

But finding and holding it strikes me as lazy/flimsy at best and cruel at worst.

animals, shrinks, gays and scandal

Odds and ends...

-- It's not exactly a virgin birth, but zookeepers in Connecticut are scratching their heads about how a female anteater which had no known contact with her mate nevertheless gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

-- In San Francisco, the curia of the American psychiatric world is meeting this weekend to discuss, among other things, the latest updates to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of their universe. What-is-defined-how always has ramifications (shit flows downhill after all) and in this case, the debates and pronouncements of the assembled Jesuits are likely to be -- politely and thoughtfully, of course -- as fiery as they may be abstruse. Those of us who are crazed in one way or another can only await the verdicts of the American Psychiatric Association and hope that those dicta bear some resemblance to the insanities we enjoy. And perhaps the APA can -- as a facetious side note -- shed some light on the "crazy ants" in Texas.

-- In France -- the 14th country to do so -- gay marriage has been signed into law. Bit by bit the discriminations of the past are seen anew ... and make you wonder why there was discrimination in the first place.

-- Last night, on public television, there was a retrospective on the 40-year-old Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon. The scandal bubbled up after the June 17, 1972, break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington. Republican operatives were seeking useful political data about their Democratic rivals. Nixon's resignation came when the answer to the question, "what did the president know and when did he know it" dealt the president a mortal blow: Three Republican congressmen came to his office and told him that impeachment proceedings were unlikely to sustain his presidency ... and probably noted that the presidency itself would be besmirched during any such hearings.

Two things stuck in my interest banks as I watched the TV: 1. It was Republicans who told a Republican to get out of town (imagine that these days) and 2. Up until Watergate -- and a coalescing distaste for  the Vietnam War -- public trust that government would act on behalf of the citizenry it represented ran at about 70%. Since that time, public trust has slid to something around 20%. Up until that time, there were real accomplishments that the country could point to -- Social Security, an interstate highway system, an educational infrastructure and achievement worth envying, an attempt at integration, and an economy rife with work among other things. There was less reason for anyone to proclaim himself a "proud American" because there was stuff to actually be proud of. It was a basis of trust, which, if not perfect, was at least largely warranted.

Trust at 20%. "What if they had a war and nobody came" morphs into "what if they had a government and nobody believed?" Perhaps the lack of trust will right itself at some juncture, but the odds feel pretty long to me. Who creates a Department of Homeland Security unless there is some sense that the homeland might be attacked ... perhaps by a rabble tired of being manipulated?

Distrust is so grating and deflating. But what else is there when trust has been so palpably betrayed?

generosity and selfishness

Generosity is a warming attribute, sometimes as soft as a rose petal, sometimes as elevated as jewel-bedecked rajah.
Generosity means giving or perhaps the willingness to give.
In a universe where everything is generous all the time, isn't "generosity" a bit of redundant overstatement?

Selfishness is sometimes subtle and sometimes gross, but either way its talons tear, however much fingernail polish anyone might apply.
Selfishness means obtaining or keeping or perhaps the willingness to obtain or keep.
In a universe where everything is selfish all the time, isn't "selfishness" a bit of redundant overstatement?

Life would be considerably easier if these were merely intellectual or emotional questions.

Friday, May 17, 2013


Passed along in email ....

If this doesn't brighten up your day, I'd suggest you commit suicide.

hawk from the heavens

Yesterday, from my chair in the backyard, I could see the contrails of military jets against the blue-blue sky. They were headed southwest at intervals of three or four miles, flying at 20- to 30,000 feet. I wondered idly if the United States had started another war and how many classrooms might be built if just one of those contrails were redirected ... just some lazy, liberal, comsymp thinking.

From the Internet
Suddenly, below the hunters on high, a red-tailed hawk swam into view. S/he floated on outspread wings, circling lazily on currents of air I could not see. Floating, floating, floating ... and, as always, mesmerizing me.

What is it that is so marvelous about seeing a wild animal in its habitat? I don't know, but I do know that I can marvel and marveling is delicious.

And then, without warning, the hawk folded back its wings and plummeted -- something I had never seen before. It was clearly a deliberate, locked-on-target move. The hawk's wings were not entirely flush with its body: Small 'elbows' (I don't know how else to describe it) were extended like rudders to guide the bird's trajectory. The smoothness and commitment of the fall were a wonder to watch ... no fear, no glory, no wonder ... just falling, smooth as Vaseline on a thermometer.

It seemed to take a very long time, though it was only a few seconds, and I worried that the hawk might be too slow to nab whatever mouse or mole or other lunchable had caught its eye. The bird seemed to be headed into my neighbor's yard, but that yard is blocked by high shrubs and so, eventually, I lost sight of this dive bomber.

I missed the denouement, the success, the victory or defeat.

And yet, because I had never seen such a plummeting maneuver in person, I felt scrumptiously fulfilled.

Things were just "way kool!"

no retreat

Military commanders, mountain climbers, uncertain suitors and a variety of cowards all can view "retreat" with dismay or disdain. "Faint heart never won fair maid."

I doubt that Napoleon was swaggering when the Russian winter made Moscow unattainable in 1812. Napoleon retreated: Pretty much anyone knows what that feels like.

Whether little or large, "retreat" is a label to elude if possible and to shoulder with good grace if not. No one ever set out on a particular course in order not to achieve a particular goal.

The military commander in any human heart may intone, "There is no substitute for victory! There is no substitute for success!" But if this were actually true -- if it were true in some wetness-of-water sense -- then there would be no need to say so. Saying so merely underscores the wetness-of-water fact that there are all sorts of substitutes that are possible.

So ... determination is an important quality, whatever the endeavor. "Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!" Painting a picture, spiritual discipline, invading Russia, making money, learning to roller skate, collecting coins, getting married ... there's a time to stop shilly-shallying and ... go for it. Balls-out, all-in, pedal-to-the-metal ... no retreat.

And all of this makes some sense in ordinary terms. A life without commitment is pretty thin tea... 'do-able' perhaps, but still, pretty thin.

But beyond all that -- once the habit has been tucked under the belt -- perhaps there is another view of "retreat" that is warranted, another, more useful habit to tuck under the belt.

A man leaves his house after deciding to walk downtown on this sunny day. He wants to buy some shoe laces. Part way there, he realizes he has forgotten his wallet and has to turn back, to retreat. The footsteps that led forward now lead back. He may cuss himself out briefly for 'wasting' his energies, but then he settles down and gets on with it. He is walking back ... and yet there is, in reality, no direction he can walk that is not straight ahead. Cussing and grumbling may be part of the territory, but straight ahead is the reality. Always straight ahead. It's not as if there were something he could do about it. He can call it a retreat or he can call it an advance, but still, the reality is in his face ... straight ahead.

And the habit under consideration lies precisely here, in what cannot be escaped ... this moment, this straight ahead. Where there is, in reality, no retreat possible, basing an outlook on "retreat" or "advance" is shaky ground indeed. No need to wax philosophical or spiritual about it, no need to prattle about "living in the moment" when anyone with two brain cells to rub together already knows that living in the moment offers no other option. "No retreat" is not some generalissimo's call to glory. It is just what cannot possibly be avoided... or embraced either.

Still, it takes some courage and it takes some practice to do what anyone cannot help but do. "Advance" and "retreat" are intellectually OK, perhaps, but these are secondary matters when it comes to moving straight ahead. No-retreat is not a choice, it is a simple statement of inescapable fact. And it's a good idea to get comfortable with what is inescapable.

In an effort to avoid the use of the word "retreat," military men would sometimes refer wryly to their movements as "advancing to the rear." Which of us has not, at one time or another, been equally wry?

But I think it is a topic worth examining.

What "rear?"

What "retreat?"

Intellectually it may compute.

But in reality?

Get a life!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

sex in spiritual life ... just noodling

I know it has more holes than Swiss cheese and I know I will be taken out behind the woodshed and reminded how naughty or inept I have been, but the following occurred to me in the wake of receiving the latest web site relating to the trial and incarceration of Joshu Sasaki Roshi (the translations of news articles are at the bottom) back in the 1950's. Recent accusations against Sasaki dovetail with allegations against various other Zen teachers, most notably, perhaps, Eido Tai Shimano.

In each instance, the harm done seems to be inextricably woven with sexual events and subsequent uproar that have spilled over into the spiritual centers that cared to consider them. In the wake of so much confusion, anger, anguish and whatever all else, new ethical guidelines have been proposed and adopted at Zen centers. My thought was that a cards-on-the-table approach to sex -- as for example an evening talk or a sheet of paper passed to all newly-minted members ... well, hell, I just made this up.

The topic for this evening is ...

Ready ... set...


Just to set the stage a bit, I will ask all of you if anyone here lacks a sex. Is anyone here neither male nor female? If so, raise your hand.

Very good.

Everyone here is either male or female. No surprises there.

And with sex goes sexuality. Maybe we can agree to define that in simple and less than solemn terms as the urge to merge. Most people, because they are human, feel sexual yearnings ... for members of the opposite sex, for members of the same sex, for both, for neither ... for dogs or cats or whatever all else. In simple and less than solemn terms, people get horny to one degree or another.

So far so good? Is any of this surprising? Is anyone out there in a state of shock or awe? Is there anything you don't agree with? Raise your hand.

If none of this is somehow news to anyone, then I will assume were are more or less on the same page.

Now we get to the sticky wickets of  sexual yearning.

When someone gets horny, that horniness does not come in one flavor. It has more flavors than Ben & Jerry have ice creams. Horny can be mixed with love. It can be mixed with violence. It can be mixed with submission. It can be mixed with power or manipulation or exultation or self-gratification or frustration or humility or spirituality or confusion or joy or ... any or all of the above a more besides. You get the drift.

Like anything else, things intersect and overlap and infuse what in simple terms is called horny. An orgasm can be as pure as the driven snow, but what leads up to that orgasm is often a potpourri of interconnecting hopes and fears and smiles and whatever all else.

Perhaps at this point we should stop and review.

We are all human beings, male and female ... remember that part?

We are all one sex or another ... remember that part?

We are all imbued with sexuality that accompanies that sex. Remember that part?

OK. I hope we are pretty much on the same page about this.

The reason that the topic this evening is SEX is that in the past there have been a number of instances in spiritual communities where the role of sex -- or at least the most titillating aspect of a situation was sex -- has caused hurt and harm. And anguish is no fucking joke! 

I won't go into the ambivalent-but-frequently-prurient outlook of American culture when it comes to sex, but since we are all members of what might be called a spiritual community, I think it is in our best interests to put our sexual cards on the table. Hiding sex in a spiritual community has the same result that it does in a wider society ... corruption and sometimes hurt and harm. Spiritual communities, when they are asked, love to tell you that they are emphatically not into hurt and harm ... but in the past, hurt and harm is sometimes what they have produced.

But let's keep things grounded here. I can get my rocks off thinking about you and you can get your rocks off thinking about me. Maybe it will come to some fruition, maybe not. But boys will be boys and girls will be girls and I think all of us in a spiritual community are here in part to be honest in our lives. Sex and sexuality are pretty honest things, don't you think? Good, bad or indifferent ... they are true. No big mystery. Penises and vaginas and occasionally some additional paraphernalia.

I am not trying to diminish the roller-coaster ride that sex and sexuality can provide -- the mistakes and sorrows and resounding joys that can evolve. I am trying to make the obvious obvious. Boys, girls, men, women ... in a spiritual setting as in any other. True, some spiritual settings proscribe honest connections of this sort, but we do not, so let's leave the proscriptions to the proscribers.

In our practice, honesty counts. So ... let's keep our honesty on the front burner.

In our practice, everyone does what they can to minimize the hurt and harm they may spread around. Easy to say and not always easy to do, but we try, fail, acknowledge our failures and try anew. We try to keep in focus what is as plain as the nose on our faces. And one plainly plain thing is SEX.

When it comes to sexual contact between any members of a spiritual community, I think at least one simple rule applies: "No means no." Of course "no" does not always mean no as the overlays of a human life infuse a sexual situation. And those with apparent power can indeed manipulate for their own purposes. It can be damnably confusing. But I think that when, as this evening, SEX is put on the table and openly acknowledged as a part of the spiritual mix ... well, perhaps the load is lightened.

Yup, there's sex in the spiritual community. What did you expect? Hurt and harm are both inevitable and unacceptable: They deserve to be called out ... but hurt and harm are only as corrupting as the unwillingness to acknowledge them.

Let's put our cards on the table.

Keep it honest.

Do no harm.

And now we will all chant THE INCOMPARABLE SEX DHARANI:

Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex,
Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex,
Sex, sex, sex,
Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex,
Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex,
Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex,
Sex, sex, sex,
Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex,
Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex ...

OK, I'm spent.

Anyone got a cigarette?