Wednesday, April 30, 2014

capital punishment ... again

McALESTER, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma prison officials halted an inmate's execution after a new drug combination left the man writhing and clenching his teeth on the gurney. He later died of a heart attack.
Clayton Lockett, 38, was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of three drugs in the state's new lethal injection combination was administered Tuesday evening. Three minutes later, he began breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow.
The blinds were eventually lowered to prevent those in the viewing gallery from watching what was happening in the death chamber, and the state's top prison official eventually called a halt to the proceedings. Lockett died of a heart attack a short time later, the Department of Corrections said.

"I did it on purpose"

My mother once told me that when I was little, she caught me doing something naughty ... who knows what -- kids are always up to something. She said that I knew I was in trouble and began to cry.

Finally, in the midst of chewing me out, she asked the key question: "But why did you do that?"

And in a fit of absolute, wet-cheeked anguish, I replied, "I did it on purpose."

Talk about the truth coming "out of the mouths of babes!"

How many excuses and explanations and meanings adorn human actions? The tinsel and lights hung on the trees of action can be so bright ... as if explanations ever really explained. How much responsibility is eluded or camouflaged or given an improved meaning?

Worth remembering, I suspect:

I did it on purpose.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Not for the 'authentically' inclined:

albino snakes swamp Canary Islands

Pet snakes have led to big problems in the Canary Islands, quite literally: Biologists say an albino variety of California kingsnake, bred in captivity in San Diego, is now obliterating native animal populations after some of the snakes came to the islands as pets and escaped.


And suddenly, like pimples on a teenager's face, it's spring.

Daffodils, forsythia, crocuses, clumps of new-green grass, and everywhere budding leaves straining to pop open along naked boughs.

How did that happen?

Beats me.

if it walks like an Israeli duck and quacks like an Israeli duck...

A Palestinian man holds damaged loudspeakers belonging to a mosque after it was demolished by Israeli bulldozers in Khirbet Al-Taweel village near the West Bank City of Nablus April 29, 2014. Israeli forces demolished several structures, including a mosque, in a Palestinian village, the day a deadline for a deal in now-frozen peace talks expired. A Reuters correspondent witnessed several hundred soldiers deployed in Khirbet al-Taweel, in the occupied West Bank, around daybreak. They guarded six bulldozers that reduced to rubble buildings that were constructed without Israeli permits. Palestinians say such documents are nearly impossible to obtain.
REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday he had chosen the wrong word in describing Israel's potential future after coming under withering criticism for saying the Jewish state could become an "apartheid state" if it doesn't reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.
I don't for a moment believe that the Palestinian outlook or actions are filled with nothing but sweetness and light, but there is something galling about a United States that waffles and wobbles and cannot call a spade a spade as it seeks to keep a foothold in an oil-rich part of the world. Once, the United States was called a "beacon of democracy" in the world. Perhaps it still is. But what sort of democracy is it that is willing to write off those who have been written off? Didn't/don't we do that with blacks, with gays, with women? What sort of democracy is it that cannot take a stand when called upon by the truth to do so? I don't know about anyone else, but I prefer to trust that which proves itself trustworthy.

If it walks like an Israeli duck and quacks like an Israeli duck ....

Hell-o, apartheid!

And then of course there are the 14,000 new Israeli houses planned ....

Monday, April 28, 2014

4 in 5 graduate high school

WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. public high schools have reached a milestone, an 80 percent graduation rate. Yet that still means 1 of every 5 students walks away without a diploma.
My only question is, can they read, can they write, can they add, subtract, multiply and divide, and, can they think?

"Cloud Atlas"

I can see why the 172-minute, 2012 movie "Cloud Atlas" split the critics and was nominated both for several "Best" and "Worst" film lists. To praise the movie runs the risk of describing "delicious," which no one can do. To damn it runs the risk of carping like some thin-gruel Republican who is so bereft of ideas that he can only attack someone else's.

I think "Cloud Atlas" is probably the best movie I have seen in 20 or more years ... but I'm not sure. I do know that it lingers amorphously in my mind after watching it last night. Trying to say what I remember and why I liked it is ... somehow weird. The effect is something like entering a room where the incense has burned out: Something is there but where or what it is defies description.

I do know: 1. That the only reason I know the movie was long is that I realized my ass hurt after I got up. Most long movies are long because their creators do not have an honest handle on their material and the best they can do is win Oscars. "Cloud Atlas" held my attention even if I couldn't say exactly what I was attending to. 2. It was visually pleasing. 3. It had the kind of balls that movie makers seldom bring to their works ... a daring of imagination and conception that makes me think I will not watch another movie soon because to do so would leave the new movie paling by imaginative contrast... "another Oscar winner: how drab." 3. That the movie dared to attempt life as it really is without any particular fuss or fireworks ... the places where magic intersects with whatever is not magic; the interconnectedness of all things before any smarm-master got his hands on "the interconnectedness of all things." 4. That I felt as if I were floating in a slow-moving stream of chocolate mousse: Time and sequence were of no consequence ... it was just floating and everywhere was delicious. 5. That the movie was good enough so that saying it had stars (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry) made exactly zero's worth of difference. 6. That the movie was not perfectly-realized in all of its segments, but that simply did not matter. 7. That I will probably buy the movie, assuming it is not too wildly expensive. And when it comes, I will put it on the shelf next to "Brazil," not because "Cloud Atlas" is as darkly apt as "Brazil," but because "Cloud Atlas" has a courage of imagination that is similar.

Maybe, as I know I will, I should watch the movie again. Then, perhaps, I'll have something more coherent to say.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

human stuff photos

A Free Syrian Army fighter stands by a hole in the wall in Ramouse, Aleppo, April 26, 2014.
REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Prospectors work at the open-pit Djoubissi gold mine, Central African Republic, April 24, 2014.
REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun
A nun prays near a portrait of Pope John Paul II at a church in Rome, April 26, 2014.
REUTERS/Max Rossi [Popes John Paul II and John XXIII were declared to be saints today.]

oversight of Calfornia's water

Those old enough to remember the movie "Chinatown" or recall Mark Twain's observation that "whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting" may take some interest in the Reuters story that tries to dissect the agencies and problems involved in providing water to a drought-stricken California.

It sounds as if there were plenty of room for corruption, big bucks and higher prices for those who depend on California produce.

"Noah of Arc and his wife, Joan..."

Passed along in email today (a day on which two brand new saints were created) was a NYTimes column by Nicholas Kristof. If nothing else -- and I think there is more that is worth considering -- the lead is worth the price of admission.
WITH Easter and Passover freshly behind us, let’s test your knowledge of the Bible. How many mistakes can you find:
Noah of Arc and his wife, Joan, build a boat to survive a great flood. Moses climbs Mount Cyanide and receives 10 enumerated commandments; for all the differences among religious denominations, the Ten Commandments are a common bedrock that Jews, Catholics and Protestants agree on.
Sodom and his wild girlfriend, Gomorrah, soon set the standard for what not to do. They are turned to pillars of salt.
The Virgin Mary, a young Christian woman, conceives Jesus immaculately and gives birth to him in a Jerusalem manger. Jesus, backed by the Twelve Apostles and their wives, the Epistles, proclaims what we call the Golden Rule: “Do one to others before they do one to you.” The Romans repeatedly crucify Jesus — at Cavalry, Golgotha and other sites — but he resurrects himself each time.
Christianity spreads through the gospels, which differ on details but all provide eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s life from birth to death. Finally, Rome tires of throwing Christians to lions and becomes the first country to adopt Christianity as its religion. The Bible is translated from the original English into countless languages.
So how many errors did you spot? There are about 20 mistakes, which I’ve listed at the end of this column, and they reflect the general muddling in our society about religious knowledge.

alphabetical exercise

Anyone who has got or dealt with kids knows the lines by heart: "I understand," "I get it."

The lines are laced with "let's move on" and/or "I've got more important fish to fry." And the reason anyone would know the lines so well is that they too have been kids and they too have employed the same words.

Kids, d'oh, are not alone ... adults are equally, if sometimes more subtly, impatient: My life is too important and complex and wisely-woven to linger and wonder if I actually do understand or get it.

OK ... everyone understands right up to the moment they no longer understand. It's no big deal, though it can be painful.

I was thinking about how marvelously endowed any human life might be when a 26-word experiment came to mind. It's just 26 words after all -- not enough to require much in a life full of importance and complexity and wise weavings.

On a piece of paper, write down one human capacity for each letter of the alphabet: Adoring, Berating, Cuddling, Dodging, Examining, Fulminating, Gorging, Hosting, Investing, Jiggling, Kissing, Lying, Molding, Notifying, Operating, Parenting, Quoting, Rectifying, Sanctifying, Testing, Undoing, Vouching, Withdrawing, X-raying, Yodeling, Zooming.Twenty-six words -- it should take less than a minute.

What a wonderful set of capacities. And yet ... and yet ... for every word that begins with a particular letter, there are tens if not hundreds of other choices that could just as easily have been made. And each of those other choices would be equally descriptive and equally applicable in the human tapestry. It really is pretty astounding how many capacities any important, complex and wisely-woven life might display. The Library of Congress is small potatoes by comparison.

Let's face it -- everyone is humongously endowed and loaded for bear! Is it any wonder that the impatience thermometer would rise and the self-affirming "I understand" zip off the tongue when so much is already "understood?"

Twenty-six words, twenty-six-thousand words, twenty-six-million words ... what a bankroll of possibilities!

But without making some gluey or professional thesis out of it, did you ever wonder who it was who was capable of all this marvelous and sometimes unnerving stuff? Seriously, this stuff rises up more easily than falling out of bed ... scads and scads of stuff ... no sweat ... I understand ... but what repository is it that makes it all possible? Aside from anything else, how does it all fit? -- talk about ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag! What repository is big enough...? Philosophy can't answer, religion can't answer, psychology can't answer and whatever-all-else can't answer because each of these is just another capacity .... rising up from ... from ... from ... I wonder where.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

distances come, distances gone

Once fleet upon the woodland path,
Now dozing on the sunny porch --
What distances we have come, my lord,
And what distances have we gone!

Distances come,
Distances gone --
What distances?

"The Heavenly Alarming Female"

A friendly email took note today of an earlier post here about laughter among the spiritual luminaries. The sender included a link to Ame-no-Uzume-no-mikoto, who "is the goddess of dawn, mirth and revelry in the Shinto religion."

Truth to tell, the mythology surrounding this deity didn't interest me much. But I fell ass-over-appetite in love with the description:
The Heavenly Alarming Female
 How I wish I had thought of that and all the deliciousness it conveys!

physics and personality

Passed along in email:


Is there -- I really don't know -- any reference in whatever literature or holy text to a spiritual luminary's laughing?

Does it say, somewhere, "and God laughed" or "Jesus laughed" or "Mohammed laughed" or "Gautama laughed" or "Zoroaster laughed" or "Vishnu laughed" or "pick-your-fave laughed?"

I literally don't know. But if there is no such reference or attribution, I wonder why not. Is laughter some lesser delight, some lesser understanding, some lesser attribute and if so, how so?

Can you really trust a man or entity who doesn't laugh? Can you trust a man who does?

I don't know.

the searing flames of heaven

Hopping up imp-fashion onto my mental table:

I would rather burn in hell than be caught pimping for some soothing heaven.

Though I wasn't consciously thinking of him, maybe this harks back to the Zen teacher Ta Hui who once said approximately, "I have always taken a great vow that I would rather suffer the fires of hell for all eternity than to portray Zen as a human emotion."

I'm not trying to hitch my look-ma! wagon to Ta Hui, whom I admire. Ta Hui had in mind whatever he had in mind. I have in mind what I have. Who the hell knows whether we'd agree or not?

reasoning with armadillos

There is no reasoning with armadillos or daisies.

If you doubt this, just try it.

And perhaps the same might be said for human beings, no matter how heart-felt the encomiums for man's "rational nature" or "ability to reason." No matter how sweetly-reasoned, still there is the armadillo factor. Sometimes I think it is strange how unreasonable reasonable people can be about the power and capacity of reasoning.

Last night, I was gabbing on the phone with Michael. The two of us got off on our lives and reasonings prior to joining the military. Michael went into combat but I did not. Nevertheless, our youthful hopes and doubts before joining up were pretty similar.

My experience was this: As a freshman in college, I successfully pleaded "conscientious objector" to the obligatory Reserve Officer Training Corps classes on campus. I wasn't religious and I don't remember what arguments I made that convinced the colonel to whom I made them. Maybe he just figured that an objector would not be good for corps morale ... or that I was another one of those assholes. I don't know. Whatever the colonel's reasons, I was off the ROTC hook.

Two years later, I signed on the bottom line and became a member of the U.S. Army. I was 20. The national draft was in effect so you either had to go or run away to Canada or get pregnant or have a politically and financially well-positioned parent. I wasn't looking for an out.

My father, who had been too young for World War I and too old for World War II and who had a Ph.D. and taught college courses, was aghast at my decision. I was, as he told a friend, "a fairly intelligent young man." How could a fairly intelligent young man make so unintelligent a decision?!

I considered his disapproval. I considered my previous pleas for conscientious objector status. Was I just some nitwit hypocrite who changed his principles at the drop of a hat? I thought about it quite a lot and what it finally came down to resonates with me to this day:

"I would rather have the experience than the virtue."

Right or wrong, intelligent or stupid, there it was, out in the open -- the armadillo factor.

An armadillo is just an armadillo. A 20-year-old is just a 20-year-old. A 20-year-old might long not to be thought of as an ignoramus, but also there is some bit of hard-wiring that knows experience makes a credible and effective adult. Talking the talk was good, but walking the walk was ... well ... adult. Good experience, bad experience, sound experience, unsound experience, wise experience, unwise experience ... experience which was so sorely lacking at 20 needed to be improved, widened ... even at the expense of making a vast mistake. Philosophy and morality without experience ... well, who hasn't heard the hollow-drum resonances of those who can parrot virtue -- or even make symphonies around it -- but can't find their own ass with both hands?

Experience never turns out to be what was envisioned. No one can see into the future and so the future is always a surprise. And the notion that experience is the sole arbiter of a credible human existence is as screwy as the notion that reason alone can light the way or mold a backbone. But I sympathize with the young man I was -- stupid as a box of rocks, perhaps -- who set out, daisy-fashion, to be whatever daisy happened to evolve.

Thinking -- ad nauseam -- about all this doesn't change my abhorrence of a war I never experienced, for example. I can find no fault in my father's attempts to dissuade me from joining the military. But I think life is eased somewhat to think that others set out to find experience because that's what daisies, armadillos and people do. Whatever the dangers and whatever the delights, that's just what happens.

Santayana's suggestion that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" is too smug by half: Of course the mistakes of the past will be repeated. Why? Because the past of the wise and wizened is not the past of the bright daisies of the present. There is no transmitting of experience except among the deluded. The wise and wizened may be 100% right, but, armadillos are armadillos, daisies are daisies and people are people.

I may pray like fury that my children will not make the mistakes I have, but my prayers and a couple of bucks will get me a bus ride. There's no reasoning with armadillos or daisies.

Friday, April 25, 2014

hamster-sized deer born

A baby Java mouse-deer - one of the smallest hoofed animals in the world - has been born at a zoo in southern Spain.

teasing the dog

Passed along in email:

salved by Grace

The topic was hell, but the setting was heaven.

There were perhaps 50 people who gathered at Forbes Library here in Northampton (USA) last night to hear four speakers detail various aspects of the "moral injuries" suffered by combat war veterans. I went partly because I said I would and partly because it is a subject I find touching -- the post-combat horrors that veterans can suffer from ... remembering, remembering, remembering and being shredded in those memories. How in God's name do you unthink a purple cow?!

Most of the people in the room had grey or white hair. Most were white. Many had been in combat and yet in this impeccably-kept room, they were smooth ... as if they had never been to hell. All seemed to be wearing the upscale shoes that betoken both comfort and money. The talks given were restrained and coherent and well-modulated and depicted horror as if horror could be depicted.

I found it informative and exhausting. On and on it went: Beginning at seven, there was a break at around nine, when I made my escape. I felt as if someone had given me a bath in a tub full of Brillo.

The speakers' entry points varied, but the topic was the same -- men and women, gone to war, fighting a war, surviving a war and coming home to find themselves alone -- alone-r perhaps than they had ever been -- with a past that refused to be defused. Did anyone deserve such treatment? The question is ludicrous and somewhat arrogant: Whether anyone deserved it or not hardly mattered in the face of the fact that this is the treatment life had meted out. Fuck the what-ifs, this was a world of what-is.

It all kind of blurred together in my mind, no one speaker making a point that burned extra-bright, each making points that glowed like perfectly-pitched briquettes on a barbecue ... hot and glowing and waiting to cook the hotdogs and hamburgers. It blurred in my mind -- hellish, inescapable and glowing.

For respite, I assessed the room. A room chock-a-block with what I took to be WASPs. They were all well-intentioned, I imagined ... why else would they have come to such a meeting? And the room somehow fit the audience it contained ... an immaculate paint job done with muted contrasts of muted paint colors ... beige, grey-green, like that. As a former house painter I could appreciate the care and money that had gone into that room. High ceilings. Paintings and other artifacts of the past scattered with a careless care here and there: An old roll-top desk in oak; a landscape painting eight feet up on one wall; glass cases with papers and other save-worthy stuff in them ... and everything clean, clean,

Above the table where the four speakers awaited the call to duty, there were two almost-life-sized portraits -- one of former President Calvin Coolidge, who had once lived here and had the thin-lipped seriousness of a man you would never go to for a hug -- and his wife, Grace. And it was the portrait of Grace that somehow grabbed my attention and offered a refuge from the hellish heaven I found myself in.

Before the meeting, I overheard a man sitting next to me say to his companions that the two portraits reminded him of "Downton Abbey," the public television series about the ups and downs of a well-heeled family in Edwardian England. I injected myself in the conversation, saying I agreed ... the paintings did feel like "Downton Abbey" and the WASP-y inhabitants of that deliciously-dressed fiction.

"They always scared the crap out of me," I added.

The man turned to me in surprise. "I always find them comforting," he replied.

Both of us, to greater and lesser degrees, turned out to have a lineage that harked back to that era when the well-off lived studied and proper lives. My companion was comforted by the principled world in which social mores were understood and adhered to. I, by contrast, found the era's perfected politesse insidiously cruel and demeaning to the human spirit. I suppose it was a glass-half-full-glass-half-empty exchange to some extent.

But through it all, I kept my eye on Grace as depicted in her stately portrait.

"Did you notice her knees?" I asked my companion.

"No," he replied. "What about them?"

"They're parted beneath her dress. Not exactly the prim posture of a lady of the times."

"Oh yes. I see," he said. "I wonder if the painter didn't get it wrong."

I had been delighted to think that perhaps the painter had got things exactly right and that there was more to Grace than "Downton Abbey." But my chum saw the ill-befitting posture as an anomaly ... one that probably had not existed in real life... the kind of real life revealed in Calvin's oh-so-tightly-pressed lips.

Grace and Calvin presided over last night's meeting. The speakers doled out the Brillo that scraped my skin within ... a hellish Chinese water torture which, even at third-hand, I could only take so much of. I listened to the speakers and ran out of tears and took refuge in Grace.

I don't suppose that speaks well of my patience and fortitude and willingness to enter the hell that burns so brightly before any heaven can be achieved. But I am old and it was a time of day I generally reserve for couch-potato inanities.

Perhaps it was just past my bedtime.

Spreading your legs for heaven; spreading your legs for hell -- was that it? I don't know.

I do know that I despair of the horror.

But I felt somehow salved by Grace.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

a little wit in the American oligarchy

The following letter appeared in today's local paper:
To the editor:

I’m not ordinarily one of those glass-half-full people, but the day after the Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance, I decided to look for a silver lining.

I thought how — if speech is the same as money — I might improve my life, since I’m really good at speaking. So I did a little experiment here in Northampton to find out how that might work in the marketplace.

I went to River Valley Market and filled my shopping cart. At the cash register, I asked the check-out person, “How much speech do I owe you for the contents of this cart?” He looked puzzled. So I explained to him that the Supreme Court has established that money is speech and that there’s no limit to the amount of speech I can spend wherever I want to spend it. He called the manager, who informed me that the food co-op doesn’t accept speech for the purchase of food.

I’m not ordinarily the sort of person who gives up easily, so I went to Stop & Shop and tried the experiment again. The same thing happened. Undeterred, I visited Serio’s and tried again. It seemed that nobody there had heard the news that speech is money.

I wandered down Main Street reciting Shakespeare sonnets, hoping to feel my pockets begin to bulge with some new-found money from all that lovely speech. Nothing happened. I tried to exchange some Tennyson for lunch at Viva Fresh Pasta, but apparently the folks there hadn’t heard the news either. And nobody at the Florence Savings Bank was willing to let me deposit some Keats’ odes, not even for a roll of quarters so I could do my laundry. My experiment failed to convince me or anyone else I spoke to in Northampton that speech is money. Obviously John Roberts understands something we don’t.

Kate Collins

the luxury of morality

A child embraces one of the 107 wooden crosses, which honor victims of recent protests in Ukraine, in Prague April 23, 2014. Pro-Ukrainian activists set up a symbolical graveyard to pay respect to the 107 people that died during Euromaidan protests.
REUTERS/David W Cerny
Two days ago a package addressed to my daughter was left on the porch. The package was perhaps 36x36 inches square and a couple of inches thick. Like all nosy-Parkers, I wondered what it was.

"It's a towel warmer," my daughter informed me matter-of-factly... a belated wedding present for her and her husband.

For those as ignorant as I, a towel warmer is precisely what its name suggests -- a gadget that will warm towels.

As I tried to ingest this brand new piece of information, I confess that a towel warmer sounded as if it belonged somewhere in the neighborhood of the designer-label toilet brush -- at once delicious, arrogant and pathetic in its bid to provide personal definition and station and comfort. Still, I suppose I am the owner of similar luxury items -- items I do not regard as luxuries at all ... comforting stuff.

Tonight, assuming I don't drop dead between now and then, I will attend a gathering/forum at which the topic will be the "moral injury" suffered by combat war veterans. And that's where the towel warmer kicked in in my mind: What a luxury morality is -- a comforting luxury... a designer-label toilet brush in one sense.

Some may say that morality is "what separates man from beast," but I am suspicious of that comforting and self-affirming observation, not least because man is an animal from the get-go. This is not a criticism. It's just a fact. But since human beings seem to enjoy gussying up the facts of their lives, I suppose morality is as good a towel-warmer as any.

A luxury is something that can be seen as frivolous and self-indulgent. It can also be seen as a blessing not to be ignored. As I gear up for the meeting tonight, I think morality falls into both categories.

Tonight's subject matter is the interior wounds suffered by men and women who have been in combat situations ... i.e. situations top-heavy with the matter of survival. Where survival is at play, morality becomes a towel-warmer to any save those who are disproportionately convinced in their self-affirmations: Mortal danger may make anyone wish their sense of right and wrong would serve them well, but whether it will or not is a complete crap shoot. Designer labels do not fare well when there is here-and-now work to be done.

There is a sense -- one I certainly would not insist on -- in which men and women who have faced life-and-death moments are lucky. The circumstances force them to do what any fortunate man or woman of good conscience might do at a less compelling speed -- rethink, revise, resee the morality that has been instilled up until that point.

Of the thirty or forty or fifty dictionaries on the Internet, I don't know of one that does not define morality as a social agreement about the nature of good and evil, right and wrong and the like. Each (wo)man grows up instilled with values that oil the social spectrum or, in the same breath, shred that social spectrum. Say "please" and "thank you;" be kind to others; don't steal; don't kill ... etc. etc. Adhering to agree-upon standards makes things a little less unpleasant. Failing to adhere can have painful consequences.

But in the midst of a combat situation, the luxury of morality, however it is parsed, is lost in the heat of the moment and those moments can be shattering. On later reflection, every shred of moral evidence ever ingested is thrown out. This is this. This is not a moment in which the standards set by others come into play. Survival is not for wimps.

In this realm, in the realm of the immediate and dangerous, the castles of morality -- of the agreeable standards that otherwise might guide the footsteps -- crumble. Suddenly a man or woman is no longer a comforted party in the family of man. S/he is an outcast, naked and alone. To say that the hounds of hell surround such a person is not hyperbole. There is no sweet-talking your way out of this one.

Such a situation, repeated over and over in combat, I imagine, can shred the soul... alone within, undefended, wildly uncertain, searching in vain for a life preserver or friend where all the life preservers and friends are suddenly absent. It is horror heaped upon horror. When hope and belief depart, what hope could there possibly be; what belief could possibly survive?

And yet as horrific as it all can be -- and I mean truly horrific -- still this is a world that any man or woman of good conscience must enter. At some point, while not always so terrifying as combat, doesn't each person reach a point where standing on someone else's feet simply is not good enough? Isn't there a need to revisit every building block of morality that ever existed -- to see, as for the first time, whether this is my choice?

Bit by bit and piece by piece, revisiting what was once ingested according to social agreement allows a human being to find his or her own footing. That footing may turn out to be precisely the footing that was ingested so long ago ... but there is a difference: Now this person is standing on his or her own two feet. Now there are no more doubts and no more compromises. Now, what is called "morality" by some, is simply a well-considered choice, one that can be revised as necessary. Now this skin fits the body.

Now there is room to be what a moral (wo)man always was: Happy.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

'moral injuries'

This morning's local paper ran a page-one article about an upcoming gathering at which the "moral injury" suffered by veterans will be addressed.

Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day and some 33 active service members do the same every month. These are people who are clearly hurting in one way or another and combat is probably one of the contributing factors.

I read the article thinking perhaps I might attend, although stirring my stumps is not something I do well. But when I got down to the bottom of the article, I noticed that a bevvy of well-intentioned organizations were supporting the forum ... churches, academics and the like. Was this to be a meeting at which panelists burnished their own brand of morality, offering statements and then conferring on stage, one with the other, while all the time asserting their goodness of heart?

The idea made my teeth itch. Talking heads are a dime a dozen. But where there is blood on the sand, there is something unduly self-serving and feckless about it. From where I sit, death is no sort of reliable premise for horrified discussion: A (wo)man clearly has the right to commit suicide, whatever the commentary others might make.

And "morality" (or, as one Internet dictionary describes it, "a system of principles concerning right and wrong behavior that is accepted by a particular group of people") is largely a luxury item when it is confronted by the matter of individual survival. Principles are fine right up to the moment when principles don't work. Social agreement reaches only so far.

I am not for suicide or against morality, but when it comes to individual wounds -- some of them incredibly searing -- I prefer discussion that finds legitimacy everywhere, a realm in which all the doors are open, an arena in which "yes" and "no" are only as valid as the man or woman speaking such words. Isn't it only from such starting points that real wounds can be addressed?

Oh well ... I emailed the organizer of the panel to ask what the format would be. If I want talking heads, well-intentioned or otherwise, I can turn on the TV. Stirring my stumps takes more energy these days than I often have.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

deactivating activism

Passed along in email was this NYTimes long-ish, interesting and possibly repugnant take on the woes of the world.

Directive 119

It seems clear from the promulgation of Intelligence Community Directive 119 that U.S. secrecy has been wounded by the likes of Edward Snowden. It also seems to make clear that secrecy trumps transparency in a country whose politicians can trumpet transparency and whose citizens might claim to approve it.

I haven't got the energy to point out how the gag order called Directive 119 greases the skids of an increasingly authoritarian nation like the one I live in, but here is a blog post that does the work and leads with the words:
The nation’s top spy has prohibited all of his spies from talking with reporters about “intelligence-related information” unless officially authorized to speak. Intelligence Community Directive 119, signed by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper last month and made public Monday in a report by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, threatens to reduce the flow of information from the national security establishment to the press — and hence the public.

a sound spiritual investment strategy

In search for a perpetual motion machine, Blaise Pascal introduced an early roulette wheel to the 17th century.
-- In the realm of religion or spiritual life, Blaise Pascal's "wager" strikes me as having a kind of straight-forward earthiness that any high-school dropout could understand. True, there are any number of rebuttals and criticisms and philosophical counter-points, but as a suggestion or invitation, the wager is instantly comprehensible to refined and unrefined minds alike.

Roughly speaking, Pascal, a 17th century mathematician and philosopher, posited that a rational man should live his life as if God existed. If God did exist, the payback would be enormous, and if God did not, the sacrifice would be minimal and the ethical lifestyle would be socially acceptable and, conceivably, benevolent.

It is the format of the argument that I find canny. Whether in the realm of the spiritual or any other, isn't this a format that is universally understood? Risk and reward; investment and return; effort and payback? Individuals choose what to spend their treasure on ... and they would prefer not to get screwed as a result. Stock market, marriage, war, spiritual life -- isn't the format in play? I think it is.

It is easy enough to find spiritual persuasions that will pooh-pooh a quid-pro-quo approach to spiritual adventure, but once they stop all the delicate dancing, the individual who is theoretically the beneficiary of spiritual effort is pretty much back to square-one, however impassioned the denials: An investment in time, effort, tears, laughter, money and whatever all else has got to lead to something, doesn't it?

Some are content to build vast institutions, create socially-viable group hugs, dispense arcane wisdom in lovely settings, memorize hectares of text, conjure lineages that enfold past, present and future ... you know, the usual stuff. It may all have some wonderful effects or, equally, it can have a screaming and violated downside. But the individual -- the man or woman looking to ease things a bit -- may finally feel the lash of what is essentially bereft: Just because someone or something else is happy or at peace doesn't mean that you are.

I see nothing wrong with a sound spiritual investment strategy. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Zoroastrian, whatever ... Pascal was on to something. But I do think that over time, if that strategy does not lose its "for," then it leaves its participants bereft. This is not something to force. It is just something that I think needs to happen. Payback and payoff may be good inspiration and good encouragement, but as long as a sound spiritual investment strategy is "for" something, then to that extent it has failed. I am not sure how or why this is so, I just think it is.

And other idsies and oddsies this morning:

-- There's nothing wrong with ego that a little practice couldn't fix.

-- Speaking well of the dead is a bit uppity when you consider that they have no way of defending themselves.

-- I don't like excusing my behavior according to the behavior of others, but there is something cozy about belonging to a recognizable group ... in this case, the suggestion that people passed into a "grumpy" realm at about age 70.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Patriots' Day

A sparkly Patriots' Day here in Massachusetts. It promises to be as toasty as, well, toast, and the Boston Marathon, which is rife with remembrances of last year's bombing, will see good conditions and a patriotic increase in the amount of security provided.

The day commemorates the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 and the valor of those who participated.

It's not quite clear to me why a latter-day patriotism would not include a serious investigation into the root causes of the bombs that killed three and injured 264 during last year's marathon race. I guess, as with the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings, it is easier to raise the flag and wave it than it is to consider what that flag might actually stand for.

Things today seem to be a bit muddled.

Yesterday, a nice young man came and offered his teaching in the zendo and we had a nice gab later in the sunshine that spilled onto the deck. This morning I sent a note to my older son saying I thought it was better if I didn't attend his college graduation next month: On the one hand, I would love to honor his hard work and accomplishment by being there; on the other, I do not want my slowness to hamper the family excitement that will invest the event. As I wrote to him, "Old age has its drawbacks. I advise you not to get old. :)" How I dislike conceding what cannot be avoided!

At the Vatican, the current pope, Francis, is preparing (next Sunday) to make a saint out of one of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II, a man politely said to have been unaware of the priest sexual abuse that oozed out from under Vatican skirts during his reign. Absolving any pope of such malfeasance is a pretty tough sell since the pope is CEO of the wealthiest corporation in the world. Like it or not, the plaque that former U.S. President Harry S. Truman had on his desk obtains: "The buck stops here." Perhaps the broad brush of saintliness is a little like the broad brush of patriotism ... just wink and nod and enjoy the sunshine.

The latest delay (Friday) in the construction of the Keystone pipeline that would transport oil from Alberta in Canada to the Gulf Coast in the United States is a political assist for Democrats seeking election later this year. The vocal environmentalists who oppose(d) the project were crucial to President Obama's re-election in 2012 and it would not do to alienate such a group. At least not until after the elections in November.

Nothing much going on ... no hot button topics in mind. Guess I'll eat breakfast.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Zen instruction

When I once asked him what his view of giving instruction in Zen was, a teacher replied, "I tell them 80 per cent and let them find out 20."

I thought about that in the years that followed and now find my own view somewhat different: "Tell them 100 per cent and let them find out 100."

I simply don't see any other choice that is honest.

ladies, watch your ass!

The demand for bigger buttocks in Venezuela means some women will even have banned injections to achieve them, putting their health at risk.

wussing out

At a time when I worked as a newspaper reporter and later as a 'concerned citizen,' I was stronger about the evil shit that lurks behind socially-acceptable facades. I felt responsible and subsequently outraged by the depredations that are real, as for example in the systemic Vatican abuses of little children or the casual, money-making bloodshed that men wearing gold cufflinks can and do inflict. The vileness needs to be addressed and revised if possible.

But with age I have grown weak and thereby, perhaps, immoral. I decline with increasing frequency the opportunity to enter into grisly realities. It's depressing. I do hope that others will take up the moral baton, speak out and act up, but I no longer have what it takes. I'm not proud of it and I hate being in a position where I might rightly be accused of playing the ostrich. Still, the ostrich imagines he is safe by sticking his head in the sand. That is one illusion I don't particularly have ... but I feel a bit like an ostrich: If I don't look, I don't have to be depressed by the resounding sense of helplessness.

Yesterday, I friend emailed me an hour's worth of Youtube depictions of police brutality (I can't seem to make it begin at the beginning) ... mindless, cruel, self-serving and not at all a defense of a public that sometimes needs police protection. I watched it and, assuming it has some basis in fact, felt as if I had been lowered into a cesspool. When I email-responded that I found it depressing, he sent me "more" -- a broader look at the frightening intrusiveness of government under the banner of patriotism. And then again more ... which I decided not to watch.

I can still be grouchy as a wet cat when I hear pollyanna renditions of spiritual or political life, but it seems that I too might pass for a pollyanna. Frankly, I am getting old enough to care less about what anyone calls me. I don't like living in garbage and, to the extent that I can avoid that situation, I will.

As I say, I do hope others have more energy.

Yesterday, I built a chocolate-on-chocolate cake. It turned out pretty well.


Happy Easter!

Another resurrection.

Today, as before, I return to former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins' off-hand -- or was it a carefully crafted? -- remark that "meeting your favorite author is one of life's most reliable disappointments."

Whether he thought the remark was as obvious as saying "honey is sweet" or whether he hoped to puncture the grasping ignorance of lovingly-inflated balloons hardly seems to matter. What's true is true irrespective of self-serving intent.

In my mind today, the remark is like a pebble dropped into some still pond, with ripples spreading outward in perfectly round, perfectly smooth echoes. There is no messing with such perfection. Is that beautiful or what?!

"Meeting your favorite author is one of life's most reliable disappointments." The ripples moving outward in my mind suggest removing the word "author."

"Meeting your favorite __________ is one of life's most reliable disappointments."

Favorite person.
Favorite food.
Favorite philosophy or religion.
Favorite shoes.
Favorite situation.
Favorite place.
Favorite activity.
Favorite wisdom.
Favorite music.
Favorite crucifixion.
Favorite resurrection.
Favorite favorite....

The deft and determined may swiftly deduce that eradicating favorites is the most sensible course when trying to sidestep disappointment. Religions and philosophies may require endless hours in such a fruitless quest... and in the meantime, the one attempting the feat exudes a kind of dour and gloomy serenity that smells more like skunk cabbage than it does like serenity. How could anyone possibly enjoy things when they were so busy making sure they did not enjoy anything for fear of the resulting disappointment? Assholes and facile pessimists adore this realm and church donations mount up.

The only key I can see to the lock that disappointment can be is attention. No one ever escaped hell by damning it any more than anyone ever attained heaven by praising it.

Favorites are favorites: Attention.
Disappointments are disappointments: Attention.

When it comes to enjoying the life that anyone might rightly wish to enjoy, I simply cannot think of another workable option. It may take some effort and it may seem unbearably slow in yielding results, but still I cannot see another option.

No more distances: When dancing, dance; when weeping, weep: God, I do love it so! God, it is unbearably disappointing!

No more distances.

No more disappointments.

My favorite disappointment.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Passed along in email:


The New York City Public Schools have officially declared Jewish English, now dubbed Hebronics, as a second language. Backers of the move say the city schools are the first in the nation to recognize Hebronics as a valid language and a significant attribute of American culture.
According to Howard Ashland, linguistics professor at Brooklyn College and renowned Hebronics scholar, the sentence structure of Hebronics derives from middle and eastern European language patterns, as well as Yiddish.
Professor Shulman explains,
'In Hebronics, the response to any question is usually another question with a complaint that is either implied or stated.
Thus 'How are you?' may be answered, 'How should I be, with my bad feet?' '
Shulman says that Hebronics is a superb linguistic vehicle for expressing sarcasm or scepticism. An example is the repetition of a word with 'sh' or 'shm' at the beginning: 'Mountains, shmountains. Stay away. You should want a nosebleed?'
Another Hebronics pattern is moving the subject of a sentence to the end, with its pronoun at the beginning: 'It's beautiful, that dress.'
Shulman says one also sees the Hebronics verb moved to the end of the sentence. Thus the response to a remark such as 'He's slow as a turtle,' could be: 'Turtle, shmurtle! Like a fly in Vaseline he walks.'
Shulman provided the following examples from his best-selling textbook, Switched-On Hebronics:
Question: 'What time is it?'
English answer: 'Sorry, I don't know.'
Hebronic response: 'What am I, a clock?'
Remark: 'I hope things turn out okay.'
English answer: 'Thanks.'
Hebronic response: 'I should be so lucky!'
Remark: 'Hurry up. Dinner's ready.'
English answer: 'Be right there.'
Hebronic response: 'Alright already, I'm coming.
What's with the 'hurry' business? Is there a fire?'
Remark: 'I like the tie you gave me; I wear it all the t ime.'
English answer: 'Glad you like it.'
Hebronic response: 'So what's the matter; you don't like the other ties I gave you?'
Remark: 'Sarah and I are engaged.'
English answer: 'Congratulations!'
Hebronic response: 'She could stand to lose a few pounds.'
Question: 'Would you like to go riding with us?'
English answer: 'Just say when.'
Hebronic response: 'Riding, shmiding! Do I look like a cowboy?'
To the guest of honor at a birthday party:
English answer: 'Happy birthday'
Hebronic response: 'A year smarter you should become.'
Remark: 'It's a beautiful day.'
English answer: 'Sure is.'
Hebronic response: 'So the sun is out; what else is new?'
Answering a phone call from a son:
English answer: 'It's been a while since you called.'
Hebronic response: 'You didn't wonder if I'm dead already?'
Email, shmemail! Luck and happiness will or will not come to you regardless if you send it to another eight people!

girl, 13, proves skill as eagle huntress

Most children, Asher Svidensky says, are a little intimidated by golden eagles. Kazakh boys in western Mongolia start learning how to use the huge birds to hunt for foxes and hares at the age of 13, when the eagles sit heavily on their undeveloped arms. Svidensky, a photographer and travel writer, shot five boys learning the skill as well as the girl, Ashol-Pan. "To see her with the eagle was amazing," he recalls. "She was a lot more comfortable with it, a lot more powerful with it and a lot more at ease with it."
The eagles are not bred in captivity, but taken from nests at a young age. Female eaglets are chosen since they grow to a larger size - a large adult might be as heavy as seven kilos, with a wingspan of over 230cm. After years of service, on a spring morning, a hunter releases his mature eagle a final time, leaving a butchered sheep on the mountain as a farewell present. "That's how the Kazakh eagle hunters make sure that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for the sake of future generations," Svidensky says.

hobble and limp

A few minutes ago, I deleted a response to an earlier post entitled "team player." I deleted it, as much as anything because it seemed to be little more than a springboard for someone calling himself "Steve Finnell" to promote his blog.

It wasn't a malevolent post and generally I am inclined to let responses slide as long as they don't segue into some passive-aggressive self-aggrandizement.

But the response triggered in me a growing recognition that at the same time I am willing to honor the (wo)man who makes an argument, I am increasingly disinclined to honor an argument that relies for its lifeblood on the words of others.

"Steve Finnell's" remarks began with a capitalized title, "INCLUSIVE SALVATION." Snippets that I believe fairly represent the direction and tenor of the complete remarks included:
Who are those who are included in salvation?...
What did Peter preach?
1. Peter preached that Jesus was a miracle worker. (Acts 2:22)
2. Peter preached that Jesus was resurrected from the dead by God the Father.(Acts 2:24-35)
3. Peter preached that Jesus was both Lord and Christ.(Acts 2:36)
When the three thousand believe Peter, they asked "What shall we do?"(Acts 2:37)
4. Peter told them to repent and be baptized in order to have their sins forgiven.(Acts 2:38)
I do not doubt for a minute that Steve Finnell wholeheartedly believes in the argument he is making. I've heard Buddhists run similarly-based disquisitions... that the text proves my point... and by extension, I am a broad-minded and loving person. It is as if the person making the argument has so little faith in his own argument that he needs a supporting chorus and that without that chorus he might be dead in the water.

Lately, my response to this crutch-supported direction is increasingly, "Tough titty! Grow a pair! It may be that no one in the world will agree with you or give a shit what you say. Big deal! Just be honest about what you believe (eg. the Bible) and tell me what YOU think. I may agree or disagree. I may think you are more full of shit than a Christmas turkey. I may be bored stiff. ... and the same is true of you when I tell you something I think or believe."

But let's cut the crap. Expounding The Truth is just expounding Your Truth .. and that's fine. Maybe true, maybe false ... but in any case fine. Just stop 'proving' it: No one can 'prove' what is already proven -- i.e. you are just you or I am just me. (Buddhists, please put a no-abiding-self sock in it at this point.)

Once upon a time, the Vedanta Hindu Ramakrishna (1836-1886), who was called by some an avatar, instructed a student to place a holy text in a particular room. He instructed that all the doors and windows should be locked. Two days later, he instructed the student to return, unlock the room, and see if anything had changed.

I have considerable sympathy for the Steve Finnell approach to this life. Everyone needs a helping hand from time to time. And God knows I have reached for similar life preservers. But just because you or I need a helping hand is no reason to be so ill-mannered as to lay that need off on someone else or to assume that because a particular text or way of thinking is glorious in my mind, it must, for some reason, be glorious in yours as well. Finnell's argument, for example, rests on the premise that because he credits the Bible, I will too. That's pretty damned presumptuous from where I sit. Even if I agreed with him, it would still be presumptuous. I am willing to credit Steve Finnell. What he thinks and believes is another matter.

OK ... enough growling.

foundation problems

This aerial image provided by Tributary Environmental shows a home damaged by a landslide Friday, April 18, 2014 in Jackson, Wyo. A slow-moving landslide in Jackson sped up significantly Friday, splitting this house in two, causing a huge uplift in a road and a Walgreens parking lot, and threatening to destroy several other unoccupied homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Tributary Environmental)

toying with resurrection

With Easter patiently waiting to pounce tomorrow, it is a time for bunnies that lay chocolate eggs and other religious wonderments ... as for example resurrection.

For tale-telling purposes, I wonder if the Christians didn't get it right, or anyway right with one small exception: What if resurrection were the truth, but Christianity got it backwards?

Resurrection from the dead means that something -- miraculously from the point of view of the living -- came back to life. From the point of view of the living, it's pretty amazing, not to mention desirable since the vast numbers of the living cling to being alive.

But what if this whole scenario were simply backwards and the real miracle were that the living were resurrected in death?

Since human bias and judgment and hope and belief rest largely (if unfortunately) on the agreement of others and since the dead represent and undeniable majority whose truth seems undeniable based on the number of gravestones and lamentations that are accorded to them ... why then should a resurrection into a living format be more miraculous or credible than a resurrection into death, the venue which enjoys a runaway majority of voters?

Is it possible that somewhere, some segment of the majority is digging out gaily-colored frocks and hats decked with flowers and blue suits not worn since last Easter and up in some hastily-erected pulpit a smiling minister to the majority is intoning the re-framed words:

I am the resurrection, and the death: 
He that believeth in me, though he were alive, yet shall he die.
And after the morning service, everyone could have cookies and coffee and the children could race about looking for the chocolate delights left by a benevolent Easter bunny. After which, everyone could return to a less exuberant and more normal state of existence....

A state of existence which might equally wonder if the living didn't get resurrection right.

Building doorways between here and there is akin to Easter bunnies that lay chocolate eggs. It's tasty, perhaps, but it hardly accords with a truthful peace.

'team' players

For those inclined to credit righteous and facile observations like "There is no 'I' in 'team,'" this was passed along in email today:

Friday, April 18, 2014

death of a tale teller

(Reuters) - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian author whose beguiling stories of love and longing brought Latin America to life for millions of readers and put magical realism on the literary map, died on Thursday. He was 87.
A prolific writer who started out as a newspaper reporter, Garcia Marquez's masterpiece was "One Hundred Years of Solitude," a dream-like, dynastic epic that helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

Good Friday

In the Christian world, it's "Good Friday" and, for some, it's a time to agonize prior to Sunday's Easter joyful "resurrection."

In the Philippines, among other places, men had themselves literally nailed to literal crosses today in a Mel-Gibson-esque assertion of sympathy for Jesus, who was likewise said to have been crucified. (Notably, the nails were driven through the palms of the hands, whereas in historic reality, as I understand it, nails were driven between the radius and the ulna of the lower arm to assure that the body would not fall from its perch.)

Christian institutions have deplored the practice of sympathy crucifixions, but it's hard not to think that the impetus for a personal agony does not find its source within the Christianity embodied by those institutions: If you aren't agonizing, how good a Christian could you possibly hope to be?

Nor do I intend to pick on Christians. It just happens to be one of the days they consider remarkable.

To my mind, every spiritual persuasion has a touch of the same spirit: If you aren't suffering, you aren't doing it right; if you aren't dusty and destitute, wracked by poverty and pain, grimacing in the face of life's slings and arrows ... well, you're just playing at things. And it's a short step from that impetus to the elevation of deprivation and dismay ... and self-flagellation, whether mental or physical, takes on a sainted glow. Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" made $580-plus million, so there must have been some agreement about the suffering-is-saintly outlook.

To my mind, serious spiritual endeavor really can be pretty hard and for this reason is in no need of add-on's. There is no need to pierce the flesh or self-flagellate or find a dank cave high in the Himalayas or declare yourself unworthy when, "your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before."

No more does serious spiritual effort require smarmy add-on's ... the everything's-OK-in-the-realm-of-the-lord/absolute stuff.

Sometimes serious spiritual endeavor is as compassionate and cuddly as a warm kitten and sometimes it's as hissing and pissy as a wet cat. That's just the nature of a serious practice: It needs no help from add-on enemies or add-on friends.

Maybe it all boils down to: Any nitwit can have a transcendent experience; it takes a wise (wo)man to correct that mistake.

Here's hoping it's a good Friday for one and all.

insufficient shame

Rattling around in my brain:

Proclamations of heroism and the dispensing of military medals are concomitant with an insufficient public/political capacity to feel shame.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

back to prison, thank God!

Bank surveillance photo
Walter Unbehaun has spent nearly all of his adult life behind bars, so it's not surprising that he faces sentencing Thursday for yet another crime, a bank robbery last year. His reason for robbing the bank is surprising, though: He was homesick for prison.
The 74-year-old high-school dropout and part-time bathtub repairman probably isn't the first long-term convict to find he prefers being barked at by guards to life on the outside, which has its own demands. But living alone and feeling unhappy, Unbehaun decided to change his situation by committing a crime in order to get caught.
The state faces a conundrum: Meting out punishment for what the defendant considers a reward.

old age, sharp mind

Passed along in email:

As we slowly move through retirement, we need to keep ourselves occupied with small projects. Like this guy.

I know, I saw it right away too. No safety glasses or hearing protection. And I caught something else that is really important: he has no gloves on.

I am a little older now but still sharp as a tack.


Though not so addictive as when I first watched it in 1983, still it is addictive enough so that I watched several episodes again yesterday -- a British TV serial with the somewhat tinny title, "Reilly, Ace of Spies."

Sidney Reilly (né Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum) was a real man who may have been Britain's greatest spy ever. Exceptionally little is known about him, which gives the TV serial considerable latitude. The TV tale is based on a very poor book with the same title as the series. Reilly is also credited as providing inspiration for the comic-booky-y James Bond adventures.

As depicted on the TV series, Reilly is a magnetic and unscrupulous man operating in an entitled and scrupulously refined world of the early 20th century... a world that is desperate to paper over its own unscrupulousness. Everyone is impeccably dressed (I do love costume dramas) and impeccably well-spoken and impeccably distressed when Reilly crosses the boundaries of perceived decorum: How could that man hope to make money when matters of patriotism were at stake?! Women, perhaps because they are less blinded by the kind of philosophical tom-fooleries men can get up to, throw themselves at Reilly's feet ... decorously, of course.

In describing this series, I do it an injustice. It is rich and layered and stately. It takes the viewer to Baku, to the Sino-Japanese war, to Germany, and of course to bonny England. It is shot through with power plays and cruelty and a sexiness that is the sexier because everyone is so covered-up ... so decorous. Its most astounding assertion is that after the Russian Revolution of 1918, Winston Churchill dispatched Reilly to Russia to rally an anti-Bolshevik constituency which would overthrow the newly-installed revolutionaries and make Russia ... wait for it ... another part of the United Kingdom. Another servant. If true, this certainly fits with the smug assurance of the times -- rule Britannia! -- but the sheer, idiotic balls of it is remarkable. The series suggests Reilly died in that one last adventure.

Tangentially to all of this, it occurred to me that socially and individually, there always seem to be mores -- the socially-acceptable habits that are internalized and expressed and hold out promise for a peaceful and satisfied life. Don't chew with your mouth open; discover and depict a realm of honor; bring up the children you sire; grab what you can while you can; find and exemplify the religion you choose; cut off the thief's hand ... the list goes on and on. Whatever they are, there are mores.

There are mores and, like the British Empire, there is probably an endless scrambling, whether gross or subtle, to elevate these touchstones ... and to paper over failures. A peaceful and satisfied life depends on such mores -- or anyway that's the lesson that's taught.

But of course it doesn't work. There is always a Sidney Reilly knocking at the door. If the adopted mores actually provided a peaceful and satisfied life, why then would this sense of being held back assert itself? Why would the devoted mother or father feel moments of desperate longing to escape the mores that guide the familial trek ... to be in Timbuktu or anywhere else except shepherding these mindless tots? Why would the very opposite of the best-configured more assert itself as a distinct and distinctly free possibility? Is a peaceful and satisfied life constrained or even informed by well-pressed mores? Who does not wish, in idle moments when the mores take a break, to fly?

It may be scary to challenge the mores of a lifetime, but the only thing more scary is NOT challenging them... of leading a dulled and dulling life in which "acceptable" is good enough. Challenge means to investigate. It does not mean dismissing mores like some fractious teenager who feels a rush of joy when uncovering the "hypocrisy" of adults. It means going back to square one and reviewing what everyone else may say is in no need of review. 

It can be grueling work, but the payoff may be worth it -- the discovery of what it is that actually constitutes a peaceful and satisfied life... of what it's like to stop propping up the proper and dismissing the Sidney Reilly impropernesses out of hand.

Mores are a choice, that's all. Nothing special about choices -- they're just choices. But there is some usefulness to assuming responsibility for those choices. Naughty or nice, it's just this life, isn't it? And isn't that a bit more peaceful and satisfying than being peaceful and satisfied according to the accolades or catcalls of others?

PS. And when it comes to keeping 'high' standards, check out Portland, Oregon's decision to empty 38 million gallons of water from a reservoir that some teenager pissed in.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

towel dance

Passed along in email and just for fun:

connecting the connected dots

It hardly requires a rocket scientist to imagine the sort of fear, horror, anger, vulnerability and helplessness that erupted after last year's Boston Marathon bombings. The bombings, which killed three and injured something short of 250 others on April 15, 2013, erupted towards the end of a peaceable gathering. Some were running the race, some cheering them on, and some just watching. There wasn't a mean bone in its body.

And then ... and then ... BOOM!

The confusion and inhumanity of it all were tremendous. It was viscerally detestable and resulted in one of the biggest -- and to some degree most frightening -- manhunts the U.S. has ever seen. Two men, one of them dead, were eventually pinpointed as the perpetrators.

Peaceably going about your business when all of a sudden, BOOM! The visceral and utterly-human revulsion was palpable and did not require the refined sensibilities of a rocket scientist. If the event were to be stamped with a single word, perhaps that word would be "no!"

It was all too vile for speaking, though there was plenty of speaking to follow, as for example the commemorations that occurred yesterday in Boston.

In such a moment, humanity kicks in. Philosophy is sidelined. No one wants to feel this way. It's all too grotesquely stupid and cruel. Anyone knows that.

And yet the anguish that is so simple and so clear and so compelling at the Boston Marathon ... where is it in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iraq? Does this require a rocket scientist? What is the difference between a woman drawing water from a well who is shredded and then casually designated as "collateral damage" and a runner or onlooker in Boston? Is the visceral humanity in Yemen or Libya or Syria really a separate issue? How is it that the dots that are already connected -- viscerally, in a single BOOM -- need connecting?

Or, if 'them foreigners' allow the mind to keep its distance, how about the young men and women -- fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters -- sent out into a viscerally repugnant environment to endure day after day of what in Boston amounts to a clarion "no!"?

Are my tears to be distinguished from the tears shed where the world goes BOOM?

small snowfall

Like a mama lion swatting her too-playful-and-pesky cub, a small snow reminded the early crocuses today that winter might be a thing of the past, but the past is not without its reproving mechanisms.

Not enough to make a decent snowball, perhaps, but still....

A friend in Maine writes that it is coming down gangbusters in his neck of the woods.

monthly newspaper column

Saved here is the column I wrote on healing/closure for the local paper. It appeared today. After a good deal of squirming on my part, I am willing to accept the somewhat squishy revisions applied by the editor ... and happy to have the damned thing out the door.


NORTHAMPTON — Last month’s disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the mudslide that decimated Oso, Wash., brought sorrow and confusion. As quickly as the search for meaning set in, so too did the words “healing” and “closure.”

When retailed in the midst of crisis, these words strike me as uncaring, spoken by people who claim to know more than those grieving. The hope feels thin.

And yet sometimes healing does seem possible.

I first met Michael Erard several years ago after he hooked up with a veterans writing project hosted at the University of Massachusetts. A compact and gentle man at 72, Michael lives with his wife Jeanette in Belchertown.

Michael had been a Vietnam Special Forces medic in 1969-1970 and was trying to come to terms with memories that flooded back after so many years. In Vietnam, he had taken part in events and been to places where the word “horror” had lost its meaning. Thirty-five years later, the horror returned.

Michael had written about one experience and hoped to get help shaping it. The experience centered on his friend Ed, a big, friendly guy who had a serious girlfriend and wanted to be a boxer when he returned to “the world.” Ed caught a bullet in the thigh, not during combat, but during a stand-down in which the men were relaxing, drinking and horsing around.

Michael had done what he could to save Ed’s leg — worked furiously to staunch the wound and then got his friend on a chopper back to the hospital. Three days later he heard that Ed’s leg had been amputated.

Michael became enraged. Enraged beyond rage. Someone had ignored his best efforts to save his friend’s leg. It was as if all of the horror and fear and tension and inhumanity of his world came to roost in a single infuriating event. Someone was going to pay! He caught a helicopter ride back to the hospital and, with dried blood of the battlefield still clinging to his clothes and skin and with his M-16 in one hand and a .45 at his hip, he stormed into the hospital, a place where weapons were not allowed.

In the midst of his search for Ed, a female major barred his path. This nurse put her hand on his chest, got him to drop his weapons and gently but firmly talked him down. She explained that Ed had been shipped out and that it was either Ed’s leg or his life. Then, gently, she put Michael on a chopper back to his base.

Michael’s story didn’t make me weep, but inside I was writhing. I felt as if Michael had held out his heart and asked politely, “Can you fix it for me?” And of course I couldn’t: Life doesn’t work that way.

The story Michael wrote wasn’t the complete account of the blowback that had consumed him. The complete story was more nuanced. After he was discharged from the army in 1970, Michael almost immediately became a physician assistant — a role he pretty much maintained until he retired from Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield in 2006.

But there had been no time to decompress after Vietnam — no time to assimilate the insanely cruel and sometimes insanely loving world to which he had belonged. He had transitioned from merciful angel on the battlefield to merciful angel as a civilian. It was only in retirement that the horrors hidden were unfurled.

Two weeks ago, Michael invited me to lunch. He offered up some scrambled eggs, pinkie-sized sausages, good toast, home-grown raspberries and orange juice. I brought brownies and grapes.

Over lunch, I asked him how he felt today about the incident that had brought us together in the first place.

I listened to Michael, my suspicions about platitudes invoking “healing” found no confirmation. Michael seemed to be at ease. He could call up the memories when he wanted. Sometimes they came back unbidden but they were part of an accepted scenery now. Vietnam was true — no doubt about it — but now he owned the truth and the truth did not own him.

We talked about what had made this healing possible and were left speechless — two old duffers surrendering to phrases like “time heals all wounds” or “it was the grace of God.” Both of us, I think, marveled that a healing had occurred when there were so many others — soldiers, wives, offspring and kin — for whom “healing” and “closure” were just uncaring words.

Does time heal all wounds? Is the grace of God for real? I honestly don’t know. I do know that “closure” in human events still strikes me as a delusion.

But healing?

I can’t say for sure, but I can say what I came to believe over sausages and raspberries.

And my heart soared.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at