Friday, September 30, 2011

free lunch

In the 1950's, my mother, who was a good writer, gave up writing articles for popular magazines. Her reason, she once explained to me, was that once upon a time, it was sufficient for a writer to make a cogent argument and that it was assumed that the reader was intelligent enough to decide for him- or herself whether the argument held water. But the tides had shifted. Now (then) each proposition or conclusion had to be supported by an 'expert' -- someone acknowledged through academic degrees or books-published prowess to be, if not that last word, then very close to it on the topic. Suddenly, articles were as much footnoting and attribution as they were original or interesting thinking.

And in one way, it made some sense. But in another, it represented the elevation of mediocrity ... a house of cards in which the reader no longer carried a responsibility to think things through. Instead, everyone relied on the experts and the Ph.D.'s without wondering or assuring through logic or common sense if those emperors were wearing any clothes.

Today, with the internet, everyone and his grandmother is free to shoot his mouth off in whatever way he chooses. And sometimes the most flimsy arguments or assertions are sexy enough to make it into the social lexicon. Today's reader is expected to think for himself once again, but it is an open question whether he is exercising that option with any energy. Are people any stupider and lazier than they were in my mother's day? I don't know, but it certainly feels that way sometimes.

What interests me in the midst of these observations is the need to put an adulated name on one topic or another. If Pooh-Bah says so, it must be true. If Joe the Taxi Driver says so ... well, that's dubious at best. Or vice versa.

I think of this sometimes when it comes to spiritual endeavor. I am fortunate enough to have been 'schooled' in a persuasion that was not just whistling Dixie when it said, "find out for yourself." Naturally, I tried to duck the responsibility as best I could (relying on someone else is every so much easier, even if it invariably turns out to be wrong), but the facts kept smacking me in the face until I finally gave up. Get used to it, Adam, you're in the driver's seat!

Does it matter if Gautama (the guy most commonly meant when people say "The Buddha") said one thing or another? What if your news stand vendor had said the very same? Would it matter? Wouldn't the most important thing be to find out if something were true in experience ... and stop worrying about the source? There are those in every spiritual adventure who point to texts and tomes as a means of somehow buttressing their wisdom. They defer to the Ph.D.'s of an earlier age. OK, we've all been there and done that, but does it dispel doubt with the same certainty that applying some individual and personal determination might?

 If you're going to the movies, lose your way and ask for directions, do you sit around marveling at the Samaritan who says, "At the second stop light, turn left" or do you say thank you and then drive the car?

Listen to your grandpa --  there's no such thing as a free lunch.

the Ig Nobel prizes

From beetles screwing beer bottles to how the need to urinate affects decision-making, it's that time of year again ... the awarding of the Ig Nobel prizes.

The coveted Peace Prize went to the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania:

He was honoured with the Ig Peace Prize for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars could be solved by squashing them with an armoured tank.

Nobel prizes, from which the Ig Nobels take their giggling cue, will be handed out next week in Sweden.

It all reminds me of a time a lot of years ago when I was working for Doubleday, a book publisher in New York, and pushed very, very hard to create a paperback version of a book called "The Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown." Intelligent giggling was less hard to come by back then, but was still rare enough to warrant preservation: Intelligence seems so often to bond indestructibly with solemnity. But since ignorance does much the same, I guess things balance out.

Balance out and bring me back to the line that popped into my head a while back: If you're so serious, why aren't you laughing?

autumn whispers and renewal is in the air

In the not-yet-sun-up morning light, the silhouette of the Japanese maple across the street rustles and rattles here and there. There is no wind but I know from the shaking spots that the squirrels are at work, reaching out on thin, thin limbs, sometimes hanging upside down to reach whatever lingering sweet shoots there are. The days are growing cooler and it's time to fill up and store and prepare for a winter that will dawn in the near future.

Echoing the squirrels' announcement of autumn, a newspaper ad trumpets MACOUNS and other apples for sale. Macouns, my sister once said, make the best apple pies. MacIntosh and other varieties are too mushy and often flavorless, but Macouns are as brisk and firm and delicate as a squirrel's tread.

Fall is coming and yet it is spring.

Peace pagoda, Leverett, Mass.
Not far from here, a Buddhist temple that was burned down by a youthful and later-repentant arsonist 20 years ago will reopen this Sunday. The temple stands near a peace pagoda erected on top of a mountain -- a glistening statement in the middle of a comparative no-where. Most structures are placed where they can be seen or admired or are easily accessible, but the pagoda and the temple are not like that. Both lie up a steep-ish dirt incline that must be walked ... in order to get ... to no where... a setting without applause. I always liked that placement and effort -- wondrous in a space that requires no wonders; daring and lacking in facile reference points.

I got an invitation to the Sunday reopening of the new growth where old growth had stood. In my mind, I would like to go and offer some incense, but Buddhism is a young man's sport and climbing that dirt incline is not in the cards for a man enjoying his autumn.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

what a doofus!

For years, I have kept this blog with its attendant links and pictures and self-descriptions that trickle down the sides of the day by day noodlings.

But it wasn't until today, so many years later, that a reader pointed out to me that my goddamned email was incorrectly written in the descriptive blurb.


Gawd -- what a doofus!

But at the moment, a grateful doofus. Sometimes I think that without friends to hold up the mirror, we'd all be in the soup.

stupid is as stupid does

It hardly seems credible, but when I sent this out in email, having received it in same, I got so many sympathetic and similar stories in return that I thought it should be posted here:

"A guy who purchased his lovely wife a pocket Tazer for their anniversary submitted this:
 Last weekend I saw something at Larry's Pistol & Pawn Shop that sparked my interest.. The occasion was our 15th anniversary and I was looking for a little something extra for my wife Julie. What I came across was a 100,000-volt, pocket/purse-sized Tazer. The effects of the Tazer were supposed to be short lived, with no long term adverse affect on your assailant, allowing her adequate time to retreat to safety...?? WAY TOO COOL!
Long story short, I bought the device and brought it home... I loaded two AAA batteries in the darn thing and pushed the button. Nothing! I was disappointed. I learned, however, that if I pushed the button and pressed it against a metal surface at the same time, I'd get the blue arc of electricity darting back and forth between the prongs. AWESOME!!! Unfortunately, I have yet to explain to Julie what that burn spot is on the face of her microwave. Okay, so I was home alone with this new toy, thinking to myself that it couldn't be all that bad with only two AAA batteries, right? There I sat in my recliner, my cat Gracie looking on intently (trusting little soul) while I was reading the directions and thinking that I really needed to try this thing out on a flesh & blood moving target. I must admit I thought about zapping Gracie (for a fraction of a second) and then thought better of it. She is such a sweet cat.

But, if I was going to give this thing to my wife to protect herself against a mugger, I did want some assurance that it would work as advertised. Am I wrong? So, there I sat in a pair of shorts and a tank top with my reading glasses perched delicately on the bridge of my nose, directions in one hand, and Tazer in another. The directions said that: a one-second burst would shock and disorient your assailant; a two-second burst was supposed to cause muscle spasms and a major loss of bodily control; and a three-second burst would purportedly make your assailant flop on the ground like a fish out of water. Any burst longer than three seconds would be wasting the batteries. All the while I'm looking at this little device measuring about 5" long, less than 3/4 inch in circumference (loaded with two itsy, bitsy AAA batteries); pretty cute really, and thinking to myself, 'no possible way!'
What happened next is almost beyond description, but I'll do my best. I'm sitting there alone, Gracie looking on with her head cocked to one side so as to say, 'Don't do it stupid,' reasoning that a one second burst from such a tiny lil ole thing couldn't hurt all that bad.. I decided to give myself a one second burst just for heck of it. I touched the prongs to my naked thigh, pushed the button, and... HOLY MOTHER OF GOD. WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION. WHAT THE... !!! I'm pretty sure Hulk Hogan ran in through the side door, picked me up in the recliner, then body slammed us both on the carpet, over and over and over again. I vaguely recall waking up on my side in the fetal position, with tears in my eyes, body soaking wet, both nipples on fire, testicles nowhere to be found, with my left arm tucked under my body in the oddest position, and tingling in my legs! The cat was making meowing sounds I had never heard before, clinging to a picture frame hanging above the fireplace, obviously in an attempt to avoid getting slammed by my body flopping all over the living room.

Note: If you ever feel compelled to 'mug' yourself with a Tazer, one note of caution: There is NO such thing as a one second burst when you zap yourself! You will not let go of that thing until it is dislodged from your hand by a violent thrashing about on the floor! A three second burst would be considered conservative! A minute or so later (I can't be sure, as time was a relative thing at that point), I collected my wits (what little I had left), sat up and surveyed the landscape. My bent reading glasses were on the mantel of the fireplace. The recliner was upside down and about 8 feet or so from where it originally was. My triceps, right thigh and both nipples were still twitching. My face felt like it had been shot up with Novocain, and my bottom lip weighed 88 lbs. I had no control over the drooling. Apparently I had crapped in my shorts, but was too numb to know for sure, and my sense of smell was gone. I saw a faint smoke cloud above my head, which I believe came from my hair. I'm still looking for my testicles and I'm offering a significant reward for their safe return!
PS: My wife can't stop laughing about my experience, loved the gift and now regularly threatens me with it! If you think education is difficult, try being stupid!!! "

the tomorrow factor

In the hazy and speculative realm between getting out of bed and making the usual attempts to be awake, it popped up in my mind:

Wouldn't it be natural for a good Christian to pray to go to hell? In what better place could s/he find condemned nitwits in need of comfort and, perhaps, conversion ... two of God's suggestions according to my hazy and speculative understanding of Christian lore.

But of course no one prays to go to hell, whatever its definition. Everyone, in whatever spiritual persuasion, makes a bee-line for heaven, for improvement, for relief and release: Harps and halos, here I come! Bright lights and bliss and get-thee-behind-me-Satan! Today may be iffy, but tomorrow ... tomorrow everything will be ahhhh. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus ... OK.

Well, it's just a mild and teasing thought ... with what I think is a quite serious edge.

Human beings suffer. They resist the pain they are offered and they suffer. This is no joke and has fuck-all to do with religion or philosophy. It's what actually happens. And within that framework, who wouldn't seek a way out, a way up, a way to make things better? Look under a microscope at a single-celled paramecium in a drop of toxic water: Even without a 'brain,' the critter tries to get away. If this is the way of the 'brainless,' how much ornate must the efforts of the 'brainy' be?

So there's heaven: If you make an effort today, you won't get burned tomorrow. This is the invitation. Those accepting the invitation make determined efforts ... to improve, to escape, to be good. Who could criticize such an effort? Not I. Suffering is no goddamned joke!

Some even express their determination not by envisioning a steady-state better tomorrow, but by challenging suffering with still more self-inflicted suffering. Flagellation, for example, or having themselves literally nailed to crosses, come Easter. Mortification ... a means to humility and the smothering of a lawless self.

But I imagine there are more who hew to the brighter-tomorrow than challenge the gloomy today. A promise is more appealing, more in line with actual-factual, here-and-now suffering.

But wouldn't you think that at some point, the yearning for a heaven that divided the saints from the sinners, the wise from the ignorant, the good from the bad would take on a revised character? Promising and praying for a brighter tomorrow among the anointed ... well, wouldn't God prefer a soul who came to the aid of those less fortunate? How could you do God's work -- or the work of whatever promise was premised -- by entering the very hell anyone might long (at first) to flee and escape? How could anyone do God's work otherwise? So perhaps it would be a natural progression ... pray your ass off to get to heaven (or whatever improvement was promised) followed by praying your ass off to get to hell, the realm in which God's efforts (or your own) were most dearly needed?

Lord, let me go to hell!

But this approach too finds a fly in the ointment. Praying to get to heaven (tomorrow) is followed by praying to get to hell (tomorrow). All the determination and effort and good work is still premised on an improvement or delight or despair that isn't here yet but will be ... tomorrow. Tomorrow, after I'm dead or once I've improved or after I have entered some incalculable bliss.

And tomorrow never comes.

Here I am today, working diligently to get there ... tomorrow.

And perhaps that is the final challenge: Today. Now. Here. Heaven and hell and blissful relief are never missing and no where to be found. Today. Is there really any other option? It's not a matter of better or worse, it's just a matter of fact.

A matter of fact and the effort to actualize what was, is, and will be a fact.

Calling it "today" overstates the matter.

Inhalation, exhalation ... home.

PS. It all makes me think that for as long as anyone prays to go to heaven, for that long exactly they will be in hell.

And vice versa.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Mr. Death and the Red-Headed Woman"

Out of the blue, an email arrived from Germany this morning. A woman whose daughter had taken one of my mother's books out of the library asked me to pass along her own praise and queries to my mother.

"Mr. Death and the Red-Headed Woman" was written almost 60 years ago (it was originally titled "The Rider on the Pale Horse" in 1956) and I can remember my mother's reading it to me, pre-publication, as we sat on the living room couch. She would read me her stuff as a means of gauging its ability to hold anyone's interest.

Over the years, the story has held up and held on. It's a 'fairy tale' about a young woman who goes riding after Mr. Death when her boyfriend is killed in an old-west shootout. And when she catches up with Mr. Death, she learns a thing or two ... and forgets her boyfriend.

The woman who sent the email said she wondered how my mother had gotten the idea. But that was just a springboard or pretext for telling of her own distaste for death after a friend had died in the past at the age of 20. She said she was reading my mother's small book over and over again.

Is there any telling what small or large thing will light the fuse or open the door to anyone's serious questions and doubts in this life? I don't think so. Anything can be anything ... anything can be a catalyst for anything else. And, of course, "one man's meat is another man's poison." What is serious to me is silly to you and vice versa. But it's interesting how the screw turns and there are flashes of light in the night sky.

I told the email-writer I would pass along her delight, but I would not subject my mother to her invitation to conversation. At 94, my mother's eyesight is not all it might be. But more important, she has less and less energy to be interested in what interests others ... the 'serious' stuff with which we might, in other times, sympathize. It takes energy to be sympathetic, to bat the ping-pong ball of thought back and forth, and at her age, my mother doesn't want to exert the energy: Let others play the game if they choose.

I tried to explain this and encouraged the woman not to shy away from her own uncertainties or doubt or anger. What is serious is, in the end, serious. So serious up ... not for anyone else's benefit and not because some church or tome encourages it, but because otherwise life is a nag and nobody likes being nagged.

a letter

I wrote this last night to an email acquaintance and thought today that it might be of some use to some others ... or not.

Dear A -- Several months ago, on the weekly Saturday morning peace picket line whose membership shifts from week to week, I ran into a woman of perhaps 70 with a really beautiful face and a lovely demeanor. We got to talking and it turned out that she was a Quaker. And because she struck me as a credit to humanity, somehow, I decided to give the Quakers a whirl. It was the second Quaker meeting I had ever been to (the last one was years and years ago, when I was in an 'ecumenical' phase). Everything was very quiet and clean and the benches made me wish I had brought a cushion, as others had. Several people spoke and it wasn't offensive, but it was hardly as heart-piercing as the fellow who had stood up years before and seemed, without show, to be talking directly to his god. There was a nice meal afterward and people were friendly. The meeting room felt a little like a zendo, but I realized then as I have been realizing with increasing frequency that spiritual life in its formats just doesn't interest me much any more. I'm not saying I'm above it or beyond it or that I have grabbed some brass ring. It simply doesn't interest me as much as it once did. It's good stuff and I will recommend it to anyone who is looking for a way in which to codify their search, but ... well, I sit when I sit, usually on Sundays in the zendo for an hour or so, but during the week when it seems appropriate. After all these years, it feels a bit odd, but recently I gave away 99% of my 'spiritual' books and I haven't missed them yet.

I guess my conclusion, if there is one, is that I agree with you ... start with the thing or things, person or people, who are closest to your very pedestrian heart. To be honest in this way is to be at home in your home. There may be hints and nudges from elsewhere (Buddhism, TV, I don't know what) but taking care of your family (literal and metaphorical) is best.

I sympathize with the teacher who would not listen to your 'family' as being most important. There are so many excuses for not digging in -- getting down and dirty with spiritual efforts -- that sometimes people fall over backwards trying to cut off the tools of laziness. Don't worry, there's an asshole born every minute, so running into one of them is hardly unusual. The best lesson anyone can take from assholes is this -- just don't YOU be one.

I came to spiritual life based on the lashes of the intellect. My father, a college professor, and mother, a writer who was bright enough to be invited into Mensa (the brainiac society) and deciding she didn't want to hang out with all those people who could do no better than to be bright, were both smart people. Not loving, but smart. My father's father was a Presbyterian minister ... a fact that is enough to make anyone hate religion, which my father did in spades. His religion was ... the intellect. My mother, who was smarter, could not escape her smarts, but was smart enough to know that smarts were not the answer to the serious questions of peace. Still, I was stuck with smart parents ... and couldn't quite figure out what was wrong with them ... or wrong with me. It was a painful business. Eventually, I got wrapped up in Vedanta and later switched to Zen ... a practice that, for my purposes, was nothing but DOING. You could think/believe any damned thing you pleased, but that a $2 would get you a bus ride. Experience was what I was after, not more thinking. So ... that was 40 years ago. I went through all the typical asshole phases -- over-enthusiastic, rigid, wise ... blah, blah, blah... all of it very informative and useful, though sometimes I wonder if I had to be quite so much of an asshole for quite so long. Now I am an asshole, but I do my best not to prove it at every turn. The holy and the serene will have to go their way without me. Which is not to say I am above or beyond a little Hollywood when the occasion calls for it: I do wear my robes to the Saturday peace picket where everyone else wears signs expressing the expected peace sentiments. I figure a guy in a dress draws attention and if that attention will cause anyone to think about what they think, then it's worth the show biz.

As my teacher said, "take care of your family." My experience is that when you do that, the word "family" seems to spread out like kudzu, wider and wider and wider. It's nothing sexy. It's just what seems to happen.

Take your time and take good care.

can I buy a submarine?

In answer to the question that I know has been burning a hole in your mind, the word is out ... yes, you too can own a submarine ... perhaps one capable of carrying a five-man crew and four tons of cocaine.

No word on whether there will be a Walmart knock-off.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

a little perspective, si'l vous plaît

"Behind every great fortune is a crime" is a line most frequently attributed to the 19th century French writer, Honoré de Balzac. Whether he is the source or not makes little difference in the aptness of the observation, which a shrink friend of mine once echoed with his own observation, "No one who is rich ever got that way by being nice."

This is one of those observations that excites a momentary satisfaction on the mental taste buds of those who are less well-to-do and is probably dismissed by those in the monetary driver's seat as a petulant jealousy on the part of those who are less competent and driven. The successful have a way of forgiving themselves where others may not. They, after all, are well-dressed, sometimes well-spoken, give to charities and attend the required galas in the company of the similarly successful. They work hard and do good and their teeth seem to be invariably white.

And yet I wonder what they might see in the mirror when reading ....

-- In Los Angeles, the young wife of Mexico's Sinaloan drug cartel boss gave birth to twin girls on Aug. 15. Emma Coronel, 22, a former beauty queen, left the father's name off the birth certificate and returned to Mexico after the birth, according to the Los Angeles Times. The father, Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, 54, is the head of Mexico's most powerful illegal drug gang, the Sinaloa cartel. U.S. authorities have put a $5 million bounty on the multi-billionaire's head. Someone clearly thinks he is a criminal. A criminal, perhaps, but, according to a BBC report ...

Guzman made Forbes magazine's list of the 67 World's Most Powerful People two years ago. At number 41, he was just below Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
No doubt Mr. Guzman gives to charity, is welcome in well-heeled gatherings and will be kind to his children. He is probably a nice guy when 'nice' is called for. And he has proven to be successful man ... what the hell, Forbes magazine anoints only the most wealthy and successful. But I wonder how Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, the Newhouse family and others view themselves when -- if they ever do -- they notice the company they keep. Perhaps, like Richard Nixon, they take comforting refuge in the thought that, "I am not a crook." They, or course, do not murder people in pursuit of their goals ... or if they do, the bodies are never found or noted.

-- On another perspective front, Australia has lifted the ban on women serving in military combat roles. Whether, as claimed by critics, the announcement is just a "political gimmick" or not, still the willingness to extend the inclusion of women in the "harm's way" aspect of military life begs the question of whether killing people (and in the process putting them in a position to be killed themselves)  is an adequate way of conducting human relations. I am not a lie-down-and-kick-my-feet pacifist. There are circumstances that require force. But killing our children, whether male or female, strikes me as a very poor way of asserting an imagined security and peace. Too often, those handling the patriotic narrative have no personal stake in anything other than waving a flag shot through with the fears of others who do the actual work, the actual dying.

-- And on the home front, a majority of Americans say they would not miss their local newspaper and the news it provides if those newspapers were to disappear.

"People may assume that because they go to the newspaper now for that information, it is available somewhere else," said Tom Rosenstiel, co-author of a report on the survey and director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "I'm not sure if that is correct."
Simultaneously, those polled said they rely on their local newspapers for a broad range of information. But, "Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed said their local newspaper's absence wouldn't have a major effect on their ability to keep up with information about their community." What sort of disconnect is this?

-- The news media, meanwhile, have their own questions to answer, as for example, why it is that the on-going protest on Wall Street receives little or no attention. To me, the Wall Street action is an indicator that the "Arab spring" of the Middle East, so implicitly (if carelessly) applauded, has traction in an economically-beleaguered United States. Greece has its marchers. England has had its. Italy's streets have been flooded. But in the United States ... if you don't mention it, it doesn't exist. Perhaps a repeat of "The Bonus Army" that camped out in Washington in 1932 is the only means of getting the attention of a media consumed with what is either far away or not too complex... or too threatening to the profits they enjoy.

PS. In an ironic twist, the morning newspaper I usually scan did not arrive this morning. There had been press trouble, an on-line story said. I was more irritated by its failure to arrive than I was pleased to find out why on-line.


As a matter of curiosity, I wonder:

Which, if either, would be better -- to conquer your fears or not to be afraid in the first place?

I don't mean this in some high-seat, spiritual or self-improvement way.

It's just a matter of curiosity.

Monday, September 26, 2011

the past comes calling

Just about the time I figure the past has settled into some rocking chair in a cozy corner, it tiptoes up and gives me a nudge.

An email missive just now informed me that someone had bought an Internet copy of my book -- a book I largely relegate to rocking-chair status. I'm surprised and vaguely happy: Surprised because of the rocking-chair-in-a-cozy-corner status in my mind and happy because the Internet version has some additions to the hardcover book ... additions I like (pictures and words) but don't really have the disposable income to add to the hardcover version.

Something to remember to forget, I guess.

90-day Zen retreat in Korea



Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

Diana Nyad, 62,  gave up again after jelly fish stung her unmercifully as she attempted, for a second time, to swim from Cuba to the United States, a 103-mile effort.

"It's such a bitter pill. I am so capable of that swim. That's the end, though"
Interesting that no matter how much anyone accomplishes or fails to accomplish, still there will always be one last thing that is unaccomplished.

word-of-mouth existence

It may be obvious, but there is something gloomy about the confirmation asserted in a poll that finds that more and more people are relying on word-of-mouth for their news. I suppose it's as good an explanation as any for the cantankerousness that is bogging down the political system: I'm me, I'm important, I know the truth ... and if you don't agree with me, I'll call you a bigot and burn down your house.

There's the Internet, awash in personal opinion that is promulgated at geometric rates with less and less sourcing or fact-checking. The Internet, that pseudo-connector and social adhesive and quick-hit appreciation of any topic on earth.

When times are hard, people pull back and rely on themselves more than before. OK. And they rely on their neighbors and friends. OK. But if fewer and fewer look beyond their own confines, beyond their own nations, beyond their own opinions ... isn't life likely to come around and bite them on the ass? I think it will.

It is self-serving to acquaint this small world with the world around it. Such acquaintanceship is never perfect, but it does open out into more possibilities. Just because anyone loves something or despises it doesn't mean it's true or untrue.

Bit by bit, the world becomes flat ... loud, selfish, mediocre and flat.

more and more and more and more

Last night, I got an email from Keith, a guy with whom I went to college and a guy I haven't seen or had contact with in more than 50 years. He confirmed that he did indeed plan to visit on Oct. 7. Tongue-in-cheek (I hope), he suggested I might have forgotten. But I hadn't forgotten. In fact, I am looking forward to meeting someone I do not know ... whom I did know. There is something bizarre and delicious about it.

I like meeting people I don't know. It's like turning on the TV and discovering a channel I had previously been unaware of ... something brand new but not new at all ... like running into a thought that I thought I hadn't thought and yet there it was, proof of the fact that I had, in fact, thought it somewhere, somehow ... otherwise how could I possibly think it?

In college, Keith and I played billiards, among other things. It was almost -- or perhaps entirely -- a spiritual experience. Both of us were serious. Both of us took pleasure in the formality of the ritual -- the care each took not to talk, not to stand in the line of sight of the other person when he was taking a shot, to remain still during that shot and, when there was a good shot, to tap the cue twice on the floor to indicate approval or praise. No talk, just two taps.

Naturally, each of us wanted to win, but that was not the prime objective. Winning was a facet on the gem we created, a gem that would have been muddied and dimmed if the other facets had been transgressed. This was not some elementary-school teacher's realm in which the thin-tea "good-joooob's" rained down indiscriminately and without much regard to accomplishment. This was not a time for the social praise that amounts to a poor man's blackmail or some ill-conceived compromise: "I'll praise you if you praise me and both of us can feel oh-so-wonderful."

Keith and I could play for hours. We once entered the college pool hall at 8 a.m. and didn't leave until midnight. It was a snow day -- no classes. No classes, but we had our classes to attend. Three balls -- two white, one red -- on a green-felt-topped, pocket-less table.

It was Keith who organized a college-wide billiards tournament, something to include the more-popular pool (with the pockets) and our three-ball game.

And when the finals rolled around, there we were, pitted against each other. Since we were, so to speak, that last men standing, we decided to up the ante -- to create a game that we had never played before: We decided to play 100 points of three-cushion billiards. In three-cushion billiards, the cue ball (the one struck by the player's cue) hits one object ball and then must strike three cushions (table railings) before hitting the second object ball. The game requires some knowledge of angles, the spin on the ball (English), how hard to hit and some defensive strategy about leaving your opponent with a hard shot, assuming you miss.

One hundred points, given our skill level, which was moderate, would take a long time to complete. A very long time. It would require physical energy to stand up for so long. But more, it would require mental energy ... the kind of attention that any athlete ultimately must bring to the game.

We played through the 'serious.' We played through the 'sad.' We played through the 'giggles.' We played through the 'energy' and we played through the 'fatigue.' We played through 'beauty' and we played through 'ugliness.' We played through 'anger' and we played through 'love.' We played through the 'delight' and we played through the 'relief.' We played through the 'focus' and the 'lack of focus.' And no matter how much we played through, still there was more to go. More and more and more.

Going into the game, we both had imagined a lot of ball-busting effort -- that's why we settled on 100 points -- but living through it was an entirely different matter. Wise or pussy-footing imagination was left in the dust. Praise and blame was for pussies. This, in the end, was this ... and there was more and more and more of this. Our rituals stayed with us throughout, but in the end there were no rituals. We were like blackboards that had been wiped clean of all supposition or elevation or success or failure.

And when, in the end, I happened to win, it was not the victory that sprang to mind. I have won very few trophies in my life and the ones I have won have never convinced me in ways that others seem to enjoy. Probably due to upbringing, I have never been very good at relying on the praises of others or very good at using the reliance that others put on victory to further my own cause.

What came to mind was something that happened years later when, after sesshin, or a Zen Buddhist intensive retreat, I was walking home with a young woman who had also attended the sesshin and she began to cry. I asked her why she was crying and she almost wailed, "There's no one to thank!" So I said, "Thank me." So she said, "Thank you." And I said, "You're welcome." And we just kept on walking.

More and more and more and more ... of this. I suppose there's nothing wrong about praise if you have nothing better to do. But really, walking together requires no trophies. It just requires a sure-footed, amen delight. Who would want to sully such a delight?

How could there possibly be more when there is this?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

end of an era

The end of an era ....

-- In Spain, Catalonia bids farewell to bullfighting today. Ernest Hemingway must be spinning in his Romantic, macho grave.

-- In Berlin, Patrick Makau took the marathon in a record time of two hours, three minutes and 38 seconds. A new record to replace the old one.

-- And in Saudi Arabia, women will at long last be given the right to vote and run in municipal elections. How casually we take our freedoms and riches.

getting down with my shit

Sometimes I think the whole business of spiritual endeavor boils down to this: No matter how much you shit, literally, there is always more where that came from. How many times does anyone have a bowel movement in their lives? Lots and lots seems like a fair guess. And the relief that comes with the completion of one particular bowel movement is satisfying. It suggests that something has ended ... "Whew! That really hits the spot!"

But, based on long-standing and concrete evidence, that's not the end at all. Satisfying? Yes. Finished? Never.

And if this metaphor rings any bells or has any usefulness, perhaps it encourages a mind upgrade -- some change of understanding about the shit that comes along in life. Good and bad seems pretty childish. Elevated and debased seems a bit puerile. Shit happens. It will happen again. So why do I have all these views about good shit and bad -- couldn't I find a better use for my time? It's not as if shit is going to stop an account of my elevated, religio-philosophical observations about it.

I know, I know ... we can all go off on smirky tangents about shit happening and being constipated and getting the runs and so forth. But seriously, isn't it a pretty good teacher. Over and over and over again, shit. Over and over and over again, I express my views or seek to escape life's shit or create arabesques of serenity and peace ... or some other shit.

Wouldn't it be better to put on a more realistic pair of glasses or maybe get rid of the glasses altogether?

If you can't run and you can't hide and you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear ... then what's the point in trying? Well, the point is ... ME. But since the shit keeps coming, ME doesn't appear to be a very effective tool, does it? Me and my shit ... time for an attitude adjustment, n'est-ce pas?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi ... web page additions

With the addition of material from Chris Hamacher and the diligent efforts of  web master, The Rev. Kobutsu Malone, the Internet page devoted to Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi has grown.

Thanks to both.

And if anyone reading this has any old talks, photos, calligraphy or other memorabilia relating to Kyudo, I hope you will consider passing them along for possible inclusion.

"failure is not acceptable"

The older I get, the more I dislike the phrase, "failure is not an option." That's the kind of gung-ho nonsense-encouragement offered by second-rate military commanders, over-zealous and under-trained  business executives, and others enthusiasts attempting to achieve some goal. The trouble with the line is that the more you assert it, the more the possibility gains force. What's the matter with the truth? Failure is an option, whatever the aspirations of the one making an effort.

On the other hand, having acknowledged the truth, determination can be brought to bear and, in point of fact, even when failure is an option, still there is no failure in the effort.

After her initial 29-hour effort, sixty-two-year-old Diana Nyad gave up her attempt to swim 103 miles from Cuba to the United States. An asthma attack did her in. Yesterday, she began a repeat performance.

Is there any denying that she failed the first time? Is there any denying she might fail again? Failure is part of any mix, from swimming 103 miles to attaining enlightenment. But just as failure is part of the mix, so is determination. Will that determination be rewarded with success? Will it be crowned with failure? No one can know the future, but they can make the effort and in that effort, be rewarded. Lying about it diminishes the effort. Lying does not elevate it. Lying weighs down the scene with something extra, a distraction. Determination is a good thing, win, lose or draw.

The Fairfax County (Virginia) elementary schools have given up using A's, B's and F's as a means of marking their students. Now there will be longer, more nuanced, more meandering assessments that will reflect ... oh, you know, all the nooks and crannies of personal ability. But does saying more really say more? It puts teachers in a position of having to come up with some palatable way of saying Little Johnnie or Little Suzy screwed the pooch or exceeded all expectations.  Teachers have enough to do without this touchy-feely bullshitting.

When my kids were in grade school and the school would offer some kind of parent-teacher one-on-ones, I always tried to save the teachers from searching out all the polite ways of saying whatever it was they had to say. I pitied them trying to balance the parental prejudice with the plain facts. So I would tell the teacher I was sitting with that I was grateful for their effort with my child, but I wasn't there to hear accolades. I wanted to know where my child was weak or uncertain -- where the 'F'-word would have been used if these feel-good meetings hadn't been mandated. Usually, the teachers seemed relieved to be talking turkey and they could point out areas of weakness or failure. What better basis for determination, for a nourishing improvement?

If you can't swim 103 miles, let the twits talk about "failure." Now is the time to don the determination and go into the water again. Setting aside the common-enough habit of complaining and doubting, just suit up and, as the Japanese say, "fall down seven times, get up eight." Determination is acceptable; "failure" and "success" alike are unacceptable.

Or anyway, not terribly useful.

of pores and flea penises

Yesterday, Chris, an internet friend and fellow student of Zen teacher Kyudo Nakagawa, sent along a teisho (Dharma talk) Chris had recorded and transcribed. He also sent an ink painting of a horse -- something Kyudo made and handed out as a New Year's gift -- and a picture of Kyudo himself. All of it was sent as an addition to the internet site offering a very limited compilation of Kyudo stuff. The site aims to give some flavor of the man, most of whose words are held at Ryutaku-ji Monastery and are unlikely to see the light of day.

The teisho, which I read quickly once yesterday and will read more closely today, really does remind me of the comedy "Blazing Saddles" in which passing reference is made to "authentic frontier gibberish." It is quite higglety-pigglety and associative, but, as anyone who has been to a sesshin, or intensive Zen retreat, can attest, it carries with it encouragements and observations that don't need to make sense because they make so much sense. Of course what makes so much sense may just be eye wash and self-deluding rat poison, but ... well, it's up to the listener or reader to make the call. So I think it should be added.

What stood out in my quick-read mind was the suggestion of keeping all your pores open ... everything wide open and free ... all your pores open.

That, and the completely Kyudo-esque punch line ... a flea penis.

Yes, I miss him.

places I'll never see

Watching a TV show last night, I realized that there are several places in the world I would like to visit and never will.

-- The Orkney Islands, the focus of the TV show. Partly because it is a neat name. Partly because the pagan ruins there tell the tale of a people who existed 5,000 years ago, never lived much beyond 25, and whose habit may have been to leave corpses out to be picked clean by the resident sea eagles before immuring them in burial mounds ... mounds to be (possibly) visited by descendants who would fondle the bones as a means of asserting a past and also as a means of touching the future. The guessed-at rituals reminded me of the Buddhist monks who, in the high mountains, sometimes chop up the remains of deceased fellow monks and leave the result as fodder for the vultures.

-- Tierra del Fuego, also because it is a neat name for a place where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans collide and, although there might be nothing of note to see -- no actual demarcation line between one ocean and another -- still, standing the place of the thunderously invisible is inviting in my mind. I assume, but don't know, that there must be volcanoes in the neighborhood ... where else would the "fire" of "Tierra del fuego" come from?

-- Afghanistan, terminus of the old Silk Route ... a real cultural melting pot, however decimated it may have become under the insistence of latter-day Muslims intent on their own branding irons. As Hollywood airheads might croon that a particular club or restaurant was "the place to be," Afghanistan stands in my mind as a place where everyone met and mingled and enriched each other like the waters off Tierra del Fuego.

Friday, September 23, 2011

the middle way

In every in-your-face tragedy, there comes a point where anyone simply has to step back, ignore the searing realities of the moment, and decide what to do. Perhaps they decide to do something that makes the situation worse. Perhaps they decide to do something that promises to make things better. Either way, you have to do something... this clawing, searing sandstorm is too much. Death, disease, drugs, divorce ... just to cite a few d's ... what's your next move?

But where is the balance? Step too far back and the very particular barbs of the situation are grossly ignored, buried under a feel-good fluff. Fail to step back and the storm consumes you with its on-going, self-fulfilling anguish.

I guess I am thinking about this because spiritual invitations can so often be used not to solve problems but to bury them. Sweet-talkin' Jesus has the answer; sage observations in Buddhism turn into more sage observations and more sage observations and ... well, shit, the problem is secretly and unwittingly enhanced because it is not addressed.

Where's the balance between acknowledging and addressing a problem directly and laying the groundwork for a nourishing resolution without getting drowned in sweet talk?

Someone once asked a Zen teacher the meaning of "the middle way." He replied, "It means the extremes." And that, as far as I can see, hits the nail on the head. There is no bullshitting sorrow and yet the bullshit is everywhere available. You can't 'seek' the middle way. You can only be it.

How? I haven't got a clue. "Live and learn" is about as good a reminder as I can think of.


Someone once described American President George W. Bush as someone who "was born on third base imagining he hit a triple." It was a small arrow shot by someone who was not a fan and wanted to sum up his distaste in terms of class. It was a description I found hard to dislike.

But as the desperation of the country (and perhaps world) mounts, bon mots seem to be all anyone has time for. The stock market took a 391-point nose dive yesterday; joblessness squeezes people who can remember a time when they complained about going to work in the morning; disaster relief is held hostage in a country that once assumed that natural disasters anywhere in the country were the nation's business; and everywhere angry and helpless people seek simple answers, which, when given, are obviously not going to work in any concrete, I-need-a-job-now way.

Helplessness, anger and last night the Republican candidates took to the debate stage in Florida looking, among other things, so goddamned white. "White," meaning well-heeled, well-positioned, self-serving, unaware, and unwilling to give up an inch of what they have attained in order to minister to the body politic. And no one for a minute imagines that a black man or woman would be much different. Watching those candidates merely enhances the anger: It's no longer what might improve the country's lot that is worthy of belief: The sense of in-your-face malaise and despair demands to hear what will improve that lot.

From 1966 to 1969, Chinese chairman Mao Zedong instituted 'The Cultural Revolution' and thousands of bourgeois natives were sent off to labor camps for re-education. People read his "Little Red Book" which pointed to a more pure form of communism in which the egg-heads (and others with "incorrect thoughts") would not hold sway. A new generation made a profession out of attacking the previous one. The cultural revolution was a disaster, but the idea of shipping out anything that resembled thinking outside the box was attractive to the have-nots and those who insisted on thinking inside some lock-step box. And it is hard not to imagine sweeping up the current lot of politicians and shipping them, en masse, to some rice paddy in Zanzibar or someplace else that was sufficiently remote so that their sound-bite nostrums could not be heard fouling the airwaves. It wouldn't work, but the temptation sure as hell has its appeal. But would that put food on the table or protect the families that long to protect themselves?

I don't know anything about politics. But, like a lot of others, I know something about trust and distrust, about the difference between can-do and can-talk, and about the desire for a little decency and safety that is concrete. How to attain it? I haven't got a clue, but I can't imagine that telling more self-serving, pseudo-patriotic lies will help much.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

lights out

This morning from about 8 to about 9:30, the electricity went off. How discombobulating. There I was in the middle of a blog post and ... poof! There I was trying to cook oatmeal using a flashlight. There I was, forced to take the toothbrush to the window in order to see how much toothpaste I applied. There I was, unable to turn on the dishwasher or see very well into the refrigerator. There I was with my entire schedule upended or revised. By the time I finished zazen, somehow, unnoticed, the lights had come back on.

Interesting when assumptions are challenged.


Anyone who has managed to read "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley will know that the monster is not the monster in the story. The monster is the monster's creator.

"Frankenstein" is the tale of a scientist who fashions a body from various corpses and then brings it to life through the application of lightning bolts. True, Dr. Frankenstein is horrified by what he has wrought but the monster himself, all simple and untutored and largely unloved, comes naked into a world that finds no place for him.

Sometimes I wonder how many corpses of the past have been stitched together and brought to life in the lightning of the present only to be left to fend, naked, for itself. A tall and boundlessly powerful infant is born.

Who will care for that infant?

Troy Davis executed

At 11:08 last night, the state of Georgia carried out the execution of Troy Davis, a man found guilty of killing an off-duty police officer in 1989. A worldwide hue and cry seeking clemency arose after witnesses recanted and other evidence in the trial was found faulty. Appeal after appeal was rejected and the sense of injustice mounted. And now Troy Davis is dead.

I thought the most compelling part of the reaction that welled up after the execution came from the mother of slain police officer Mark MacPhail. Anneliese MacPhail was quoted as saying:

I'm kind of numb. I can't believe that it's really happened. All the feelings of relief and peace I've been waiting for all these years, they will come later. I certainly do want some peace.
When is the end ever the end? And what sort of peace is it that twinkles on the horizon of "later?" Which of us has not felt the same only to find peace trickling through our fingers like water lifted from a stream?

Killing -- whether of off-duty police officers or convicted felons -- simply doesn't work as a mechanism of peace. It is better to acknowledge this and dwell in an uncertain limbo that seeks certainty than it is to weave tales that may please the mind but let the heart go begging.

not that serious

Is there any spiritual endeavor that is not awash in plotting charts and pointers -- sextants and calipers and telescopes and maps depicting the place where "there be dragons" or "uncharted shoals?" There are richly and heavily-laden mule trains worth of explanation and meaning. This is serious adventure for the serious and yet Shunryu Suzuki once observed of our adventures: "It's serious, but it is not that serious."

My interpretation of that observation is that the seriousness of spiritual endeavor boils down to one serious-but-not-too-serious matter: Spiritual endeavor is serious because "I" am serious. That's the beginning and end of it. It's not better or worse, more or less elevated or debased, more or less profound or superficial. It's just a fact: "I" am serious.

But not that serious.

An old refrigerator magnet suggests, "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." Who would not want to fly if s/he could? Woo-hoo ... I know I would. Swooping, zooming, alighting and re-arising at will ... free on the free, free air! Who would not gather sextants and charts and maps and provisions of all sorts in order to reach out and touch what is so untouchable?

But not that serious.

Did it ever occur to you that with all those wise and supportive provisions gathered around you in a warming pile that you were already flying? No big deal. Just a fact. Already doing what is longed for with an aching, pleading heart?


Another refrigerator magnet suggests: Life is what is happening while you were busy making other plans.

It's serious.

But it's not that serious.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

social upheaval possible in U.S.?

A fairly interesting article from the BBC.

philosophical adventures in kissing

Received in email:

Dear Doctor Rude,
I think I understand what a "platonic kiss" is, but could you explain to me the difference between the following kisses?
Aristotelian kiss
Hegelian kiss
Wittgensteinian kiss
Godelian kiss
Flummoxed in Florida
Dear Flummoxed,
That's a very good question; nowadays most sex education courses focus on secondary and tertiary sources, so much so that few people really get exposed to the classics in this field any more. I'll try to make a brief but clear summary of some of these important types of kisses:
Aristotelian kiss
a kiss performed using techniques gained solely from theoretical speculation untainted by any experiential data by one who feels that the latter is irrelevant anyway.
Hegelian kiss
dialiptical technique in which the kiss incorporates its own antithikiss, forming a synthekiss.
Wittgensteinian kiss
the important thing about this type of kiss is that it refers only to the symbol (our internal mental representation we associate with the experience of the kiss--which must necessarily also be differentiated from the act itself for obvious reasons and which need not be by any means the same or even similar for the different people experiencing the act) rather than the act itself and, as such, one must be careful not to make unwarranted generalizations about the act itself or the experience thereof based merely on our manipulation of the symbology therefor.
Godelian kiss
a kiss that takes an extraordinarily long time, yet leaves you unable to decide whether you've been kissed or not.
Socratic kiss
really a Platonic kiss, but it's claimed to be the Socratic technique so it'll sound more authoritative; however, compared to most strictly Platonic kisses, Socratic kisses wander around a lot more and cover more ground.
Kantian kiss
a kiss that, eschewing inferior "phenomenal" contact, is performed entirely on the superior "noumenal" plane; though you don't actually feel it at all, you are, nonetheless, free to declare it the best kiss you've ever given or received.
Kafkaesque kiss
a kiss that starts out feeling like it's about to transform you but ends up just bugging you.
Sartrean kiss
a kiss that you worry yourself to death about even though it really doesn't matter anyway.
Russell-Whiteheadian kiss
a formal kiss in which each lip and tongue movement is rigorously and completely defined, even though it ends up seeming incomplete somehow.
Pythagorean kiss
a kiss given by someone who has developed some new and wonderful techniques but refuses to use them on anyone for fear that others would find out about them and copy them.
Cartesian kiss
a particularly well-planned and coordinated movement: "I think, therefore, I aim." In general, a kiss does not count as Cartesian unless it is applied with enough force to remove all doubt that one has been kissed. (cf. Polar kiss, a more well-rounded movement involving greater nose-to-nose contact, but colder overall.)
Heisenbergian kiss
a hard-to-define kiss--the more it moves you, the less sure you are of where the kiss was; the more energy it has, the more trouble you have figuring out how long it lasted. Extreme versions of this type of kiss are known as "virtual kisses" because the level of uncertainty is so high that you're not quite sure if you were kissed or not. Virtual kisses have the advantage, however, that you need not have anyone else in the room with you to enjoy them.
Nietzscheian kiss
"she/he who does not kiss you, makes your lust stronger."
Zenoian kiss
your lips approach, closer and closer, but never actually touch.
- Doctor Rude 


there really is weeping

I don't know if it is a true memory or a fabricated one, but I seem to remember a tale in which Gautama (the one generally referred to as the Buddha) looked into the future, saw the war and discord of the times and wept. Weeping is such a popular pastime these days -- politicians and others expressing their versions of regret seem capable of turning on the spigot at will for TV cameras -- that I hesitate to mention the function at all. And yet there really is weeping and there are things worth weeping for.

I don't much care if the story of Gautama is true or not. I don't put much stock in seeing into the future, but I wouldn't discount it either. In my Swiss-cheesy memory an enlightened Gautama saw war and discord and wept. A weeping circle jerk is still a circle jerk ... and still there is weeping.

In the video posted following this post, a psychological counselor is shown talking with a former soldier who is wracked by is war experience and his inability to find a peaceful way in a peace-time society. And the counselor points out to this young man who might well be my son or yours, my brother or yours, that his country has asked him to set aside his deepest values, his sense of right and wrong, and to kill others. And the young man -- my son and your brother -- did it as a matter of survival. It was the only way he could survive. And he did survive ... but the price he paid, the shredding of his own deepest values, finds no forgiveness or perspective in a world where his survival is no longer so directly threatened. The counselor tries to comfort the young man ... it was not he who was wrong, it was not he who made a mistake. It was the war that was mistaken -- the assumption that setting aside our deepest values is worth the price ... as a matter of manufactured survival.

It is one thing to set aside those values as a matter of survival. Which one of us would not do that? But the placing of one man by another into survival-mode conditions is ... is to weep. The shredding of what is decent and nourishing in any human being ... is unconscionable ... and ... to weep. To force another to forsake enlightenment for delusion ... is to weep. Why would anyone in a position of leadership and power do that? Because s/he believes in power too much and peace too little. To do this to yourself is one thing. To do it to another ... is to weep. To tear out a man's deepest heart and tell him to go forward with heart ... is to weep. To take advantage of a man's love for and understandable desire to nourish family and friends and even country ... it is beyond despicable ... it is to weep. The underlying revulsion and despair can be seen in the U.S. creation of drone bases -- weapons that will not subject as many men and women to the shredding of their own deepest understanding.

There is no cool distance that can be brought to bear. No religious smarm. No philosophical dissection. All that can be suggested is ...

Don't you do that.

In Georgia, Troy Davis is scheduled to be executed today for killing a police officer in 1989. He has exhausted the appeals that rested on witness recantations and lack of evidence and excited worldwide appeals. A picture of one protest showed a woman bearing a placard that said, "Not in my name."

Not in my name.

Don't you do that.

Save your tears.

Don't you do that.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"The Wounded Platoon"

This "Frontline" report, "The Wounded Platoon," is worth the patience and courage it takes to watch. It tells the careful story of what it means to set aside human values of right and wrong in pursuit of a fabricated and sometimes lethal "enemy."

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

what others say

Like other parents -- or anyway what I assume other parents do -- I am concerned for my children. It can't be helped. I try to balance a listening ear with an intervening necessity and be of some loving use. I ache when they ache. I ache to protect them from those aches ... and of course I can't do it. I long to build up the callouses or adult mindset that will allow me to allow them ... and I fail, over and over again.

My younger son is going through the confusing and somewhat frightening stage of realizing he will graduate from high school this year. And after that? Well, when you don't know or can't see, it's confusing and frightening and ... well ... eek!

Many, if not most, of my son's acquaintances and friends are doing the next expected thing -- gearing up for a life at college. It's an uncertain world, but it has the consolation of being what 'everybody' else is doing. My son does not want to go to college. He has had it with books. He fears the debt. He doesn't want to do what 'everybody' is doing and yet can find no sure place to put his hand. For this reason (and probably a lot of other reasons he has not expressed to me) he considers the military option. I can see where he is coming from to some extent -- a life settled and directed towards a clear mission. Close camaraderie. Excitement. Manly men. Experience. No-fucking-around certainty.

I can see his point of view and ... I quail at the prospect. I cannot possibly explain to him that it takes more balls and more courageous effort to live a quiet and peaceful and uneventful life than it does to take up arms and create lethal adventures in the Hemingway fashion ... how the hell do you know you are alive if you are not confronting death. What a high! What a high until the drug wears off.

I have expressed myself as best I can to my son. What I really wish for him is that he make choices that he will be able to live with ... not choices I will be able to live with.

And I have tried in various ways to tell him -- it's not important what others think about what you believe; it is only important what you think about what you believe... deeply important. Will you make your choices and accept the responsibility for them, win, lose or draw? Will you do your best to correct whatever mistakes you make without being asked by others? Will you find peace within both your failures and successes? What others say is not so important. What you say is vitally important.

the apex of electronic gadgetry

Not for those offended by dirty words, but I believe the Internet shorthand for this offering from The Onion is ROFLMAO!!!!!

killing whom?

There is a heinousness to killing others that, I would argue, every human being knows. That heinousness lies not so much in the ueber-altrusitic protestations of church or state as it does in the heart of the perpetrator. There is nothing smarmy about it. It is the simple knowledge within ... I KNOW THAT THIS WOUNDS AND REDUCES ... ME.

The extent and impact of this knowing can be seen in the gyrations and rationalizations brought to bear when it comes to making killing socially acceptable. "An eye for an eye" is portrayed as somehow fitting and just. Or keeping a sanitized distance from killing may seem to make it somehow more acceptable ... as pointed out in the U.S. military's increasing reliance on drones to seek out and destroy the enemy du jour. Drones mean less danger and less responsibility and less wounding of the good guys ... namely us. It is hard to rationalize the delight and profit that comes with a war in which sons and daughters are not only killed and maimed but also forced to endure the instinctive despair that comes with killing others ... a despair buried beneath patriotism, failed diplomacies, and other self-serving maneuvers. Let's make war cheaper while not surrendering the satisfactions and profits ... drones ... as pointed out between the lines in The Washington Post this morning.

But the heinousness of killing becomes harder to avoid when the excuses and explanations fray. Troy Davis is scheduled to be executed in Georgia tomorrow. He was accused and convicted of killing an off-duty police officer in 1989. But since that time, witnesses have recanted, flawed evidence has become more apparent and the execution takes on a truly grisly mantle ... the idea that a man who didn't do (or probably didn't do) something would be killed for having done it. What sort of society do we live in when the preponderance of evidence is overlooked because, well, someone's got to pay? In the face of such a situation, I cannot think of any reaction outside a scream.

And so there are drones -- the agents that will keep the killing of innocent and guilty alike at a distance and cloaked in a mantle of legitimacy. Every fiber may rebel and wretch at a personal level, but well... at least it wasn't me.

Only of course it was me. Me the executioner. Me the executed. And for what ... for a better opinion of myself? For an opinion that is shattered in the very act I maintain will enhance my decency and humanity and sense of justice? For at heart at ease where the heart purely rebels and vomits?

And of course it is easy to bemoan the taking of life when each of us values his own so dearly. But there are lesser executions to be considered as well. As for example a poll that finds young people unconcerned at the insults and slanders they may offer up on Internet venues like Facebook and Twitter. It's just a joke, the perpetrators tell themselves in disregard of the harm they may have caused with the careless insults ("slut" "fag" "nigger" etc.) they may have typed without a backward glance.

It is such a hard, hard lesson: No one can truly correct another. The best anyone can do is to vow within ... don't YOU do that! Why? Because to do so diminishes the very thing anyone might seek to enhance -- their own deepest, most decent and peaceful self.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"the better angels of our nature"

After China's 1959 assertion of power in Tibet, a Tibetan Buddhist monk was asked what his greatest fear had been during the upheaval. He replied, "I was afraid I might lose my compassion."

Hard times often put what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" to the test. It's easy to be kind and decent when times are tranquil, but when times grow dire, sometimes it takes all of whatever energy anyone has just to survive this day, this hour, this moment. This is far from some cozy philosophical theory or some polite religious straw man. When times get hard, things really are hard.

Now, in economic hard times, there is a report that the incidence of child abuse rose among the poor during the bubble-popping recession years.

Reading "among the poor" may allow some to secretly expel a sigh of relief. "Well, I'm not that badly off, thank God." And from this, there may be some quiet inference that the heinousness of child abuse has not yet crossed our own threshold.

But I think the economic recession is probably taking a toll on "the better angels of our nature," our very own children that deserve love and protection...and receive it when times are not hard. Bit by bit our care and concern and kindness are set to the side ... when times get hard, things really are hard. And if not abusers in any active sense, we become abusers by neglect.

Anyone who has had children, whether in good times or bad, will sympathize with the parent who has "had it up to here" with his or her kids. The longing to do bodily (or psychological) harm, so often kept in check, simply requires too much energy to keep in check when times are hard and pressures mount.

And the better angels of our nature -- those attentively nourished children -- are no different. Decency and caring and love can be whittled away when the stress mounts.

I can't say that I have any succulent, boiler-plate answer for any of this. But I would note that the children we have nourished when times were good are the very thing we honor about ourselves or others. They are important not simply in some altruistic, goody-two-shoes sense, but in a very personal sense. This is our intimate wealth, and the question is whether it is worth selling for "thirty pieces of silver."

I wouldn't say yes and I wouldn't say no. Hard times really are hard.

But I would say that if there were something literally worth  dying for, "the better angels of our nature" might be a damned good choice.

luxury items

Because I wasn't entirely sure and because I woke this morning wanting to know, I looked up where, precisely, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Ural mountains were and where they stood in relation to each other.

Geography has never been a strong point (probably part of the male gene marked "real men never look at maps"), but my mind's insistence on finding out would not be denied in this one small instance. As a footnote, but with less insistence, I looked up the Mountains of the Moon, whose location was a bit more firmly fixed but whose upside-down map was too deliciously artful not to include here.

 And all of this led me to marvel idly at the luxury anyone might enjoy: The lifestyle of the human being is to learn information and apply it; some know what they know and know no more; and some are so wealthy that what they know is attended (to a greater or lesser extent) by some sense of what they don't know.

In order to eat and get along, what is known is kept on the front burner -- sometimes rising beyond the mere subsistence level to a level of arrogance ... I know what I know and what I know is right and the rest of you can piss up a rope. Know-it-all's are a dime a dozen.

But more often, among the wealthy, I imagine, what is known is carefully balanced against the understanding that what is not known is positively vast and possibly not just "unknown" but also "unknowable." It's a wealthy man's possession but its implications can cut the the jagged edge of a rusty knife: If knowing is the way anyone was brought up, then not-knowing can appear to be an abject failure.

I don't want to get off into the "don't know mind" of some Korean Buddhists here, but rather would prefer to remain among those who may never have heard of Buddhism and its arabesques. Just the ordinary, walking-around experience anyone might have.

I once asked the scientist and prolific writer Isaac Asimov what he thought the single greatest scientific unknown was. With the speed of a sequined lady shot out of a circus cannon, he replied, "the mind." And if any answer deserved an "amen," perhaps his was most on target.

In quite ordinary terms, it's kind of interesting: Whether someone is an insufferable know-it-all or has the luxury of recognizing that so much is unknown and perhaps wallows in its uncertainties, still, what is unknown claims the high seat. No one can know what will happen in the next moment or the next week or the next year. We may have our hopes and dreams and plans and fears and expectations and longing to be in control, but life has its own ideas and wonderments and unexpected turns to the left or right. Anyone who has lived beyond the age of two or three can attest to this.

No amount of knowing can outflank the unknown and yet our training and sometimes desperate longing is to do precisely that. Crystal balls, a place in heaven, hexes and rabbits' feet all have a place in the world of what is known. There's a pretty good living to be made in the realms of those who claim they have outflanked the unknown. But their claims are just their claims ... caveat emptor.

No matter what virtue or what gyration is applied, still the unknown seems to titter like some Japanese girl behind a cupped hand. If you can't know the unknown and yet knowing is your longing and habit, how can anyone find some peace? Strenuous efforts don't work and a lassez-faire laziness is a masquerade ... so where's the balance, where's the peace, where's the certainty, where's the relief, where's the exhalation that goes "ahhhh?" Where is the answer that seems to be right on the tip of my tongue and yet, strangely, is always out of reach?

I haven't got any snake-oil answer. But there seems to be an imperative for each to do his or her own addition and subtraction, to reflect with an investigative care ... and keep on investigating. Is there any other choice? Sure, there are tons of choices, but the question is, do they work?

No one wants to be a wuss in their own lives and no one likes a know-it-all.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

the healing

A good story is like the sweetened or flavorless outer coating pharmaceutical companies put around a healing medicine. The coating makes what may be a bitter truth more palatable, whether literally or metaphorically, and the patient is more likely to stick to a prescribed regimen. It is, in one sense, a lie surrounding a quite good truth.

And so, occasionally, I forgive my own love of stories.

But then the curiousness evolves -- what would it be like without the lie? And in trying to depict the unvarnished and perhaps bitter truth, I am led into what amounts to a bitter lie. That is the nature of words -- tantalizing (whether bitter or sweet) but always at one or more removes from the truth.

Stories entice and suggest like some undulating belly dancer. Flowing, swaying, and delighting in their expression of the music ... but never quite the music itself.

It might be nice to get it straight -- no experience can ever be depicted by words. Experience is the healer, the music, the limitless. Words are OK and might as well be sweet, because, whether bitter or sweet, they can never capture the benevolent, swaying, limitless healing.

There, there ... take your medicine, dear.

reliance on others

If you assert it, does that make it true?

If you deny it, does that make it false?

As much as anything, I think that assertions of truth and falsehood relate to the willingness to rely on others. And that reliance is probably much more important than any truth or falsehood, much more worthy of investigation as regards anyone's honest peace and clarity.

OK, we are social creatures and crave the comforts of security, some of which are found among our fellow men and women. Agreement brings warmth, nourishment, safety much of the time. Like herds in the wild, we huddle together where the storm rages. We are warmed and thankful.

But truth and falsehood are limited and limiting and the strictures of agreement can cloy and nag and constrain. The agreements are agreeable right up until the moment when they are not -- right up until the moment where the heart longs to soar in some open, limitless sky. We may wax glib and refer to some as "non-conformists," but the truth is probably more like this: We are all non-conformists, through and through and our own non-conformity can scare the shit out of us, threatening as it does to cut us off from the warmth and safety of the truths and falsehoods we cling to. We may long to be "free" but fear the limitlessness of the "freedom" we claim to aspire to.

The only way I know to be both warmed and free is to investigate our reliance on others -- other people, other views, other truths, other falsehoods. Disavowing our reliance on others is just more of the same -- relying on those we may hope to disavow. And we get stuck -- seeking out reliable truths and falsehoods just as we have in the past. Same shit, different day.

Gently but firmly, there needs to be reflection on the one seeking security and the one seeking freedom. Are they the same or different? Naturally there will be those who agree, whether the answer is "the same" or "different." But this is not enough. It's more of the same truth and falsehood game.

Gently, but firmly ... gently but firmly ... gently but firmly ... reflect.

Until the bubble bursts.

the colors of puke

-- In the lately-approved world of "green energy" (harnessing wind, light and water instead of fossil fuel), a three-day protest has erupted at a Chinese solar panel plant. China very much dislikes protests of any sort, but there it is -- villagers gathering because the fish in their water ways have been killed and their children sickened. Police seem to have been dispatched ... not to clean up the pollution, but to cope with disruptive villagers.

-- In Pakistan, troops have been dispatched into the deep hills to battle with Taliban insurgents over the remains of a U.S. drone the Taliban claims to have shot down. Drones are unmanned planes that can rain down death on the other guy without ever dispatching troops who may later be sent home in politically-inconvenient body bags. And yet the troops have been dispatched ... to battle over the remote-controlled remains. Oh well, at least it's not American troops going into harm's way.

-- And a contract document to go on the auction block next week depicts the unwillingness of rock-'n'-roll giants, The Beatles, to play at U.S. venues that were segregated, black from white. The contract dates from 1965, a time when civil rights were more popular in the media and public perception.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Buddhism as religion

A lot of people may view Buddhism as one of the world's great -- or anyway major -- religions. I am not one of them. After 40 years of galumphing through the halls of Buddhism, I will say no, I am not one of them.

For anyone seriously interested in spiritual endeavor, my view is that religion is too divisive to be fruitful over the long haul. In the short run, it may provide some encouragement, but in the long run, its divisiveness injects spiritual life with a corrosive and doubt-prone venom. There may be excuses aplenty, but the divisiveness remains both undeniable and sad.

Better to heed the Dalai Lama's oft-quoted nudge, "My religion is kindness."

When the time is right, I hope that anyone might just leave religion to the temples and classrooms.

Sing, laugh, cry, dance, die, breathe ... isn't that enough?

mystery of the forest boy

The boy lived in the woods with his father for five years. When his father died, he left the woods, walked for two weeks and became a mystery to German authorities who are trying to piece together the past of the teenager who says his name is Ray.

This is miles more interesting than Oprah. What inspired his father? Was it the mother's death? How did the pair subsist through heat and cold? Was the old man crazy? What did the boy think or feel? What did they eat? What did they do when they were injured or sick? Why did the boy walk for two weeks to Berlin when surely there were other communities where he might equally well have stopped? Since he speaks English and a little German, where does he come from?

Not knowing is so delicious that knowing pales beside it. Limitlessness is more interesting than the limits that individuals try to place around it.

when the chips are down

For the life of me, I cannot locate the man's name or bio, but I remember him with fondness and, as I look around me, a certain awe. I came across his exploits in an article about him I read a long time ago -- a master of metal work who created such things as the bronze (?) doors on St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

As I recall, badly, he came from central Europe and worked in the United States both before and after the Depression.

But what really struck me, aside from the beauty of his works, was that during the Depression, a time when there was less and less demand for his ornate and expensive creations, he spent much of his fortune supporting those who wished to learn the art of metal working. He loved the art enough and believed in the art enough to maintain the art when those around him were unwilling to pay for or perhaps pay attention to the art. He placed his art above personal gain ... though I admit I don't recall his dying destitute.

How many are there who have such a willingness and determination to keep the vision alive ... win, lose or draw ... keep the vision alive?

Not everyone has a dream whose expressions are as grand as that metal-maestro. But everyone does have a dream of one sort or another, dreams that are often remembered only later, after those dreams have been whittled away or compromised by the exigencies of life. Something that was, in one way or another, bigger or other than mere self, a go-for-broke, try-and-fail-no-matter-what something-or-other. And I suspect that such a vision and such a willingness is nourishing to the human spirit and deserves encouragement.

Where failure is not an option and success is irrelevant ... this, I suspect, may be the Miracle-Gro of a human life. It has nothing to do with megalomania and quite a lot to do with honest living. Praise and blame are out of the question ... it's the living that counts.

Friday, September 16, 2011

eye candy impact

Although I have been wedded to words through much of my life, sometimes I think it is photographs and other eye candy that have a greater impact. Speaking without language, as photos and music do, changes the eyes and changes the heart ... even if the changes are invisible and defy all language:

... but of course the music varies in every ear.