Monday, March 31, 2014

athletic prowess

In Asiatic countries as I understand it, local news outlets celebrate the academic achievements of local kids: There is public applause for often-grueling private efforts.

In America, it is youthful athletic prowess that reaps attention as little Johnny or little Suzy gets a media pat on the back not for chemistry or history but for soccer or football.

Last Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University should be free to unionize and exercise collective bargaining rights with the institution that makes so much money from their often-televised expertise.

The battle is far from over, but there is a chink in the armor of institutions which claim sports of whatever popularity are just a part of collegiate activity.

Will other private and perhaps public institutions follow suit? If football players are "employees" rather than simply "students," who knows when or where the next shoe will drop?

Yesterday, a friend passed along an article about the "fake" classes athletic superstars take in order to be academically eligible to run onto the football field. The article makes a substantial case that everyone is in on the scam -- from academic front offices to college dorm rooms.

Lost in the rhubarb of argument seems to be that of all the college athletes who compete for their schools and utilize fake classes in order to keep their grade-averages up, a very minor number will go on to professional careers in sports ... and even when they do, their athletic lifetime is no where near the average human life span. And so, at 30 or 35, what will these people do to live out fulfilling lives? Based on education, they seem suited to absorbing applause and enormous salaries, but otherwise to be left out in the cold when it comes to fulfillment. Yes, I was a star ... and now I can sell Buicks or mop the high school floors. That may be a bit too simplistic, but you get the drift.

There is nothing wrong with selling cars or being a swab-jockey, but isn't there something quite sad about paying $100,000 or more (four years of college) in order to do so? Is this the "education" to which parents want to subject their kids? All the money in the world, all the applause in the world, and you still can't spell properly or thread your way through a tax return? What educator thought up this format?

global warming

"(Reuters) - Global warming poses a growing threat to the health, economic prospects, and food and water sources of billions of people, top scientists said in a report that urges swift action to counter the effects of carbon emissions."

"Here Comes the Sun"

Another day that feels like a sparkling mirror image of The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun:" Here comes the rain. Raw, grey, drop-filled ... sparkling ... here comes the rain.

St. Augustine is quoted as saying, "Love God and do what you will." Leaving aside the religious dust storm that can swirl up in the wake of that suggestion, I wonder how any good man or good woman might exercise what is suggested. I mean, leaving aside all solemnity and earnest posturing, how does that work in perfectly ordinary terms? And the only way I can think of that stands even half a chance is ... stop loving God; let the love of God (by whatever name and in whatever costume) be at peace and drift away like wood smoke. There's no forcing it ... just let it happen and get on with things.

After an-hour-and-a-half smidgen of zazen yesterday, my body aches loudly today. Ouch and ouch again. Here comes the sun.

There's a piece of writing jostling and insistent in my mind today and I want to work on it, so it may be a while before I get back to the party mix of this blog.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

not heroism

A 21-year-old American soldier has flown back from Afghanistan to see if his liver is a match for his dying grandfather in Texas.

Rickey Homer, 62, is dying of liver disease. Ricky Glenn Henderson, 21, is hoping that he can donate 60% of his own liver to his grandfather. Tests will be conducted Wednesday to see if there is a match. If the operation goes forward, Henderson's liver will grow back.

Henderson's mother said she was "so proud" and Homer called Henderson his hero.

But Henderson did not agree:
I don't really see myself as a hero. You do what you do for the ones you love.
Wouldn't it be nice if those keen on proclaiming heroes enhanced their honesty and took their cue from a 21-year-old?

nourishing rain

A friend once wrote from India that she could look out her hut window and literally see the plants grow during the monsoon. It was as if the vegetation had learned, from long experience, to get while the gettin' was good -- that soon enough a blistering sun would withdraw a needed nourishment and they would be bereft.

It's a monsoon-ish sort of day here -- hugely grey with raindrops plop-plopping in the aluminum gutters outside the house. Because it is New England in America, the plants are in no rush to show off their capacities. They know, from long experience, that there will be more where that came from. And if, by chance or global warming or whatever, they are mistaken, well, life will teach them what the plants in India already know.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

photos from Reuters

A boy takes a bath along a pavement in the southern Indian city of Chennai, India, March 22, 2014.
A family member of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 cries on a bus before heading to the Malaysian embassy, outside Lido Hotel in Beijing, March 25, 2014.
REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
An eagle owl fluffs out its feathers as it sits on one foot on a branch in its enclosure at the Grugapark in Essen, Germany, March 26, 2014.
REUTERS/Ina Fassbender
A member of the pro-government "red shirt" movement attacks a Buddhist monk outside the National Anti-Corruption Commission office in Nonthaburi province, on the outskirts of Bangkok, March 24, 2014.
REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom


My daughter has given up bread for Lent. Neither she nor her husband, who grew up Catholic, goes to church that I know of so I am not entirely sure of the basis on which she is making such an effort. Maybe it's just a normal human thing to challenge what otherwise goes unchallenged... to revert to a time when bias and comfort had not yet gained a foothold... what are things like when the footholds disappear -- that sort of thing.

Lent, if I get it correctly, is a forty-day period that precedes Easter on the Christian docket. The forty days leads up to a time when Jesus was crucified (sorrow) and then resurrected (joy). But the forty days themselves refer to the time period when Jesus was said to have wandered in the desert ... alone ... meeting his demons ... before he began ministering to others. It's a little unclear in my head how the desert's time frame relates to Jesus' last-will-and-testament times. I am content not to know and take it as a kindness that no one explains it to me.

I admire my daughter's effort. It is small, but it is huge, as anyone who might attempt to give up bread when there was bread aplenty can attest. Small sacrifices that are huge impress me. Soon enough, come Easter or thereabouts, someone in the Philippines or Mexico will have himself nailed to a literal cross by way of showing devotion. That doesn't impress me as much as giving up bread. It is the little things that linger and suffuse -- the judgments or beliefs or ordinary resting places of any given day ... now that's a challenge and a sacrifice. Mel Gibson's insistence on a bloodied but serene Jesus just distances people from the God they claim to love.

Where Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection don't happen to bang my chimes, the tale of his forty days and forty nights in the desert is compelling in my mind. I don't care if it's true and I don't like listening to the stories claiming to know what he was doing in the desert. I just like the plain-Jane-ness of the notion -- stepping off into a world that doesn't give a shit who you are or what you know and defies every philosophy and religion that ever was... a world that has the potential to eat you alive without a backward glance or even a complimentary burp.

What was Jesus doing in the desert? The plain, flat-ass fact is that no one knows. No ... one ... knows. Interpreters and soothsayers may claim he was meeting his demons, but for all anyone really knows, he was worrying about his stock portfolio or the delights of a Reuben sandwich on a wonderfully-hearty bread. The desert is a place without much water or shade, a place without relief, a place that doesn't burp after it eats you alive.

And yet the desert tempts and somehow taunts. What would it be like to be utterly alone, without handholds or footholds or all the comforts and assumptions that generally paint the daily scene? What would it be like to walk from a land in which "I know" into a place where "I don't know?"

Korean Zen Buddhists may twinkle with delight that their discipline has already incorporated a "don't-know mind," but, when personally facing the desert alone, like Jesus ... well, fuck them! A man or woman who walks to the very fringes of what s/he knows, who stands on the precipice and contemplates one more step ... well, this is no joke. This is for real. This is an arena where no (wo)man has gone before because "I" have not gone there.

In psychology, it is sometimes said that dreams represent what anyone might fear or long for. And the more anyone looks into that proposition, the clearer it becomes that what is feared is what is longed for and what is longed for is what is feared. What might it be like to take that one last step, out of the realm of the known and assured and comfortable and into a place where there is no bread, no comfort, no assumption, no assurance? Isn't this the end of the known world ... the pathway of the known leading further and further until, at last, only the unknown remains? It has nothing to do with religion or philosophy and everything to do with yum and eek ... personal as a Reuben sandwich.

My own sense is that none of this is as portentous or important or unusual as it may sound. My own sense is that men and women everywhere know instinctively that what they know is not entirely complete or satisfactory. And in that unsatisfactory understanding, more knowledge and more and more holds out a beckoning hand ... and yet it never quite fills the bill. The desert is always there, neither affected nor unaffected ... and not burping either. It waits and must be addressed if an honest peace is to be achieved. Who stands on the edge of what desert cannot be said, but my sense is that it is a part of the human condition ... to know what it is to eat bread and to wonder how things might be without bread -- to have comforting belief and knowledge that never quite tells the whole tale and telling the whole tale is somehow important.

Walking out of a comfort zone -- into this next moment -- is everyday Lent. Never mind forty days and forty nights. Holding onto bread and letting go of bread is a good exercise -- informative in the ways of the desert which does not burp. But in the end, is there really anything that can be held or anything released? Does the desert care one way or another? And all that scary stuff about the desert heat that could kill you in a heartbeat ... well, is it honestly that scary to be in a land where you don't know when you already don't know?

If people are always giving up everything, isn't Lent at bit redundant?

I don't know. I just work here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

talking about money

Here's a nudging opinion piece that focuses on why people would rather talk about almost anything -- even death -- than they would about money.

judge critiques female lawyers' attire

In a world I find compelling, a judge has set off a firestorm of criticism by suggesting that women lawyers tone down their desire to dress in a come-hither fashion.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf advised female lawyers on his blog Tuesday:
1. You can't win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it.
2. It is not about you. That goes double when you are appearing in front of a jury.
3. Think about the female law clerks. If they are likely to label you, like Jane Curtin, an ignorant slut behind your back, tone it down.
What I find compelling about this third-rail narrative goes beyond the courtroom. What is important in the courtroom is the case -- the issue at hand. And so it is in other circumstances as well -- some things are serious enough to warrant an undiverted focus.

Dress, whether male or female, has the capacity to divert the attention ... an attention that might better be directed at the issue. The issue is not, as the judge pointed out, "about you," and to the extent that it is, it suggests that the issue at hand is either not well researched or not worthy of complete attention. If I were being defended in court, I would far rather have the jury listening to a well-researched and thoughtful argument than be distracted by cleavage or male bling.

Women, of course, have taken loud and acidic exception to the judge's observations. They should be able to dress in any way they like and not be dictated to by some fuddy-duddy judge. It's outrageous in this day and age! You don't like tits and thighs? Well close your damned eyes!

Strangely, their counterpoint helps to underscore what the judge actually wrote: "it is not about you" ... and the critics are willing to stand their ground: It is about me. Left out of their counterarguments is what their assertions imply for the issues (individuals) under examination... and possibly destined for punishment. People are human and sexy stuff is nifty stuff ... but if sex appeal detracts from the issues at hand, can such sex appeal be called "professional?"

In the movie "American Gangster," drug lord  Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington), counsels one of his fellow drug dealers about how to dress. Be inconspicuous, he says. Don't wear flashy clothes -- flashy clothes come with a great big name tag that says, "arrest me." Lucas was not criticizing pretty or sexy ... he was criticizing stupidity relative to the business or issue at hand ... getting rich by selling illicit drugs and the downside potential of getting arrested.

Likewise, perhaps, in Zen Buddhism, those practicing zazen, or seated meditation are encouraged to wear muted clothing. The robes are brown or black or grey. The setting is spare. Perfume, male or female, is discouraged. Jewelry should be left at the door. Idle chatter is off the agenda. All this and more ... and what is the point? The point, in part, is to focus the mind on the issue at hand -- let's call it "enlightenment" as a shorthand term. Sure, "I gotta be me," but many Zen Buddhists have found that A. being "me" doesn't provide a peaceful life and B. who, precisely, this "me" is is an open and sometimes confusing issue.

It is nice to have some venue in this life where issues take precedence over bosoms and bling. This is not to say that bosoms and bling aren't possible or delightful. It is to say that flash and glitz and "me" don't always reach or solve or being peace to the scene.

Imagine being Kim Kardashian -- beautiful, sexy, always putting yourself into the spotlight, scrambling, scratching, clawing for the next bit of publicity or attention. It may be a lot of fun, but, to paraphrase Sarah Palin, "how's that fun thingie workin' for you?"

For how long, precisely, can conspicuousness prove the underlying, issue-based truth? How long before that conspicuousness detracts from that desired truth?

belief and authentication

Passing by this morning like the Canada geese against a grey sky....

Buddhism, which some call a religion, is not so much about believing anything in particular; it's about  authenticating what you choose to believe.

A life that relies on doubt is not very peaceful.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Even this morning, after what I consider proof to the contrary, I am still deeply skeptical about the predominantly pink people who set their conversational tables with the words "healing" and "closure." They strike me as egregiously icky, as if speaking from some serene and knowledgeable place when all the time they are either trying to sell their latest book or convince themselves of how damned compassionate they are.

This scenario, whether true or not, infuriates me because the horrors to which "healing" and "closure" might apply are searing and real ... and there is something hugely indecent about applying treacly words to a man who is burned over 70 percent of his body, whether within or without.

Yesterday, I had lunch with Michael Erard, a one-time Vietnam-war army medic I met several years ago when he wanted another pair of eyes to look over a piece of writing he was trying to do -- a memory of a wracking time during the war ... a war that had come back to haunt him.

When he first told me the tale, sitting at the other end of my couch, it didn't make me weep out loud, but inside I was left writhing in tears. I did what I could to offer constructive criticism of the piece (which was a little disjointed), but was secretly overwhelmed by the experiential horror it represented. These were words about a man's life, for Christ's sake! Who was I to tinker with a body so badly burned?!

Anyway, yesterday, Michael invited me for lunch and we chatted here and there over scrambled eggs, small spicy sausages, good bread and orange juice. And I could not help but ask him about the events that had initially brought us together. How did he feel these days about the ancient wounds that had come back to bite him and maim him and tear flesh from flesh?

And here's where things get a bit oozy-goozy -- not at all scientific and open like anything other human intercourse to camouflage and self-deception. But as Michael responded, I watched his face and it seemed to me to be at ease. I listened for the tell-tale signs of the medical professional who can cloak assessments in a so-carefully-crafted-that-it-has-become-second-nature distant calmness.

And the sum total came to ... I believed it. Michael could call up the memories when he wanted and sometimes they came back unbidden but they were part of the scenery now. Sad was not so bad, not so sad. The sadness no longer owned him or, when it did, he was able and willing to give it room to breathe. I believed ... and my heart soared like hawk.

We chatted a little about what had made it all possible and were left speechless -- two old farts surrendering to phrases like "time heals all wounds" or "it was the grace of God." Both of us, I think, marveled that a healing (for lack of a better word) had occurred when there were so many -- so very, very many -- for whom "healing" and "closure" were just the words on pink people's tongues or a  wishful advertiser's scream for relief.

A small, obstreperous voice within still considers the word "closure" an asshole bit of disingenuousness. Closure suggests that "the end" had an actual-factual meaning. Nothing within is ever closed, short of a lobotomy. But there is a difference between owning the horror and sorrow and being owned by them. There is no magic formula, no magic wand, no sure-fire course of action that will assure a happy outcome, but that doesn't mean happy outcomes aren't possible ... or, as I came to believe yesterday, factual.

Does time heal all wounds? Is the grace of God for-real?


Maybe not.

Snake-oil salesmen are a dime a dozen. Pink-people verbiage is inescapable ... and ruthlessly referred to as hope.

But I can say what I came to believe as fact yesterday.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

fictional chickens

Sometimes I think everything boils down to fiction ... or perhaps just fades into fiction ... or perhaps is resurrected in fiction ... or something.

The occasion for this thought came yesterday in "the distinguished chickens of Valley Street."

There are, actually-factually, four of five chickens that roam the neighborhood here. They bring a welcome originality to an otherwise bland and stable block.

Black, white, speckled and all of them big. They walk their strange, rocking walks with the imperiousness and nonchalance of assured dowagers who once wore lace at wrist and throat. There is something of the well-strung bodice in their demeanor, like English ladies at tea who know their station and their station is correct.

Perhaps, if they converse, it is to remember cousin Rodney who returned from the war, handsome as ever, and yet with a smoldering, distant flatness in his eye. Did you know they gave him a back office at the company firm, Damocles and Whittier, Solicitors? Rodney was family after all and there are exceptions made for family... even if it was clear Rodney was no longer cut out for the thin, raw line of balancing income and a client's heart.

More tea?

The distinguished chickens of Valley Street know the world as it should be and are content to play a perfect role. They are kind and reserved when confronted by outsiders and those of lesser station. It is not their place to question too closely the activities of their robust mates, whose foolishness can sometimes be hard to overlook. Theirs is to stroll and twirl a parasol with pink, clean hands. They have their charities, of course.

They are not bad people.

They are simply assured.

And well-cared-for.

And, of course, distinguished without emphasizing the distinctions.

job seeker's shame

The sense that "it's my fault" is seeping into the consciousness of the American unemployed, according to a BBC story.

While Fox News and its conservative and sometimes benighted constituency may chuckle, "You're damned right it's your fault!" the implications for the country strike me as grey and unnourishing and financially unproductive.

graffiti, Greek-style

In this photo taken on Thursday Feb. 20, 2014, a motorcyclist passes the work 'Access Control' by Greek street artist iNO, on central Pireos Street in Athens. Greece has attracted international street artists to its capital, due to the availability of commissioned work and relatively lax anti-graffiti law. (AP Photo/Dimitri Messinis)

zombie damage

Actress Lauren Cohan said being on AMC's "The Walking Dead" for three seasons has had an effect on her.

a robo-news future?

It's a bit too lawsy-lawsy for my taste, but an Infowars squib passed along today reports that "Professor of Computer Science Dr. Kristian Hammond predicts that by 2030, 90 per cent of all news stories will be written not by human reporters but by computer algorithms."
This speaks to the increasingly redundant role of mainstream news reporters. Journalists working for the corporate press have abandoned their role as adversarial checks against the state to such a degree that they are now being replaced by computers.
While there's nothing fershur in this speculation, still there is enough meat on the bone to make it worth considering... news reporting scrambling for dwindling profits but cutting down on the very product that attracts customers -- a wider view, a willingness to unearth the counterpoint, and an ability to tell the customer how s/he is likely to get screwed.

News gathering takes time/costs money/ruffles feathers. When was the last time anyone heard a serious -- as distinct from solemn -- question at a White House press briefing? These days it is conceivable that if Adolph Hitler announced the government's desire to rid the country of "undesirable" constituencies and had good reasons for it ... well, the press might report the announcement and count that as a "news" story.

In the pre-Internet days of paste-pots, scissors and typewriters, I too indulged in this sort of rote reporting: If the press conference was at 11:00 a.m. and the news deadline was 12:15, I learned pretty quickly that I needed a ready-made format when I dictated the story over the phone to someone in the office who did the typing. The ready-made format might look like, "Mayor Joe Jones said today..." followed by a recitation of the points Joe Jones made. With luck, I might have a little background context in my mind to bring focus to the story, but there was simply no time to call people who might hold views contrary to Jones'. It was a story premised on the need for speed, the need to be up-to-date with the latest news. It never was a very good story, but it was a story and proved that the newspaper was on top of things.

But instant news like this was never a very satisfying norm. It was an acknowledged compromise between a story with context and a story that needed immediate attention. Such stories were making the best of a constraining situation. No doubt Joe Jones was happy that there was no time to throw a questioning light on his assertions and that his torch, for the moment, shone bright. How much more flattering and politically useful to have unquestioning coverage. Joe Jones got his coverage, the newspaper got its news, and the reader got -- sort of -- informed.

The advantages of this sort of news gathering are obvious: Joe Jones gets the limelight; the news organization gets income/kudos for being there; and the customer gets to pay for what is easy and passes for news. How much less expensive to make this the norm.

And the norm is what it is becoming, though whether a computer with its ready-made formats will ever fill the bill entirely is unknown. People may wring their handkerchiefs and bemoan the need for an "informed electorate," but money and power are seldom interested in an informed electorate. The Fourth Estate is, let push come to shove, dispensable in a feudal society.

I knew the newspaper I last worked for was headed down the shitter when it made the American flag part of its page-one logo.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Across the darkness of the morning sky, an incredibly bright star seemed to chase after an almost-half-moon today. Thirty minutes later, as dawn made itself felt, they were gone, the two of them ... poof!

In Oso, Wash., a town with a population of about 200, rain-saturated earth let go on March 22 and created an enormous mud slide that killed at least 14 and left others missing. Fourteen or more out of 200 ... poof!

In Malaysia, a passenger jet carrying 239 people -- more people than live in Oso, Wash. -- went down on March 8 in a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Searches today focus in the southern Indian Ocean, but certainty remains elusive as families and friends of the passengers grow frantic for news that will put a period -- however painful -- on the sentence that might read, "poof!"

A person would have to be a zombie not to sympathize with the anguish in Oso or Kuala Lumpur. Loss is not just some religio-philosophical talking point. Poof is no joke... and yet it's everywhere and always ... like air. Poof!

And in the same way that the poof of loss is endless -- where are the moon and star now? where did the past five minutes go? -- so too is what might be called the un-poof of things, the coming into existence. Poof of loss, poof of gain ... everything poofing all the time.

Where there is no escape, ignoring the situation hardly seems a useful escape hatch. Somehow there needs to be a way to make friends with what is not an enemy. And how is that possible?

I don't know. I'm still stuck in the southern Indian Ocean and in the sunlight that has replaced the moon and its friend.

Monday, March 24, 2014

presidential nod to Edward Snowden

Jimmy Carter
America's power brokers may delight in calling surveillance-whistleblower Edward Snowden a traitor who deserves to be drawn and quartered, but at least one former U.S. president appears to take Snowden's concerns to heart.

In a Sunday television broadcast, former President Jimmy Carter, said,
As a matter of fact, you know, I have felt that my own communications are probably monitored ....
And when I want to communicate with a foreign leader privately, I type or write a letter myself, put it in the post office, and mail it....
Let me see if I've got this straight: Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning is serving a 35-year jail sentence;  WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London; and Snowden, who is forced to live in Russia, all deserve to be hung out to dry for revealing surveillance information that would damage national security needs that have never been detailed. They are bad, bad people. Trust us ... they're bad.

So bad that a former president of the United States sees fit to heed their counsel.

coping with the kids

In the 14th and 15th and 16th centuries, northern Europeans had the habit of sending their children to live elsewhere. Perhaps as early seven, but probably more like around 14, many people, of all classes, placed their children with others while likewise taking such children from elsewhere in.

Part of the underlying reasoning was that children could learn more in a setting or place of apprenticeship that was not "home." Thus, it was 'for their own good' in one sense. Additionally, because the Black Death of 1350 had wiped out about half of Europe's population, kids were a cheap and necessary source of labor. The situation was not utterly barbaric in one sense and yet, in another, perhaps it was.

Literacy was not the norm at the time, so the evidence of trauma or discontent in this social system seems to be patchwork at best, judging by a BBC magazine article on the topic. For all that, it is a tantalizing to refocus the latter-day assumptions about child-rearing and social outlook.
According to social historian Shulamith Shahar, it was thought easier for strangers to raise children - a belief that had some currency even in parts of Italy. The 14th Century Florentine merchant Paolo of Certaldo advised: "If you have a son who does nothing good… deliver him at once into the hands of a merchant who will send him to another country. Or send him yourself to one of your close friends... Nothing else can be done. While he remains with you, he will not mend his ways."
Some insight into how such a boy or youth might be trained comes from the [14th Century] French hunting treatise La Chasse by Gaston count of Foix... A lord's huntsman is advised to choose a boy servant as young as seven or eight: one who is physically active and keen sighted. This boy should be beaten until he had a proper dread of failing to carry out his master's orders.
Source: "Medieval Children" by Nicholas Orme
  • Apprentices were sometimes abused by their masters
  • Among cases recorded by guilds in France was a boy who was beaten with a set of keys by a silversmith until he had head injuries, and a girl beaten so severely that she died
  • It is likely that girl apprentices were sometimes raped or prostituted, says Barbara Hanawalt
  • But the fact that masters were tried shows that parents followed up on mistreatment, and didn't completely abandon their children
  • Bequests from masters to their apprentices show that the relationship was often close
Feed 'em less, work 'em hard ... how much easier to do with children who are not your own ... and all in a world that had not yet met Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung ... when trauma existed but there was no one to acknowledge it with apparent fervor. Trauma, schm-auma ... get to work. Everyone's sad ... tough titty. How many silent tears must have fallen to the resounding chorus of "who cares?"

I wonder if, out of this and similar social attitudes, institutional religion didn't gain a savvy and compelling foothold. What a great power base! ... at last, someone cares! What a terrific ploy for anyone wanting to cement an institutional ascendancy... acknowledging trauma or hurt where no one really had time for hurt and trauma.... a world without "psychology." Imagine -- in a world where "no one gives a shit," suddenly someone does give a shit or anyway says s/he does. Woo-hoo for God!

Of course, there must have been many instances of caring and nurture and sympathy that existed in other times. But when the social fabric is largely based in concrete facts on the ground -- food, shelter, commerce -- the delicacies of kindness and caring are luxury items.

Reading a story about dealing away the children may arouse a sense of "how far we've come" -- a kind of self-congratulatory thankfulness that what must have been trauma and hurt are no longer dealt with in so cavalier a fashion. And yet...

Anyone who has been in an emergency situation -- a car crash scene for example -- knows that in order to offer effective assistance, emotion has to be put on hold. "Ain't it awful" does not extricate those who are trapped any more than it binds literally bleeding wounds. Sympathy and empathy don't get the job done and an emergency demands effective, no-dithering action. "Ain't it awful" is for those who have the luxury of time and emergencies don't respond well to well-intentioned emoting. If you really want to help, then shut up and get to work.

But this attitude too can lead to tears wept without succor. Think of the combat soldier who is repeatedly forced to lay hurt and trauma aside in aid of his combat mission. Over and over and over again, the horror and tears are put on hold until, perhaps, they can no longer be put on hold and the military suicide rate begins to rise. And there are other, less exciting, versions of the same thing in anyone's personal life ... putting aside what is part and parcel of this one whole life in favor of something else. Putting aside and putting aside and putting aside until ....

Well, who wouldn't thank God for God? Who wouldn't delight in the notion that life would not send them into strange and unloving lands? Who would not cry out for a home that could not be wrested from their grasp?

I suppose the world is a more grown-up place since children were packed off to other homes, apprenticeships and unrequited tears.

But I wonder how grown-up that world has actually become.

Where barbarism is the norm, is it any longer "barbarism?"

Where kindness is the norm, is it any longer "kindness?"

These are questions no "norm" can answer satisfactorily, I imagine.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

America's "best health care in the world"

Passed along in email:

Aasif Mandvi
If you want to laugh through the tears about the status and delivery of health care in America, don't miss Aasif Mandvi's send-up on Jon Stewart's Daily Show.

Why is it that comedians can do a better job of delivering salient news than newscasters?

kool dude ... moi?!

I have never been very good at receiving compliments. It's a bad habit and I don't recommend it.

Not that I can't respond with some obligato "thank you," but I have never been very good at letting the expressed perspective permeate within and refresh my own perspective. I can assimilate criticism without batting an eyelash -- searching around for what I assume is the truth -- but it's not the same with compliments.

Today, after zazen, Nick and I were walking back from the zendo towards his car when he said with a smile, "You're a kool dude. You really are. There aren't many guys who tell things like they are."

Somehow, before my knee-jerk defensive parry kicked into action, I let his words sink in. Since I don't have very good perspective about myself, I appreciate it when someone gives me their point of view. Today, it just seeped in ... what if it were true or anyway true from Nick's perspective? Maybe I was, somehow, a kool dude and not just some inconsequential dud.

Somehow it seeped in and it wasn't as dangerous as I had previously thought. Being a kool dude for a moment was kind of fun, kind of pleasing. It was like putting my head down on a soft pillow ... how marvelously, deliciously soft! And then it was time for sleep.

I was never trained well to accept or credit praise. Others, often to their detriment, are much better equipped.

Today, it was fun for a small moment to try out/bask in another perspective.

museum and church

Borrrrring alert!

Tiptoeing around in my mind like a hungry rat in the basement, the statement from a local minister makes itself felt. As I wrote several posts back:
First Churches of Northampton Pastor Todd Weir is indirectly quoted in the news story as saying that "while the congregation likes to have an aesthetically pleasing sanctuary ... the church is not a museum."
My question, and one I may yet get on the phone to ask Weir, is this: "If it's not a museum, what is it?" On the one hand, his statement makes eminently comprehensible sense. On the other hand, I continue to nibble at the question, "If it's not a museum, then it must be something else. What else is it?"

"Museum" is defined by an Internet dictionary as
a building where many valuable and important objects are kept so that people can go and see them
"Church" is defined as
a building that Christians go to in order to worship. Traditional churches usually contain an altar and long wooden seats facing the altar called pews. The place where the priest or minister stands to talk to the people is called a pulpit. A religious ceremony that takes place in a church is called a service
Church services do not generally take place in museums so to some extent "the church is not a museum" makes sense and churches and museums are different kettles of fish.

But churches and museums -- at least by definition -- do have something in common: They refer to static artifacts or activities. A statue today is a statue tomorrow. A service this Sunday is a service next Sunday. The format is comfortingly predictable ... and static. True, one statue is not the next and one sermon is not the next, but the format itself is limited and static.

And so, if it's not too much of a reach, museums and churches in one sense are not so very different -- each presenting, as it does, a static format in which to make its point.

I can imagine a church taking umbrage at such a 'simplistic' description. I can imagine all sorts of activities being adduced to show that church is certainly not static ... it is out and about, doing good works, etc. But A. it is doing good works from within a more-or-less agreed-upon format whose stasis remains even as the good works are performed and B. If the activities were truly the important part of what defined a church, why bother with the church in the first place? Wouldn't a clubhouse suffice?

I do hope that anyone who has managed to read through this treacle will understand that I am not picking on Christians or their church. My question refers to any and all houses of spiritual interest: What, precisely, is this gathering place and what meaning or usefulness does it actually have? If the meaning is static, how well does that conform to human life which is always changing? And if the meaning or usefulness is not static, then what is it ... what is it really: Don't give me any of that static-state "ineffable" crap.

None of this is terribly important. I wouldn't presume to have an answer or give it if I did. But I do think individuals might find it useful just to ask a couple of questions whose answers might benefit them.

Or not.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

a motto to trust

We can't have the commercial sector running our governments for us. These public agencies need to be forthright and transparent. -- David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona's journalism school.
The quote comes as part of an AP story about police use of a technology called Stingray -- a technology police acknowledge helps them to catch criminals but will say little else: There is a non-disclosure agreement between police and Stingray's manufacturer, Harris Corp.

"We can't have the commercial sector running our governments for us." Last I checked, that is precisely what is happening in Washington and elsewhere. Should we be delighted or dismayed by the farmer who closes the barn door after the horse is already loose?

Once, government relied to some degree on the trust of the governed. That trust may or may not have been warranted, but it certainly existed. I wonder what will happen when the premise that was once called trust is dissolved. The Vatican and the American Congress have felt the consequences of a dwindling trust ... a dwindling that has concrete effects on income.

I wonder if there is anything that anyone could do to instill a renewed sense of trust. Maybe Stingray will let us know.

Is there any entity or person that inspires trust these days? I don't know, but I certainly know that I am suspicious of 'legal' entities embarked on untrustworthy ventures. You know, stuff like JSOC and whatever U.S.-sponsored war is on-going at the moment.

"Trust me because I trust myself" strikes me as a flimsy if popular motto, though I admit I can't come up with a better one.

things move away

Things do not move away because they are somehow less worthy or less compelling than what follows in their wake. Things move away because that's what things do. No amount of intellectual or emotional exercise can change this. It has nothing to do with morality or justice or love or horror: Things move away because that's what things do.

Last night, because I had not seen it in a long, long time and because my younger son said he had been touched by it as he plied his course in the Army National Guard, I rewatched a movie called "Full Metal Jacket," the tale of a group of Marines, from basic training to the ground battle that was later to be called the Tet offensive of the Vietnam war.

Vietnam was a war of my time much as World War II was a war of my parents' generation. Whether close at hand or merely forming a background melody, Vietnam was a part of my time and thought and emotion. The movie was pretty good, but of course these days there are new and improved conflicts that weave a consciousness. Vietnam is "back in the day" no matter how hard anyone tries to remember or suffer for it. The Holocaust that the Jews can enshrine is similar ... no latter-day woven horror or sorrow can match or depict the sorrow and horror that was. The screams, the wounds, and the 'unspeakable' horror that is now merely spoken of ... has moved on.

Many years after the fact, I once read a recollection of a World War I veteran who said simply, "I arrived back home on Saturday. On Monday, I went back to work." Would that life were so simple and in accordance with facts. But it is not, and what went unspoken in his words beggars the imagination. Things move away and yet ... and yet the scars, sometimes 'unspeakable' scars, remain.

Nor is it just the horrific that lingers and inspires and perhaps cripples. Wondrous experience is much the same, clinging like warm bubble gum beneath an inattentive shoe.

Once, early in my Zen Buddhist training, I was enveloped by an experience that blew me away. It wasn't entirely pleasant and yet it wasn't unpleasant either. In words, the best I can say is that things disappeared ... I was looking down a rainy Manhattan street; I could see the street lights and taxi cabs and people walking beneath umbrellas ... I could see it all and yet I knew -- knew beyond the shadow of a doubt -- that it wasn't there. I went home, sat on the couch, and for the next several hours was wracked by alternating fits of laughter and tears. When I told my Zen 'teacher' about it, trying in vain to transmit how compelling the experience had been, he said abruptly, "Forget about it." My mother, who was more attuned to human nature, told me, "The ego is scared. Take back some dirt. Watch TV or something."

Wondrous or horrific or somewhere middling and muddling in between, how much like the teenager who has just discovered love is anyone ... using ornate or pleading words like, "I love Suzy! No wait! You really don't understand! I really love Suzy! No wait! I really, really love Suzy!!!!" Anyone might chuckle at the foreigner who is convinced that if he just speaks English louder, surely these Frenchmen or Germans or Chinese will understand! But where is the chuckle when the one that lacks understanding is staring back in the bathroom mirror?

Wait, Adam! Let me tell you how horrible it was! Let me tell you about the sheer, soaring wonder of it all! No, don't give me those sympathetic eyes waiting to be crowned with 'empathy' laurels ... listen to me! I'm trying to tell you something serious, something horrific, something soaring ... seriously, this is serious! I want you to know what I know. I want to be confirmed. I want company.

In saying that things move away, I am not suggesting, as many spiritual persuasions may seem to suggest, that there is an improved perspective that can be put into play. Improvements suggest that there is something awry or amiss or less worthy or less happy somehow. But that, to my mind, is not so much the best approach. Relying on negative observations or relying on positive ones ... it's not so much the point... and it's a little like trying to escape the breath that is breathed. Saying "all things change" is pretty much the same as saying, "I love Suzy." The 'unspeakable' nature of things does not mean they can be spoken.

But it also doesn't mean it cannot be noticed. Blue sky is blue: Who the hell could speak of it, let alone improve or elevate or debase it? Blue sky is blue. Things move away. Noticing what may have gone unnoticed does not necessitate claiming it is therefore noticeable.

Noticing that things move away is enough. Notice as you might stroke the soft fur of a kitten's belly. Stroking, purring, enjoying ... until things move away and it's time for lunch ... another kitten's belly in the making.

Things move away. The sky is blue. It's unspeakable ... which makes this blog post too pushy by half.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cops? Soldiers? Americans?

Passed along today in email was this Economist article that assesses the blurring of the lines between police officer and soldier ... the rise of fire power and fiery tactics when dealing with crimes of ever-diminishing seriousness. (There's an Economist video for those disinclined to read.)

Supporters of the increased muscle point out that critics have a tendency to cherry pick the incidents in which hapless citizens are suddenly confronted by well-armed SWAT officers. But police are less than transparent when it comes to reporting the full scope of their SWAT assaults ... which makes it hard to know if the cherry picking is actually cherry picking or if it is turning out to be a more generalized ratcheting up of self-important autocracy.

In the United States, "The number of SWAT deployments soared even as violent crime fell."

One thing's for sure, SWAT tactics have brought home the bacon ... often from people who cannot afford the thefts to which they are subjected:
Because of a legal quirk, SWAT raids can be profitable. Rules on civil asset-forfeiture allow the police to seize anything which they can plausibly claim was the proceeds of a crime. Crucially, the property-owner need not be convicted of that crime. If the police find drugs in his house, they can take his cash and possibly the house, too. He must sue to get them back.
Many police departments now depend on forfeiture for a fat chunk of their budgets. In 1986, its first year of operation, the federal Asset Forfeiture Fund held $93.7m. By 2012, that and the related Seized Asset Deposit Fund held nearly $6 billion.

fear of death

Is it possible to fear what you don't know?

I guess it is in the sense, perhaps, that I might fear an atomic bomb based on historical evidence. I don't have an intimate, experienced knowledge of such a bomb, but intellectually, I can extrapolate. A-bombs are a bad business.

But does the fear of death fall into the same category? No one that I know of ever returned from the dead to report that it was a bad business and, since in the history of mankind there have been plenty of people who gave death a whirl without reporting negative effects, on what basis can death be rightfully or sensibly feared?

I may say, "I fear what I don't know," or "I fear the apparent absence of what I do know," but it sounds pretty iffy to me.

I am not alleging here that I don't fear death. I am just sniffing the fire hydrant of the issue.

My own hunch is that the fear of death is not a fear of the unknown, but rather a fear of the known. But if this is the case, what is it, precisely, that is known and thereby feared?

I haven't got the answers to any of these questions and I seldom dwell on them, but I chew gum every once in a while and this is just one stick.

planting time photos

Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama holds the hand of a leprosy-affected patient during his visit to a leprosy colony in New Delhi March 20, 2014.
REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Crosses are seen at the WWI Douaumont ossuary near Verdun, eastern France March 5, 2014.
REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
A French farmer walks behind a tractor which sows a field near Arras, northern France March 20, 2014.
REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

stricter smoking regulations

Not so different from a lot of other communities, I imagine, my home town's health board approved new smoking restrictions last night. As a smoker, I found myself mildly irritated by what I could recognize as a potentially healthy choice.
As of June 1, smoking will be prohibited in public and private clubs, workplaces, city parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, swimming areas, nursing homes, within 25 feet of city buildings, all outdoor areas of restaurants and bus stops and taxi cab waiting areas.
Idly, it crossed my mind:
  • I wonder whether, since cars both kill people and spew toxic emissions, the use of automobiles might also be restricted in public places.
  • Is there a demonstrable line beyond which Jeremy Bentham's "greatest good for the greatest number" runs out of benevolent steam?
  • Since I do what I can not to expect others to agree with me, I do sometimes wish they would extend me the same courtesy and step out from behind the miching veil of "we" and "one" and "our" and all the other group-hug means of protecting themselves from the responsible honesty that goes with the word "I."
  • Living life is demonstrably bad for your health. If it weren't, nobody would die. (This statement assumes -- perhaps with too much enthusiasm -- that death is considered an undesirable event.)
My thoughts, of course, cannot hold a candle to the sincere and caring arguments for shaping and nourishing the public weal. They are just my thoughts in the face of the desires and sometimes needs for public policy. Gotta protect the kids; gotta protect the adults; gotta draw the line somewhere; gotta fend off a painful anarchy ... OK, I get it.

But I also have some sympathy for my irritation.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

fiery, anti-gay minister dies

The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr.
The former leader of a US church that was widely known for its inflammatory anti-gay protests has died, his family has said.
The Reverend Fred Phelps Sr, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, died on Wednesday evening at 84.
The church, made up mostly of his family, rose to international notoriety with its practice of picketing funerals of fallen US troops.
It claimed their deaths were punishment for America's tolerance of gays.
It's hard not to think that this self-centered and vitriolic man may have helped soften hardened views about what he abhorred. Unkindness is so unkind.

Anyway, I hope the 77 Koran-crooning virgins surrounding him now will take good care of him ... and make him feel at home until the well-oiled lads in loin cloths arrive.

chewing gum loses its savor

NEW YORK (AP) - Gum seems as appealing as that sticky wad on the bottom of a shoe these days.
It's not that Americans still don't ever enjoy a stick of Trident or Orbit, the two most popular brands. They just aren't as crazy about chomping away on the stuff as they once were, with U.S. sales tumbling 11 percent over the past four years.
Which brings to mind the jolly old Aussie confection:

"beauty" in the church

A local church -- a lumbering 19th century edifice on Main Street -- is considering the possibility of selling an enormous Tiffany stained-glass window for $750,000 or more as a means of putting its financial house in order.

First Churches of Northampton Pastor Todd Weir is indirectly quoted in the news story as saying that "while the congregation likes to have an aesthetically pleasing sanctuary ... the church is not a museum."

The church, like any other brick-and-mortar religious institution, has bills to pay and, in keeping with the warp and weft of time, a dwindling congregation to pay them. And then there is the fact that what was once a bedrock Christian presumption in the country, now spiritual interests do not rely as much on the importance of a church and its trimmings. Gone are the salad days when a pastor might scare the crap out his congregation or, under the same banner, raise them up in some credible/credulous fashion.

What interests me in all this is the question of beauty in the concrete realm of churches or temples or other places where people gather to express a common wish or hope or understanding.

Anyone who claims a universally-acceptable definition of "beauty" is either a liar or a self-serving merchandizer. And yet human beings have all, if I had to guess, felt the impact of something referred to as "beauty" and enjoyed its realms. Maybe it's like the Supreme Court justice's observation about pornography: "I may not know what it is, but I know it when I see it."

There is something confirming and anointing about being in the presence of beauty -- whether it be a painting, a piece of music, words written on a page, a kiss, a mathematical formula or a feather floating down some swollen gutter. And perhaps "God" is just another way of declaiming a "beauty" that everyone knows but no one can lay hands on.

It is lovely to walk into pleasing surroundings, to be confirmed and encouraged by bricks and mortar. Whether wildly ornate or deliciously spare ... still a pleasing environment or pleasing company suggests that maybe -- just maybe -- I might attain whatever quite intimate beauty I have experienced in the past and long to experience once more. Pleasing surroundings and pleasing company also serve the function of suggesting that I am not irredeemably crazy for seeking out what I cannot see or smell or taste or touch. If I am nuts, I prefer having some company.

But what is/was that beauty? I mean the personal one that brought me to these pleasing surroundings in the first place. The experience was as real and compelling as a Mack truck, but the current surroundings, while pleasing, invariably fail to arouse a similar certainty ... the one within that brooks no interlopers or translators or well-intentioned teachers. Yes, we can talk the talk, speaking of beauty or sorrow or God or the Sistine Chapel, but it's just a pale shadow of what once was beauty.

What is/was that beauty? Perhaps it is something closer to a verb than a noun. Perhaps a synonym for the real beauty is just "melting." Who melts? I melt ... just as anyone else might under whatever circumstances. To melt into a certainty that is not for sale, even if I wanted to sell it. It may not happen often, but when it does, there is no doubt about it, in church or elsewhere.

It is at this point that I feel the need to say "horseshit!" to the casual casuists who assert that "I don't need a church in order to express my spirituality." Everyone is always building and maintaining churches all the time -- beautiful settings in which to rest and rejuvenate and touch base with "the better angels of our nature."

And like actual-factual, brick-and-mortar churches, these edifices within are but a pale shadow of the beauty that once claimed the scene, for however brief a moment. I may remember such moments, but memory rests in a past long gone and I live in the present. Living in the past is a beggar's existence, but melting is nothing if not present... in a kiss, a smile, a phrase of prose or music, or a passing stranger.

 It is pleasing to be supported by beautiful surroundings. It is pleasing to be supported by a coming together of like-minded people. It is pleasing to speak the name of "God" in cozy and supportive unison. Pleasing, yes, pleasing. "Pleasing" inspires hope and belief and whatever level of determination. But "pleasing" is never "pleased" -- the sure-fire realm of beauty, a realm without shadows and fumbling passing as certainty.

To my mind, there is a need for the museums that Pastor Weir rejects. In the realm of hope and belief, what other option is there? Museums on Main Street, museums in the mind. Places to test and snoop and sniff out what may in fact turn to an unshadowed beauty. Of course, such places may turn out to be utterly useless in the quest as well. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets... your life, your bet, your beauty.

It is well said that, "going to church on Sunday will not make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage will make you a car." But going to church, perhaps a beautifully-appointed one, is surely one way to express an interest in what any (wo)man might sell the farm to experience anew.

Melting doesn't come cheap. The trick is to find the fire -- your fire -- that will melt what needs melting. Where beauty holds sway, neither belief nor hope nor even "beauty" find footing. It is not special or ordinary, hard or easy. No effort can achieve it and yet without effort, it is lost. It is yours without the "you."

What is it?

Melt and find out.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

getting there

And when you get there,
No one's home.
Good luck abounds --
There's room to roam.

past and future -- Reuters photos

A boy comforts a crying girl during a special prayer for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in central Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 18, 2014.
REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
An Ukrainian soldier stands near an armored personnel carrier at a checkpoint near the village of Salkovo, in Kherson region adjacent to Crimea, March 18, 2014. The words on his arm read as: "If you want peace, prepare for war".
REUTERS/Viktor Gurniak
(If war is allowed to become the antithesis of peace, how peaceful could anything actually be?)

Restoration workers peel off loose gold foil as part of a restoration project for an 800-year-old Thousand-Hand Guanyin Buddhist statue on Mount Baoding in Chongqing municipality, China March 18, 2014.
Fishermen arrange their fishing net as the sun sets on Marina beach in the southern Indian city of Chennai March 18, 2014.

column on cussing

Published March 19, 2014, in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

NORTHAMPTON — On TV the other night, a stand-up comedian was camouflaging his lack of comedic material with liberal doses of cuss words when it occurred to me how far cussing had come in my lifetime.

Certainly usage and acceptance on radio, TV and the Internet had risen from what I will refrain from calling “the good old days” of the late 1940s. But had it really advanced or had the music gone out of it? I didn’t really know, but I remembered ...

• The first time I came home from grade school and used a dirty word in front of my mother, she was ready for me. My second-grade peers had reported their own homegrown results in this realm and those results weren’t pleasant, ranging from a verbal harangue to a spanking to an intimate knowledge of what Ivory soap tasted like.

My mother, however, was a pretty good writer in her time. Language was her garden and there were no weeds in it. Good and bad, naughty and nice weren’t so much the point when it came to language. Language was music and there were no bad notes. But there was the matter of skill and it was in this regard that she greeted my use of what these days is referred to as “the f-bomb.”

She sat me down ... uh-oh!

Something serious was afoot, though I didn’t see any soap in her hand.

And then very quietly and very patiently she went through all of the dirty words and their compounds. There were religious meanings, literal meanings, metaphorical meanings and physiological meanings. My mother didn’t overlook any of them and did not spare my eeeeuuuuuewww embarrassment when it came to the physiology part ... girls and boys did that???!!!

My mother gave me both barrels and then laid down the law:

I could use the words among my friends.

I could use the words in front of her.

But I could not use the words in front of her friends.

These were rules even a second-grader could grasp.

But as with all initial rules and original teachings, there were refinements to learn, both mentally and socially, as the years passed.

• It was at 16 that I got my most refined lesson in cussing. I had a summer job picking up trash. The guy who drove the truck was a young man who had graduated from high school, landed his job and had a new baby he adored. He had a pleasant disposition and I felt comfortable with him.

But like a lot of 16-year-olds I had gotten into the habit of using the f-bomb. It sounded — you know — grown-up. But one day, my companion turned to me and said in the friendliest possible fashion, “You know, if you don’t know how to use that word, I wish you wouldn’t.”

I was gob-smacked. It wasn’t as if he didn’t use the word. He did. With regularity. But he obviously wanted to lend me a hand.

I hardly knew how to respond, so I just began listening to him talk. And as I listened, I realized he was right: There was a music to language and he knew the music where I only knew the notes.

• After I got out of the Army, where cussing was a norm, I came home and conceived an interest in Zen Buddhism, a practice that includes a suggestion about “right speech.” And one day I announced to my mother off-handedly that I had decided to give up cussing.

She looked at me with an honest shock. “Oh please don’t do that,” she said. “I wouldn’t know who you are!” It was nuts from where she sat. And as I thought about it, it was nuts from where I sat. And so, as it turned out, I gave up trying to give up cussing.

• When my sons were both at about the age when I had first received my mother’s counsel, they were as delighted as I had been with cuss words. But one day, driving home with them, I had enough. I stopped the car on a deserted road out behind the fairgrounds here in Northampton. And I offered them a challenge: For one minute — not more and not less — they would scream out every dirty word they could think of. No quitting allowed. One minute. They looked delighted. And as I restarted the drive home, I shouted, “Go!” They let loose with gusto.

But after 15 seconds, they ran out of steam. They faltered. “No!” I shouted in the spirit of the moment, “No quitting! Keep going!” And they tried. They tried hard, but the laughter and naughtiness and enthusiasm were spent. Twice more I encouraged them and twice more they complied with diminishing vigor. They never did cross the one-minute mark.

In later times, I would treat my sons to bits and pieces of what my mother had given me in a single sitting. They too learned some of the skills that go with the music of language. No doubt they too will have experiences that refine their understanding.

All of which is OK with me.

As long as they don’t turn into second-rate comedians.

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

PS My sister sent the following by way of reaction:

"12 Years a Slave"

Yesterday, I watched a movie called "12 Years a Slave," the tale of a real-life free black man living in New York state who was shanghaied to the pre-Civil-War south and lived for 12 years as a slave before being rescued and returned to his free life with his wife and two children. The movie generated both money and applause.

The implicit nightmare scenario was not realized for me. The horror I both hoped and feared to feel before seeing the movie went unmet. I wanted to be moved and mostly was not, largely because there was little or no character development. It was like watching a two-dimensional depiction of a three-dimensional horror. To say that the movie was like John Wayne doing World War II is too extreme, but it was in that play book for me... sort of like imagining a McDonald's bagel is really a bagel.

Aside from some wonderful photography and a couple of flashes of human credibility from supporting actors and actresses, I did not feel drawn-in and thereby truly horrified. It was as if the movie relied on some high school premise that "slavery was bad," which of course it was ... but how can anyone know horror without depicting the ordinary-mindedness of those who felt it was good? And how many anguished looks on the protagonist's face can anyone see without wondering who this man actually was in any deeper sense.

I felt gypped and manipulated by the movie, as if it relied on the viewer's sense of injustice to make up for an inability or unwillingness to create a three-dimensional, gut-wrenching tale.

This is obviously just my take, but it put me in mind of a BBC story stating the Los Angeles Times had first reported a recent earthquake with a robot writer -- an algorithm template into which geological facts were inserted. The story was all there, factual as table salt, but of course the story was missing. (Outlets making use of robo-reports point out that the idea is not to replace news writers, but rather to create a matrix on which further reporting (if warranted) can be done.)

Oh well ... the movie won Academy Awards, so it must be good, right?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


A girl looks at planes through the window of the departure hall at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 17, 2014.
REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

no need

A beautiful and sunny day,
No need to hope,
No need to pray.
No need to write a lilting pome
When all the time
I was at home.

Monday, March 17, 2014

SEALs take Libyan oil tanker

This is one weird story in my head:
The US has taken control of a tanker full of oil loaded from a rebel-held port in Libya, the Pentagon says.
The raid by Navy Seals took place in international waters south of Cyprus, said Rear Adm John Kirby....
Adm Kirby said the operation had been authorised by President Barack Obama and that no-one had been hurt.
As far as I can figure out, the president of the United States approved a (alleged) Navy SEAL operation on behalf of a foreign government. Why Libya could not conduct its own action is not clear. Does the United States routinely recapture pirated ships? In international waters? Does the president generally lend his name -- and, implicitly, the name of the United States -- to such actions?

I suspect, but don't know, that the SEALs involved were a part of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the president's shadowy personal hit squad that took down Osama bin Laden. Kirby fronts for JSOC. JSOC's nature and purpose and command structure is so murky that even Wikipedia suggests that more clarity would be useful: "This article's introduction section may not adequately summarize its contents."


Nick and I had agreed via email to do a bit of zazen or seated meditation yesterday morning, but at the last minute he had to cancel: He was the only one in his family available to look after a small child in his clan. Nick wrote that he had considered bringing the baby along to zazen -- to "start him early" -- but then dismissed the idea. He was kidding, or anyhow that was how I took his meaning.

Kidding and yet it made me wonder as well.

Factors: 1. Children have malleable minds. 2. The Christianity of the country I live in has a contractual obligation to proselytize, to bring in members to the one true religion. 3. This obligation is not so different from any other "one true religion." 4. To the extent that anyone might call Buddhism a religion, there is the matter of "sangha" or community -- an aspect that is counted as part of the Triple Treasure of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Every religion has its community, but what is it, if anything, that makes sangha a treasure? I know others can answer this question with flowery, feels-good words, but once anyone gets past the p.r., what does sangha mean? I'd be a liar if I said I knew.

In point of fact, if my experience is any guide, it really is supportive and nice to hang out with people of an apparently-similar persuasion. At wobbly moments, my determination has been revived. And more than that, it is has been nice to think I was not entirely crazy ... and to be grateful to see that if I were crazy, well, at least I had some "Buddhist" company: If so many others say something is right and true, then I can forgive myself for not examining whether what I like is actually right and true. So to some extent, I can feel supported in my Buddhist practice.

But "support" is a curious customer. On the one hand, if I rely for support on someone or something else, how "Buddhist" could that actually be? Is Buddhism and the treasure called sangha nothing more than some harmonious group hug ... a socially agreeable venture that would be lost without social agreement? On the other hand, whatever efforts I may make on behalf of my practice do indeed need all the help they can get and I am as grateful as a thirsty man in a desert.

My baseline axiom in all of this sounds sort of like, "Buddhism is not about standing on someone else's feet. It is about standing on your feet."

And to the extent that that axiom holds water (which, for me, it does) others may blur the question by suggesting that sangha is a group of "companions." The trouble with that is that it simply raises the question of what a "companion" might be.

Going alone is not quite right and going as a group is not quite right. So what, if anything, is right about sangha and its treasured status? I honestly don't know, but my closest guess might be ...

Sangha is not so much a community of people -- which is pleasant, but not, in the end, assured -- as it is the circumstances that arise from moment to moment. "Support" is not so much an unmoving boulder on a bright mountain peak or a yes-man group hug, but rather the teachable moments that cannot be escaped.

So-called sangha is nothing more than life, and why or whether that should somehow be a treasure is up to each individual sangha member. Child or adult, trying to convince or convert someone else is a fool's errand that cannot help but end at a foolish destination.

Not that any of this matters much.

Just noodling.