Tuesday, January 31, 2012

a bit of musical fun

It may be old, but I just received it in email today ... a wonderful bit of musical fun.

Texas on my mind

I once asked Isaac Asimov, the scientist and prolific writer, what he thought the greatest unknown was. Without a moment's hesitation, he replied, "the mind."

When you think about it, what we know may be informative and fine, but what we don't know is really, really vast. The vastness is not an invitation to dissolve in a puddle of helplessness, but it is interesting. I like coming across things that let me know that the handle I imagined I had on one thing or another really doesn't tell the whole story ...

Today, for example, there is violence in the Middle East, corruption in one governing body or another, a multi-million-dollar race for the Republican presidential nomination, a question about which war the United States wants to start next ... and a thousand other high-profile issues to tumble-dry in the mind.

But the one that got my attention today was a two-year drought in Texas that is forcing cattle farmers to move north in order to feed their stock. This is an issue that speaks to food, to survival, to having the energy to prosecute another war or another benevolent philosophy. I don't generally think about Texas or factor it into my appreciation of the country I live in. Texas is big and brassy and self-serving and ... well, it is a blip on my radar screen. But Texas -- like anywhere else -- is a place that feeds me and that feed is under threat.

Is there anywhere that is not Texas?

As former Beatle John Lennon once put it, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

What my mind doesn't know is so vast. And much as I may dislike it, this suggests that humility is a quality that deserves a second look ... at a minimum. 

more mongering

As a suggestive indicator of the intellect and its limits, I have always liked the notion of standing outside a local library.

Most libraries strike me as sturdy, serious buildings -- a bit heavy, and in that heaviness, seeming to suggest a human heft, an importance, and a medal on the chest of the human spirit. And occasionally it's fun just to stand outside and take it in: What is this building? What's it for? And I suppose, assuming anyone would take a moment like that, everyone might have a different set of answers.

What strikes me about a library is that no matter how much anyone puts in -- no matter how many books, magazines, CD's, scholarly papers, etc. -- still it is not enough. Every year a library demands more and more and more and more. Each volume or artifact may advertise itself as providing the answer to one question or another, but today's answer is insufficient to tomorrow. We need more and more and more and more. It's "important" or "seminal" or "refreshing" or "new" ... but whatever it is, one thing's for sure -- we need more.

Libraries are good things. They provide an antidote to narrowness and ignorance, two capacities that cut off possibilities. Without knowing the possibilities, unhappiness is a likely outcome. It's better/happier to know the possibilities from which anyone might choose. But knowing the possibilities is not a guarantor of happiness. Vast knowledge can also create some very stupid people. Why? Because the possibilities are endless and happiness depends on choices within the realm of the possible.

One of the ways libraries combat ignorance is with more. Libraries, in one sense, are like eternal optimists who imagine that if they go around just one more corner, the bright light will blaze in all its glory and things will be settled. Just one more corner, one more book, one more bit of information, one more theory, one more philosophy or religion ... one more. And so, every year, libraries decide which new books to buy, what old books to discard, and which more to accede to.

Standing outside a library, just noodling a little, it is hard not to suggest that now and then -- not necessarily always or definitively or conclusively ... well, what would it be like to shut off the more spigot. This may be a frightening suggestion to those who devote themselves to a library existence, but it's just a little noodling. Don't worry, you can be smart any time you like. But in this moment, what is it like to reflect on the one who needs more, demands more, and imagines today's more will turn out differently from the more that was yesterday. Who is the more monger? What is it like to shut up for a little while? What is the source of this more hunger?

Just a little noodling. No need to fall on your ass for some assertive, elevated 'silence.' If I am the library, then who is the librarian who makes the choices and restocks the shelves? Who is the one who longs to be informed or entertained or at peace? No biggie ... just who is s/he? Clearly, this library will never have the answer (this more just lead to that more), so what happens when the great god more is given a rest?

Everyone needs a rest from time to time.

Even this library.

Monday, January 30, 2012

never mind "Snakes on a Plane" ...

Pets strike back ... in this case, pythons and anacondas in Florida. It is hard not to wonder whether the uptick in these gigantic reptiles might not have some beneficial fallout: If pythons and anacondas can eat alligators, perhaps they can eat Republican presidential contenders.

the challenge

True or false, I don't know:

Most persuasions, little or large, challenge us to agree with them. Or disagree -- same stuff, different day.

But the most adult persuasions are those that challenge us to agree with ourselves. Those are the ball-busters and the ones most likely to have some staying power.

I always liked the ball-busting component in Buddhism.

thought for the day?

Hurry up and slow down!

ready, shoot, aim

In Indianapolis, Indiana, they're clamping down on the riff-raff in anticipation of the Feb. 5 Super Bowl football game. Hookers, drug addicts, and petty thieves and other perceived undesirables are being ushered out of what will be the limelight.

And in an unrelated and yet related event, the Pentagon is opening talks with Iraq about future military ties.

If the riff-raff in Indianapolis are a concern now, why wasn't the problem a focal point before the Super Bowl entered anyone's consciousness? And if, as was suggested before the war that left almost 4,500 American war dead, the strategic military importance of Iraq (plus the oil of course) was so vital ... why was there ever a war?

It's a puzzler. Shoot first, aim later?


The local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is a nicely-designed little sheet. Shrinking, like other newspapers, and hardly filled with hard-hitting news, still the Gazette is pleasantly plump with about what anyone would expect ... local news, events, who got arrested, who died, sports, and a smattering of national and international stories.

Each week, the newspaper runs a small page in its magazine section entitled "ID A Personal Profile." I always read it... when I remember. The profile asks pretty much the same questions each week and allows the person profiled to answer in brief. Name, address, who lives under your roof, hobbies, books you'd recommend to a friend, best advice you ever got, strangest job, favorite TV show, dumbest thing you ever did, whom do you most admire, favorite team, what's on your to-do list, movies you liked, a parting thought, and occasionally, if you could meet someone (well-known or famous) from the past, who would it be?

Some of the people profiled are movers and shakers in the neighborhood, but the majority are just people. And I love reading what people choose to say about themselves. It's like doing a crossword puzzle in my mind ... I am presented with a defined question and a defined answer and from these two I get to 'fill in the blanks' by imagining what those questions and answers mean in real life. What I enjoy is the guessing game. When have answers ever really told the truth about a human being? It is the unknown, the implications and echoes, what is not and perhaps could not be printed, that draws me in. I never seem able to elude the tendrils of this guessing game ... it's too much fun.

A subtext part of the fun is imagining how I might answer the questions. I think that is part of why anyone might read the column: What would I say? And what is interesting is that what-I-would-say seems to vary from week to week. My definitions morph in such a way that the very premise of the profile is upended -- questions that have answers today have different answers tomorrow. Yes, I live at the same address from week to week, but my descriptions of what I love or long for or feel comfortable with or make me squirm ... well, they change.

What famous person would I like to meet or hang out with? I am stumped as once I might have been able to answer in a heart beat. There is something mildly sad about it. Where have all the heroes and heroines gone? About the only person I can think of is one who put his finger on why meeting famous people is not all it's cracked up to be: Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins once remarked approximately on the radio that "meeting your favorite author is one of life's most reliable disappointments." I wouldn't mind meeting a man who thought that way. But Jesus or Mohammad or Gautama Buddha or various Zen teachers or Thomas Edison or Winston Churchill or any of the celebrities who fill the TV screen or Willa Cather or Isak Dinesen or Adolf Hitler or Warren Buffett...or any of the others who may be acclaimed ...

Fame is odd. Favorites are odd. If my own self-descriptors change from week to week, day to day, moment to moment, what is it that makes me think anyone else should live in some static-state description of fame or infamy, wealth or poverty, applause or catcalls?

Still, I miss the heroes and heroines. It's warming to have them lined up in the stamp collection of my personality. Warming ... you do it, I do it, we all do it ... and it's comforting to have company. It's lonely to have had that aspect somehow fade away. It's not that I disapprove of or disdain heroes and heroines. Quite the reverse. I too would like to have a burnished profile and part of that brightness is defined by the company, real and imagined, I keep. But I cannot seem to summon them ... dance in their light and thereby become illuminated.

It's odd ... "ID" is so important.

What happens to "ID" when "ID" is not so important?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

former Citigroup CEO John Reed on Bill Moyers

Just watched Bill Moyers' TV interview with former Citigroup CEO John Reed. For those interested, I hope the shoddy vimeo production works better on your computer than mine, but it's worth a try, even with the dimestore delivery.

Anyway, I recommend Bill Moyers to anyone willing to listen to someone who both thinks and has an unabashed and credible sense of morality. What a pleasure in a day and age of who-can-yell-louder to hear someone -- anyone -- digging for facts and willing to point out who it was who screwed the pooch.

PS. It seems mildly ironic that the big-bucks capitalist should bear the same name as the left-leaning journalist who wrote a moderately good book about the Russian Revolution. "Ten Days That Shook the World" was published in 1919.

beyond the beyond

Across Main Street from the peace picket line yesterday, I noticed a shop called "Ten Thousand Villages." The store contains, as the name suggests, artifacts and bric-a-brac from around the world.

In ancient China, the number 10,000 was used to denote the infinite -- a number so great that the human mind could not honestly compass or digest it.

Wikipedia notes, "As of January 9, 2012 the gross [U.S.] debt was $15.23 trillion...."

Is it any wonder that there are times when the world seems to turn into a fairy tale of its own devising?

above and below the radar

Is it true or am I wrong: Great ideas that gain traction and wider applause tend to devolve into mediocrity. Great ideas that are largely overlooked or held within remain bright and compelling.

Today I read a story about the Sundance Film Festival winners. It made me happy to think that someone, somewhere was addressing gritty, imaginative, heart-felt projects and not just relying on cookie-cutter love stories or action-adventure. And simultaneously, I knew I would be unlikely to search out these movies and be wracked by their truths. I like to be entertained, to find small jets of light within what is big and bossy and, overall, pretty mediocre.

Above the radar is the Catholic Church.

Below the radar there is an individual's love of God.

Above the radar is democracy as a political label.

Below the radar is a tender love of kindness and consideration.

Above the radar is the snazziness of education.

Below the radar is all the stuff anyone might not know and yearn to know.

Above the radar, a person or event becomes famous.

Below the radar is that which the fame is premised.

The limelight is compelling, but the shadows remain. I guess everyone makes up his or her own mind whether walking into the shadows is warranted. I am happy to know that Sundance takes a swing at whatever shadows -- the world of imagination, the facts behind the bravado, etc. -- it sees. Big and brassy and mediocre can drag anyone down.

The world below the radar is not for sissies, but I, like a lot of others, I imagine, am a sissy.

endlessly fascinating

It's a small bit of human hyperbole, I imagine, but strange as well -- the passing reference to one thing or another as "endlessly fascinating."

Astronomy, astrology, religion, car mechanics, long-distance running, stamp collecting, child-rearing, music, fine art, graffiti, bomb-making, wealth, love, athletics, sleeping, geology, war, NASCAR, simplicity, farming, whistling, movies, poker, philosophy ... in the course of expressing an agog enthusiasm or devotion, someone is bound to utter the phrase, whether within or without: "Endlessly fascinating."

It's lively, it's fun, it's confounding, it's loveable, it's important it's ... "endlessly fascinating."

And it's a good tool, I think. "Endlessly fascinating" is what anyone actually cares about and what anyone actually cares about has the capacity to make them happy. The only fly in the ointment is in imagining that what is "endlessly fascinating" is something "else," something that is not, in the end, just "me."

It's tricky, mentioning such things, because there are wads of people who take such an observation and turn it into a philosophical or spiritual bludgeon. "Me" is just a fantasy or delusion, they may intone with gusto: You'd better get on board with a program that is not bamboozled by the notion of an "abiding self." This program, for anyone who gives it a whirl, is "endlessly fascinating."

Those not inclined to get with the program can spend entirely lifetimes being "endlessly fascinated" without finding much happiness.

Tricky ... a razor's edge.

But I think it's worth risking the distinct possibility of getting your throat slit to go with what is beloved, what is "endlessly fascinating." Go with that because that is true for the moment and it is also true to the ends of the universe. Imagine: When this "me" who is endlessly fascinating and fascinated loses his or her endlessly fascinating force, what could possibly be left besides what is endlessly fascinating?

Being a good liar is important to telling a good truth.

Fascinating ... in a manner of speaking.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

race to enlightenment

Passed along in email:



A local reporter, Dan Crowley, had a page-one story today about patronage in the local court system. I felt moved to add my two cents on the internet version and, since it will probably go unread, decided to save it here as well:

Nice job, Dan Crowley! Your story brought to mind ....

A number of years ago as a news reporter, I took it into my head to explore what it was that the phrase "participatory democracy" might mean. I found the phrase both redundant and smarmy and yet it was common coin at the time, flung around without examination in the same way that the word "terrorism" is today.

"Participatory democracy" at the time (and perhaps now?) suggests that everyone will get an equal vote. More broadly, it suggests that the best-qualified person will be given the job. Patronage -- the hiring of friends and family, however badly qualified -- is a no-no in the lexicon of those who employ "participatory democracy" with a straight face.

In the course of calling up those who might be able to shed some light on "participatory democracy" and its nemesis, "patronage," I got through to Anthony Scibelli, then chairmain of the House Ways and Means Committee, and arguably the most powerful politician in Massachusetts. Scibelli's power was exemplified, at least in my mind, by the fact that he would answer questions truthfully -- a quality not often associated with politicians looking forward to re-election.

So when I asked Scibelli what he thought of "participatory democracy" and the accusations of those who suggested he and his colleagues had a long history of patronage appointments and were therefore foiling the one-man-one-vote, democratic will of the people, he didn't get angry. Instead, he was good-natured and affable, as if speaking to a small child. Yes, he agreed, the perversion of a meritocracy was unfortunate. Yes, he agreed, his detractors had a very good point. Yes, democracy was a wonderful thing and deserved a robust defense.

But then he delivered the coup de grace: If his detractors, those who swooned for "participatory democracy" and the installation of the best-qualified candidates for any given position, were truly committed to their principles and prose, "let them go out and get elected." Talk about a knock-out blow for the white-whiners ... me included!

The conversation lingered in my mind. Democracy is not, in fact, democratic. It does not assure that the best-qualified will win. There are loopholes (think Congress) aplenty and sometimes it's enough to make anyone weep. Anyone with two brain cells can imagine improvements and cite awful mistakes.

But in the end, I guess we're all stuck with Winston Churchill's observation: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest."

-- adam fisher

the good stuff

Twice, I hitchhiked across the United States, each time from West to East. It took 3-5 days to travel approximately 3,500 miles and what I remember of each trip is ... the good stuff, the unusual stuff, the lucky stuff, the weird-without-frightening stuff. There was a fellow who had a cranky sheep dog that sat between us in his Jeep station wagon. And when, out over the prairie, we noticed a herd of elk, he asked me kindly if I had ever seen elk up close. When I said I hadn't, he immediately hung a sharp left off the highway -- no braking, at perhaps 60 mph -- out onto the prairie and we chased elk for 30 minutes or so. And there were other incidents that have taken up residence in memory.

The army was the same. Three years of training and travel and adventure, but I remember the good stuff, the unusual stuff, the lucky stuff, the weird-without-frightening stuff. I remember the time when Dean Spinanger, without any permission from anyone, checked out a military passenger bus and spent the better part of an entire night, driving his German girlfriend (later wife) around Berlin.

And I suppose the same is true for Zen Buddhism ... looking back, I pick out the good stuff, the extraordinary stuff, the drama stuff, the spotlighted stuff.

But I don't pick out the hours or days or weeks or years that were ordinary or boring or ... must have been there in order for the good stuff to arise. Hitchhiking, for example, involves a lot of waiting, waiting and then waiting some more. The army was painted with hours and hours of eating lunch or marching or hurry-up-and-waiting. Formal Zen Buddhism is largely a matter of sitting on a cushion ... being as quiet and still as possible. To remember such things in detail would be about as captivating as watching paint dry.

It occurs to me that our lives are that way in memory ... picking out the good stuff.

Somehow the entire thought process above arose out of wondering why it was that anyone would suppose or hope or insist that his or her teachers -- the people or events of note in their lives -- should somehow be "good." In spiritual life, there is some demand ... teachers should be nourishing and good and praise-worthy and wise. Of course, the spiritual adventure does not advertise itself as being nasty, mean, painful and conniving, but what is nasty, mean, painful and conniving is part of anyone's actual-factual life ... and without actual-factual life, spiritual life becomes as useless as a fart in a wind storm ... another bright, stylish, substance-free religion.

And of course the "bad" stuff is often remembered as well -- a bright light on memory's plateau. A bruise, a stumbling block, a yowl in the night ... remembered with the same importance as the "good" stuff ... only that stuff was "bad." And still, the inconsequential in-betweens that fill the landscape between high points and low ... where are they?

My Zen teacher's teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, once remarked during a sesshin or Zen retreat, "There is birth and there is death. In between is enlightenment." He wasn't laughing when he said it and today I wonder mildly why he was not laughing.

"In between" is pretty silly when you think about it. Good stuff, bad stuff, in-between stuff ... as I've thought before, "If you're so serious, why aren't you laughing?"

Laughter is the good stuff.

Just like tears.

Friday, January 27, 2012

the truth ... that's nice dear

People care about "the truth" and I guess I do too or I wouldn't be typing.

What are the attributes of truth, what are its characteristics?

Did anyone ever succeed in living a life that was somehow "not true?"

Whatever the truth is and however it is defined, it seems to me that the minute anyone tries to hold onto it, then it is like a child who reaches into the ocean, grabs a handful, and rushes home with a clenched fist to show his mom what a wondrous discovery he's made: By the time he bursts through the kitchen door, fist clenched and fully prepared to show off his prize ....

Maybe that's why moms everywhere have learned the soothing phrase, "that's nice dear" and returned to their chores.

Cultivating our own mom factor may be as close to 'the truth' as anyone is ever going to get.

old folks in prison

A report on the rising number of aging and infirm inmates in prison suggests, between the lines, that someone who is elderly, infirm and poor might receive better treatment if s/he bludgeoned or shot a next-door neighbor to death and then went to jail.

circling the wagons

At a memorial service, longtime Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was eulogized in front of 12,000 mourners. Paterno, who died Sunday, had been fired for not doing enough in the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the fabled football team. An undercurrent of seething anger at Paterno's treatment by the university was palpable at the service. Joe was a legend. Joe was a man of stature and character. Joe deserved better. Tarnish the belief system at your peril!

Messing with people's beliefs -- suggesting those beliefs might be less than complete or downright corrupt -- brings down the wrath of God. Circle the wagons. Protect the sanctified. Kill the messenger. The good outweighs the bad ... protect and extol the good!

At the Vatican, an archbishop was shipped out after detailing the corruption rife within the awarding of Vatican contracts. Everyone had been content with the status quo. Nepotism played a role. Everyone made money and there was a lot of money to make. Kill the messenger.

All this is easy-peasy on the social front -- being aghast at the worm in the apple, trying desperately to retie an untied shoe lace. But I think the same problem can be found closer to home -- within ... building, brick by believable brick, some structure which is honorable or good or sustaining only to come upon the stumbling block that runs amok with allegations/facts that assert that what can be very, very good can also be the source of what is very, very bad. How hard it is, after all that sweat, to find that the temple is built on sandy soil.

And the more virtuous the enterprise, the fiercer the battle to maintain and protect ... to revile and discount the sandy soil. What is good is good, period. What is bad is bad, period.

Socially, personally, what a difficult and arousing thing it can all be.

Socially, personally ... what a lot of complex tears can be shed; what a lot of defensive maneuvering can be employed. And how infuriating to have to concede that my complex and adorable temples can be summed up by anything as mundane as a bumper sticker:

"Don't believe everything you think."

Read 'em and weep!


"Salvation" is a word I use very reluctantly. It means too many different things to too many different people and most of those meanings strike me as more imaginative and thus debilitating than they do as providing a clear indicator.

But for all that, in my heart of hearts, I guess I do think "salvation" means something and is worth attending to ... even if I can't define it adequately and get pretty testy when I or others try. Or anyway that's what I think today: There are salvations in people's lives... good, bad or indifferent, still, salvations.

After sitting around gabbing with three other people participating in "The Wisdom Project" yesterday, Carl (Karl?), one of the participants, button-holed me as I was about to leave the senior center where the conversation took place. We sat in the lobby of the center.

Carl is a lanky, angular man in his 70's, I'd guess. His face is relaxed and gentle, as is his way of presenting things. His tone is upbeat, but not sappy ... Carl has been to hard places and yet smiles ... not the sappy and desperate smiles of someone who fears something and longs to overcome the harshness, but the smile of someone who has come out the other side and chooses.

Carl grew up in Holyoke, a nearby community known for its Irish Catholics and its blue collar history -- a history that once meant the paper industry. When Carl was about to graduate from high school, he received a full scholarship to college. His stepfather, however, had four daughters to provide for and he yanked Carl off the college path, took him to a local Veterans Administration hospital, and signed him up as a bricklayer's apprentice. His stepfather also took Carl's wages and applied them to his abundant family. And now, so many years later, Carl can look back and say, "I was a bricklayer."

Carl's two sons have done well -- one selling a company he started for $7 million and then moving to Switzerland to live with a Swedish wife. The other, not quite so enterprising, is nevertheless competent and whole. Carl is pleased, even if he mentions in an understated parenthesis that "there are no grandchildren."

The friendly gabbiness with which Carl delivered his tale was in some sense wondrous. The implications of one aspect or another were enormous, in human terms, and yet Carl retailed them simply with his gentle tone and no whining.

And in the midst of it all, there was his salvation -- or what I chose to think of that way. Carl plays mandolin, guitar, fiddle and bass. He loves "the old music" and gathers with several friends on Sundays to play and sing. He doesn't do blue grass -- it's too fast, he said. And occasionally he has to fill in on bass because the other fellow who plays it ... well, his hands get tired. For all the years Carl was a "bricklayer," there was music in his life. Music he loved. Music that loved him back. Music that carries and informs him to this day. Carl did not say he "loved" music. I said that. To say he "loved" music would be too fancy for Carl, too desperate, too pretentious, too talk-the-talk instead of walk-the-walk. To express too much gratitude for salvation is to give the things from which we are saved more power than they deserve.

There is music of a million million kinds and my hunch is that everyone has the capacity for a similar salvation -- not a gushy, frightened salvation of God or heaven or enlightenment or peace, but something steady and quite ordinary. It's so-what or what-did-you-expect in one sense. And in another sense, it's enough to bring a smile to the lips. It is a salvation that reaches beyond the furthest heavens and yet never gets out of the living room. It is timeless because, well, it's right now and what other possibility is there?

Carl invited me to one of his Sunday afternoon jam sessions and perhaps I'll go.

I like music as well as the next fellow.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

'The Wisdom Project'

Today, as a challenge to myself, I plan to drive over to the senior center and check out a gathering billed as "The Wisdom Project." The group is advertised as being open to those over 55 and is said to focus on the notion of wisdom ... with a goal of creating "community," whatever that means.

The challenge lies in the fact that I am simultaneously touched by and wary of groups or individuals intent on nailing Jell-O to the wall. What that means is that I am simultaneously touched by and wary of my own efforts to nail Jell-O to the wall.

Whatever 'wisdom' may be, it reminds me of the brown-rice-circuit devotees intent on learning to levitate. What the hell would anyone do with levitation if they could do it? Likewise, what the hell would anyone do with wisdom, by whatever definition, if they actually had it?

It's an adventure.

the statistical mind

Throughout history, there appear to have been a lot of people who used the sentiment in one way or another so it is hard to nail down one particular 'source.' But since I like the sometimes acid humor of the American writer Mark Twain, and since he did use the idea, I will attribute it to him for the moment:

There are lies, there are damned lies, and there are statistics.
 Yesterday, I went to the local district court, paid fifty bucks, and filed the small-claims paperwork that would address my point of view about a fender-bender accident my son was party to last month. After I had been to the court to get the legal ball rolling, I went to the scene of the accident, took some pictures and then came home. There, I spent some time trying to make clear on paper what had happened and why I disagreed with the insurance company's judgment that my son was at least 20% negligent in the accident. The other driver claims he didn't see my son's car and suspected he was speeding. The other driver had exited from a street that sported a "stop" sign at the intersection with the road my son was driving on. The small claims exercise seeks to recoup something more than $500 (plus court costs) I had to pay in order to get my son's car fixed.

Anyway, I wanted to build as good an argument as I could before the court hearing that is likely in five or six weeks. I wanted it to be clear and as simple as I could make it. And in order to do that, I had to factor in not just my arguments, but also the arguments the other driver might bring to the table.

As I munched and crunched on the subject matter, one of the arguments I thought the other driver might make reference to was the fact that my son is 17. Statistically, and to the delight of insurance companies that use the argument as a means of charging inflated rates, teenagers get into more accidents. And perhaps, I imagined, the other driver might suggest my son was just another reckless teenager -- the kind of person the statistics liked to point to.

And as I considered this possible suggestion or imputation, it occurred to me that I had a perfectly reasonable counterpoint: Statistically, elderly people have slower reflexes and worse sight ... and the driver of the other car is 71. So ... I thought ... if the other party suggested or adduced statistical evidence, I might suggest or adduce similar statistical evidence.

The base line difficulty with a statistical argument is, as anyone with common sense can attest, that statistics don't tell the truth. They are indicators of one body of evidence that many may choose to agree with. But statistics always leave out 'the rest of the story.' There may be many teenagers who, based on accident reports, are reckless drivers. Likewise there may be many elderly drivers who, based on accident reports, are slower on the up-take. But tarring one group or the other with a single statistical brush does not address the truth. Statistics may be interesting and suggestive, but they prove precisely nothing as regards the truth.

Statistics are a lazy man's way of addressing life. If lots and lots of people say so and if evidence is heaped on evidence in support of a particular conclusion, then, the implication is that the truth has been reached. Politics and religion are chock-a-block with such notions. Taking a poll tells the story or describing god in one way or another tells the story ... and because many may agree, well, ahhhhh ... end of story. This is a social convenience that is apparent in the mind as well as among politicians, religious institutions, and courtroom arguments, perhaps.

It is the personal use of such evidence that I think deserves a second look. How much of what anyone considers to be true is based on the numbers of others who may agree? How sensible is this? And centrally, does this agreement have one damned thing to do with the truth?

A million people may say "god is good." Another million say "god is a figment of your imagination." Both can confect long and intricate arguments in support of their positions. Lots of 'proof.' And certainly a broad and well-laid story line can encourage anyone to consider one conclusion or another credible. Nothing wrong with a little encouragement, whether statistical or otherwise. But getting into the habit of relying on the statistical evidence really is an idea that deserves investigation. True, it's cozy and social ... I am a Democrat, I am a Buddhist, I dislike war ... and I can find a statistically significant number of people or a significant body of thought that might agree with me. But does this make anything true? Is it really the place in which a man or woman might reliably hang his or her life's hat?

Statistically, I would say that's a really bad idea. It may be comforting, but it is lazy and, in the end, doomed to failure. Conclusions based on agreement of others may be understandable, but it amounts to a fart in a windstorm. Our statistics are invariably approximate whereas out lives are invariably accurate. Relying on approximations is not nourishing, even as the statistical mind looks to agreement for nourishment and peace. It is not a matter of "good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong." It is a matter of what actually works, what actually makes some bedrock sense. Statistics and vast agreement encourage the understanding that there is a conclusion that can be reached and relied on. But there are always loose ends, always exceptions: Sometimes teenage drivers are really very good; sometimes the elderly are excellent behind the wheel; sometimes good ideas are pretty bad; sometimes bad ideas and damned good.

Sometimes ... sometimes.

Whether I win the court case or not is not so much the point, though of course I would like to win back my $500. What is important is not to allow statistical speculation and cozy proof to rule the roost. As a pointer, fine. But the fact is that if I want peace of mind, I will have to do the heavy lifting and address the facts that always throw a spanner in the statistical works.

Where is the peace I seek? Can I rely on for an answer on the others who may fill the statistical halls?

I seriously, seriously doubt it.

What do I say? What experience do I bring to bear? And what, in the end will I do with the whispering, lingering, nagging voice that murmurs ...

Sometimes ... sometimes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

broken promises

To the extent possible, I suppose everyone keeps bad news at a distance. It's comforting not to get too close to flames that can burn your face off if you let them. But then ....

Then, every once in a while, the flames flickering outside a well-locked door walk in and make themselves at home.

Around here, an ice cream company filed for bankruptcy. The benefits promised to longtime workers , some in their eighties, were abruptly withdrawn. The economic pain comes surging through the door. Those who were formerly hungry and dispossessed at a comforting, intellectual distance are now your neighbors and friends, people whose hard work and credulity anyone might sympathize with. A promise is a promise.

Except, of course, when it's not.

And, almost as galling as the facts, no one says, "I'm sorry."

ornate excuses

It's old, but I received it again yesterday in email and enjoyed it ... the ornate excuses offered for being caught in another man's closet.

complex, subtle, profound ... give it a rest!

I suppose it's a complex issue, the issue of complexity, but one of the attributes of aging seems to be an increasing unwillingness to fiddle-faddle with complexity. It's not that the subtle profundities and interwoven strands are somehow wrong or unworthy ... on the contrary, the unwillingness to address and assess the particulars of a situation is the stuff of idiocy and bias.

But with age comes fatigue and complexity is tiring. How much of what is called complex is just the desire to elevate or shore up my own sense of importance?

For example, I find it harder and harder to have a long, serious conversation on the phone. On and on and on and on. OK, I get it: It's important. I wouldn't say it's unimportant, I would just say it tires me out. Or perhaps Buddhism is serious and profound. OK. But for my money Buddhism is just a matter of choosing an ego with care. Try saying that to a Buddhist and you are probably in for a long phone call.

In news reporting, the old adage used to run, "Stand up. Speak up. And shut up." As a friend, I am interested that you care. Perhaps I care too. Perhaps not. But we can still be friends.

Sometimes I think the reason so many elderly people are silent is that they don't want long and caring phone calls and they are willing to make a choice and be wrong. Why? Because making a choice is never wrong. It's a choice. If it's wrong, we just pray for the energy and ability to correct it in future. For the moment, no correction is necessary. Philosophy and religion, complexity and simplicity, have no dominion over a man who raises a spoonful of Cheerios to his mouth.

wriggling and writhing

In Davos, Switzerland, a variety of capitalist heavy-hitters are writhing and wriggling. These are men used to being in command, used to being in control, used to fine and refined meals. But around the world, the fields from which they drew their stature are not entirely in control. The crops are not as assured as once. Peasants are hungry and what's more, they're pissed. Capitalist heavy-hitters not only want to be in control, they also would like to be well-thought-of in the process. Currently, the applause meter is at a low ebb and in Davos, there are men who are wringing their hands, looking for someone -- someone else -- to blame. And one of the targets of blame is governments with their policy decisions that have built this bed of capitalistic discomfort.

The very governments capitalist heavy-hitters bought and paid for as best they could are now demonized as contributing to capitalist dis-ease. Wriggling and writhing ... any excuse will do. Just don't upset my foie gras lifestyle and mental state. Don't shatter my assumptions.

I don't imagine these men are very different from any of us ... wriggling and writhing ... looking for a way to avoid the crucifixion of responsibility.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

George Soros' views

A friend passed along these observations by billionaire George Soros, a man who has lived long enough and successfully enough to warrant a hearing.

A line I liked:

We need to move from the Age of Reason to the Age of Fallibility in order to have a proper understanding of the problems.

Likewise passed along, and probably an appropriate addendum was this photo:


"Sweet Jesus"

This morning's spam mail box offered more of the same, but at least this time the invitation to help some poor soul (usually in the distribution of $27 million) had a bit of zest. As usual, all I had to do was to hand over my personal-information particulars in order to support some fellow who had been arrested in Spain. But the request did not involve pancreatic cancer or some other family medical disaster. This time the money seemed to be linked to a bank robbery and I had to give the conniver brownie points for creativity.

Somehow that piece of spam seemed to fit seamlessly into a mind frame that had come back to wakefulness this morning thinking about an utterly fictional character, Sarah "Sweet Jesus" Peabody, who, at 82, woke up one morning and realized without sorrow or delight that she had somehow lost her religion.

At her age, there was no need to be delighted or sorrowful: At her age, things seemed to fall away with increasing frequency and Sarah had become used to losing things or having them walk away or something like that. Knitting, piano, saving dried flowers from the garden, reading romance novels ... each in turn had seemed to leave home like grown children and gone to live somewhere else. But finding that her religion had likewise packed its bag was curious and at first Sarah wondered if she shouldn't be frightened or ashamed or bereft. She had taken part in so many church functions for so many years that perhaps she was just sick of baking cookies or drinking thin tea, a beverage she had never really liked but had sipped dutifully with the other women who likewise made cookies and combed their hair into a neatness that would never survive a good night's sleep.

Sarah searched her mind for an appropriate reaction to the departure of her religion, but she couldn't really find one. It wasn't as if the space reserved for religion had suddenly become filled with the overbearing fulminations of some atheist or the glue-y ramblings of a nitwit agnostic. It was more in line with the bedroom that might suddenly be put to other, as yet uncertain, uses after her four children had, one by one, moved out of her house.

Truth to tell, reacting to things that happened all on their own took an amount of energy that, at 82, Sarah could ill afford to waste. Thinking it over with the same fearless disinterest anyone might bring to cutting a cantaloupe, Sarah found herself smiling as her mind seemed to sum things up well enough: "Sweet Jesus!" The words were not so much an expression of awe or prayer as they were a small backward glance to a time when her father, Horace, a good-natured insurance salesman who had lived in Benton all his life, took it into his head to replace the baby Jesus in the town-square creche with his beautiful, sleeping daughter.

Horace was a church-going man, but he was not a man to be bound too tightly by convention. He would do what he wanted to do, but he was not careless of others' needs or assertions. And so, one late night, as Christmas approached, Horace wrapped Sarah warmly, grabbed his Brownie Hawkeye camera and several flash bulbs, and walked into a Benton that had long since gone to sleep. The creche was lighted all night long during the Christmas season, but Horace did not trust the capacities of his Brownie Hawkeye so he brought the flash bulbs along. Laying a bundled and sleeping Sarah in the snow nearby, Horace removed the baby Jesus from his well-coiffed bit of hay, placed him on an extra blanket Horace had conscientiously brought along, and substituted his sleeping daughter. Horace had five flash bulbs and he planned a use for each of them, lining up shepherds and kings in the background as he took pictures of the central figure, his daughter. One, two, three, four ... and Sarah slept on. But as Horace plugged in his last flash bulb and prepared to take his last picture, Sarah woke up. Horace was just about to take the picture -- his thumb had begun to depress the trigger -- but he saw that his daughter was waking in strange surroundings and so he leaned over to reassure her with his presence. Sarah looked left, looked right and finally looked directly into her father's eyes. And she smiled. And it was at that moment that the flash bulb went off as if unbidden. The resulting photo was all and more than Horace had ever hoped for from any church. And from then on, Sarah was, somewhat to her mother's dismay, "Sweet Jesus" -- a moniker that was simultaneously deeply endearing and mildly irreverent, a smile written on both Horace's and Sarah's heart.

"Sweet Jesus" was the best Sarah could do now as she wondered where her religion had gone.


This small fiction and wherever it might amble insisted mildly this morning and displaced the serious news with which the news wires might invite me to be serious. Someone else will be serious, never fear. A fiction is as good as a fact, at least for the moment.

But perhaps whimsy was just the underpinning of the day since I also recalled out of a wispy, wispy past, a time when I was in the second or third grade and had somehow become a Cub Scout. Cub Scouts had blue uniforms and collected badges for doing such projects as building kites or constructing bird houses. Cub Scouts were in the business of fueling something called 'character.' Most of the boys hated having their characters molded in this way ... they didn't want to fly kites and could care less about where the birds lived.

Each Boy Scout group had a series of "Den Mothers" -- mothers who would consent to having all troop members over on a rotating basis. Den Mothers would guide the character-building experiences... and also provide a snack when the effort of the day was spent. Somehow (and I find this hard to believe given her character) my mother agreed to be a Den Mother. But when the boys gathered at our house for an afternoon of character building my mother's guidance consisted of organizing a spit-ball shooting contest. Spitballs were right up our alley at that age. My mother became an instant heroine -- someone who was most definitely (though the word had not yet been invented) kool.


OK ... I'll read the news and do other serious things now.

Sweet Jesus!

If fictions are the result of facts, it seems reasonable to observe that facts are likewise the result of fictions.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Leonard Cohen album

A friend passed along Leonard Cohen's latest album ... I like it.

Year of the Dragon

Happy New Year to those who prefer the lunar calendar! Today marks the beginning of the Year of the Dragon.

The Year of the Dragon is my year. Every twelve years, it reasserts itself. According to such astrological calculations, dragon people display certain characteristics. I'm not sure what usefulness can be found in the characteristics attributed, but I cannot deny that I read them with the same wistful wondering I might bring to a fortune cookie: Maybe it's true and wise, but even if it is, the "truth" and a couple of dollars still only buys a bus ride.

Happy New Year!

the allure of the horror; the horror of the allure

Last night, on TV, I shuttled between a (U.S.) football game and a public-television tale set in turn-of-the-20th-century England. Each had its proprieties, its agreements, its efforts, its uniforms, its spoken and unspoken limitations. Each had its magnetic skills and accomplishments. And there was something in each that made me long to be convinced by the human -- if occasionally inhumane -- family life of it all.

"Downton Abbey" depicted an aristocrat family on the cusp of World War I. The assurances of dress and comportment and station were deliciously serene in one sense. Even the servants, who led a less elegant life, fit into the scenario and concerns. This was the way life was -- well-off, never speaking directly of the income that supported the lifestyle, knowing which of the numerous forks and spoons to use at the dinner table, invariably polite and well-spoken, with dalliances as an accepted norm as long as no one flaunted them, and with kindnesses quietly wrapped in modulated tones.

Two things scared me about this world (which was close enough to the truth to be true): There seemed to be no laughter and the impact that psychology would soon have on the world was missing. It was a world of agreement that did not trouble itself with the disagreement that the Industrial Revolution and a World War would shortly thrust upon it. This was a world that assumed its world was the way the world should be. It was composed and serene and reassuring. Latter-day critiques had not yet achieved lift-off ... and when they did achieve lift-off, they too would seek with might and mane to create their own assurance and serenity and fitness ... another steady-state paradise. However pinched and pristine and damaging the one was, still the next would seek out a realm that was likewise pinched and pristine and damaging ... for comfort's sake, for human-connection's sake, for community's sake. No one wants to be lonely and the antidote for loneliness is imagined in a gathering of agreement.

The football game was less apparently complex than the world of Edwardian English aristocracy. The New York Giants and the San Francisco Forty-Niners were head-to-head, giving their athletic best in hopes of winning a berth in the upcoming Super Bowl ... after which one team would be proclaimed "best" in all of the football universe. The two teams were tight-knit in purpose and hope. The Giants may have won, but the definitions and pedal-to-the-metal effort created a community for which the crowd roared. They were serious in this endeavor -- and content to be serious. This was not a time for analysis. This was a time for action -- an action whose purpose each player endorsed and in that endorsement found a home, a place of peace, a sense of community ... a place that was not lonely. In that action, the rest of the universe with its myriad possibilities was forgotten. It's the same with all honest effort and action, isn't it? Wide-open, naked, go for it!

To be convinced and content ... God, how alluring! How comforting! Dressing for dinner, suiting up for football, following the proprieties ... and the devil take the hindmost! Creating the universe! This is my life and I am somebody whose somebody-ness goes hand in hand with others whose somebody-ness is likewise assured. To gainsay or critique such an adventure is both churlish and smug. Human beings are human beings -- social, seeking peace, convening for happiness and ... and ... still I think the loneliness remains. Gather for football, dress up for dinner, become a religious adherent, sell stock and bonds ... this is it! This is it because you say this is it and I say this is it and, well, doesn't that mean that this is it?

And yet, and yet....

How hard it is to throw yourself into an approved endeavor (what other choice is there?) and come out the other side with an easy mind, having left the past in the past, without clinging to or asserting the wonders of an endeavor once beloved. The past (be it dressed for dinner or dressed for football or exhaling what was previously and inhalation) informs the present; the social gathering informs the individual and yet relying on that information is ... lonely and strangely unfulfilled. Where is the laughter? Where is the delight? It may be safe, but does it have time for silly? It may be loving, but does it have time for hate?

What scared the shit out of me in Edwardian England was the very comfort it worked so hard to maintain. It was attractive and soothing and I too would like to be soothed. I too would like to feel the comfort that seems to rise up from a world of agreement. I too would like to rely on the axioms of propriety and judge myself a success ... a success who could rest on his laurels. The only problem with it is ... where is the laughter? What happens when belief is erased, as with a sneeze or kiss? If the whole of this comforting propriety can be snuffed out with a sneeze ... well, how comforting, how safe, can it actually be?

To act -- with thought, word and deed as one -- and then feel comfortable to let it slip away (slip away and yet remain) ... is there any other choice that will actually assure the comfort and connection so longed for? It might be nice to pick a world and observe its proprieties with vigor. But to rely on that world? How many times does anyone have to walk into a brick wall before the dime drops and there is some recognition that walking into brick walls is not very comforting? If commitment doesn't work and withholding commitment doesn't work, then what works?

Well, laughter seems to work. Perhaps laughter is the realm in which anyone might get a clue. Or a sneeze. Or a kiss. Or ... anywhere at all. Laughter or sneezing or kissing does not require agreement or applause. Their completeness is undeniable and, well, complete. Comfort is not the issue. The horror and the allure are not the answer to anyone's serious question.

Laughter lends a hand... the end of one story and the beginning of the next ... minus, of course, the "beginning" and "end."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

classical music, the weapon

To hear some people tell it, classical music can help the plants grow.

It can soothe the savage beast.

I knew a music therapist once who had a tattooed gang-banger of a client, a violent customer on various fronts, who succumbed and was swept up in a loop tape version of the Pachelbel Canon. The music melted him and made him ripe for therapeutic revision.

Classical music can be credited with marvelous and benevolent graces, an unsullied angel of positive, persuasive and compassionate vibes.

And now comes news (an analysis) that it can also have some effect when being used as a weapon -- a means for clearing public spaces of various sorts of riff-raff who find the blandishments of classical music offensive, annoying and, possibly, cruel. The analyst suggests that there is something arrogant about foisting classical music on others who dislike it. But I wonder if there isn't some equal arrogance in implying that classical music is all sweetness and light. What is beautiful in one moment can be ugly in the next.

PS. I can no longer mention the Pachelbel Canon without thinking of this classic rant that gives me a case of the giggles every time... every bit as delicious in its way as "Alice's Restaurant" (it isn't the original, but it's close) is in its.

serious and serious

When my daughter was three or four, sometimes I would take her to a nearby municipal park where we would amble through the autumn leaves, watch tennis players, pat horses in a police paddock and just take the refreshing air.

My daughter's ability to walk and talk was growing. We would go here and there and talk this and that. And occasionally I would tickle and tease her.

"Watch out for the leaf sharks," I said one day as we crunched through autumn's carpet of fallen leaves. "They can be anywhere."

I embroidered the tale with one detail or another, creating a fairy story of potential, unseen danger. It was just a playful bit of embroidery.

But sometimes, as with the leaf sharks, my daughter might grow honestly concerned and uncertain. Was this true? And it was in such times that somehow we developed an  unwritten code between us. The code lay in the phrase, "serious and serious?" When either of us said "serious and serious?" it meant that the other would have to tell the truth. No more bullshit. No more stories. No self-serving overlays.

"Serious and serious" was serious ... a compact of the most intimate and unbreakable sort. It was base line trust -- a wild card that either of us might play for whatever reason and at whatever time. Age, wisdom, authority, positioning ... all such things fell away when the wild card was played. This was a time of nakedness, a time when camouflaged fragilities might come to light, when hardened bias might be revealed ... a time when the truth was just the truth and the truth overrode any embarrassment it might imply.

"Serious and serious."

Naturally I was constrained to tell my daughter that I had just made up the leaf sharks. I was wistfully sad that such an imaginative bit of story-telling should be punctured, but "serious and serious" overrode all other considerations. I would not risk losing our deeper links by trying to perpetuate what was just a fun bit of story-telling.

"Serious and serious." Sometimes I wonder if everyone wouldn't be well-served by creating a similar trip wire within -- some code which, when brought to bear, would override all other considerations and allow whatever truth was true in that moment to stand up and take its chances.

"I love..." Serious and serious?

"I hate..." Serious and serious?

"I fear...." Serious and serious?

"I...." Serious and serious?

"Serious and serious..." Serious and serious?

The leaf sharks are wondrous beasts. The tale is told of father and daughter eaten alive among the autumn leaves. Not even their bones were ever found. Other leaf sharks are likewise wondrous beasts, swimming dark and dangerous in a leaf-strewn mind. The threats are as marvelous as a row of unforgiving teeth, a suggestive dorsal fin.

But doesn't there come a point when the question might be asked ...

Serious and serious?

a world of worries

How much collective time is spent on worry? This self-serving grail cannot be overrated, I suspect. Its power and light leaves Shangri-La and the world's great religions in the shade. It is an apostasy in human terms to question its motives and effects, but if all the time humanity spent worrying could be harnessed for other purposes, is there anything that could not be accomplished?

I don't know, but it occurred to me today that setting worries aside -- saving them for a time when there was unlimited space in which to exercise and enjoy them -- might make life a lot easier.

And when might that time be?

Well ... worry when you're dead. There's plenty of time and no fear of contradiction.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

18 degrees in a steady breeze

It was chilly on the peace picket line this morning.

Light snow fell and police cars skidded up a slight incline on Main Street.

Someone suggested that a pretty good bumper sticker might be, "I'm already against the next war."

That made sense to me... and when I looked on Google, there it was already.

who raises up these gods?

For the rest of us (the self-anointed 99% in the economic food chain), there is something satisfying about witnessing the demise of the rich and powerful. A small voice whispers, "Told you so!"

Gods and tycoons ... same stuff: Where the mighty fall, the less mighty are all ears.

For example, Texas billionaire Allen Stanford is headed to court on Monday. He is accused of creating a $7 billion ponzi scheme that left investors gasping for air and out for blood. Jets, yachts, wives, lavishly appointed dwellings ... Stanford had all the trappings.

And now the trappings are being stripped away, to the delight of the same crowd that stood mute and worshipful at his brilliant ascendancy.

Funny how no matter how often this scenario plays itself out -- the scions and saints and powerful warlords who rise up and then fall away -- still the habit of those who raise them up is largely ignored. It's as if it were a satisfactory diet: "I raised up a god that turned out to be false and therefore ... I will raise up another god."

performing 'miracles'

In the practice of Buddhism, there is some effort to investigate the habits of a lifetime ... the stuff that has welded itself together and helped to maintain a sense of self. Mostly, the habits go unremarked, but because they can lead to unhappiness or a nagging uncertainty, Buddhism suggests taking some time to seek out the sources of what creates discomfort. Some take the suggestion. Others don't.

Outside Chicago on Thursday, a 34-year-old man accidentally shot a 3.25-inch nail into his brain. He didn't really notice anything until he became nauseated on Friday, when he went to the hospital and doctors removed the nail without ill effect.

The man's fiancee called the adventure a "miracle."

I guess Buddhists are much the same: What they don't initially notice begins to create discomfort and they head for the Buddhist General Hospital where, after some examination, 'miracles' are performed.

before coffee

If, as a small conjecture, wisdom is little more than a much-embroidered form of self-congratulation, that still leaves open the question of who is doing the congratulating.

And, peripherally, I also wonder ... if there is such a thing as "wisdom," what is it that could possibly be called "unwise?"

All of this hinges, I imagine, on the fact that I have not yet had enough morning coffee.

Friday, January 20, 2012

"You are my Flower"

The other day, thinking about the word "hana," which means "flower" in Japanese, it brought to mind Gautama on Vulture Peak ... and also an old bluegrass tune, "You are my Flower." The bargain-basement rendition of the song, by Flatt and Scruggs, is so fuzzy and out of tune that it somehow comes around in my mind and touches the heart of things... a kind of amen to the vultures.

And then, associatively somehow, there's "Inspite of Ourselves" by John Prine and Iris Dement.

blessings from the past

Elsewhere on the Internet this morning, I felt constrained to admit that I too had shed tears of gratitude (literally -- no kidding) for the efforts of the (largely) Buddhist teachers who had come before. Their teachings just seemed so enormously kind that there was nothing else I could muster besides tears. Their blessings seemed to echo-echo-echo off the canyon walls of my mind and heart.

And I imagine everyone has some sort of benevolent past to recall and touch base with and, perhaps, weep for.

Sticking to the world of spiritual endeavor for the moment, I had to admit I wept. My tears were as close as I could get to saying "thank you." They were visceral and compelling and overwhelming. Thank you very, very much! I don't imagine that I am alone in any of this ...

And for that reason I write about it and wonder without disdain: Are tears of gratitude what those who went before wished for those who came later? Is a sense of melting love what they hoped for in their children? Did Jesus envision devotees who were wowed into speechlessness by his sacrifice on the cross? Did Gautama hope that those who heard his words of wisdom might repeat them syllable-for-syllable and thus prove him somehow right? Did they or others like them aspire to some subtle applause and emulation?

Or did they wish for something else -- a something else that becomes incumbent upon those who shed tears of gratitude and love? Is succumbing to a heart-felt bout of tears really enough as a means of fulfilling the blessing that has been granted?

Good and benevolent parents pray to whatever gods they espouse that their children will not be harmed. But more, they pray that those children will walk with some sort of self-assurance that is not based on cruelty. Wouldn't it be nice if those children could walk straight and strong on their own two feet?

And if that is something like the wish of those whose blessings have rained down in one way or another, how irresponsible of us, the beneficiaries, to do no more than fawn and weep? How can we fulfill their blessings and their wishes, how can we make their dreams come true, if we do not rise up, sometimes with unbearable effort, to stand on our own feet ... feet that stand in no other place but right here, right now?

It seems to me that the kindest thing anyone can do in this life is to 'be yourself.' But that suggestion demands at its core that anyone find out exactly what or who 'yourself' might be. Without such an effort, people are left with nothing more than spired edifices and adoring sermons. Is that really enough when counting your blessings? Is it enough to love Jesus or is there a requirement that you be you. You be Jesus. What other choice is there? You be Gautama ... that is your thank you to the Gautama who came before and left you weeping with gratitude.

Of course neither Jesus nor Gautama, I imagine, ever thought about the blessings they were accused of showering on others. But that's the way of blessings, don't you think? -- there are blessings, but no one can name them. They can only be them.

Over the long haul I doubt that defamation by adoration works very well.

tender and touchy as a rug burn

My father's father was a Presbyterian minister and my father grew up memorizing great hunks of the Bible by candlelight. This training taught him an enormous disdain for Christianity in particular and religion in general. He fled, instead, into the religious zealotry of the intellect, teaching Shakespeare at an Ivy League college and being utterly devoted to the chilly particulars of James Joyce.

For all that, he once tried to introduce a college course that would examine the Bible as literature. The course was a flop. It seemed that those who were interested in the Bible loved it too much to stand at any requisite distance ... they wanted their faith buttressed and uplifted; they were not ready to hold it at a cool, quiet and analytical arm's length. The visceral demands outweighed any willingness to parse the religious sentence, to see religion as a human endeavor like any other ... to demote religion to a world of intellectual Tinker Toys.

What a razor's edge -- the line, if line there be -- between the intimate blood that religion can inspire and the theological and literary appreciations that can be brought to bear. Besides being a razor's edge in college courses, I imagine it is a razor's edge for individuals as well: How much of religion in anyone's life is a matter of parroting and dissecting what someone else says and how much is buried or branded on some intimate, life-giving 'soul?' The whole matter can be as tender and touchy as a rug burn: Raise up the one and the other grows testy as an old man with arthritis. Raise up the other and the one rears up in fulminating insistence.

What brought all this to mind was the lead line on an Associated Press story I skimmed today: 

Aleeza Adelman teaches Jewish studies at a Jewish school, yet she considers herself a teacher whose subject is religion, not a religious teacher.
The story concerns the confusion arising from a U.S. Supreme Court decision. It is hard to envy the justices who may have tried to parse and clarify the distinction asserted in the quote above. Can such  distinctions be made? Can they be allowed to dive into an unexamined oneness? It reminds me a little of the doubts that enter my mind when a philosophy teacher is dubbed a "philosopher." Does a love of wisdom (the definition of "philosophy") mean that anyone is, ipso facto, wise? The questions for "religion" and "philosophy" may seem abstruse and distant and unworthy of consideration by anyone who has to put spaghetti on the dinner table. But just try dismissing those questions out of hand -- what a bunch of assholes! -- and take note of the resulting furor: This is 'serious' and worthy of human controversy....

Touchy and touching as a rug burn.

-- In India, a group of men is hoping to gain equal rights with the women who rule the matrilineal roost.

"[We] do not want to bring women down," as he puts it. "We just want to bring the men up to where the women are."
 "If you want to know how much the Khasis favour women just take a trip to the labour ward at the hospital," he says.
"If it's a girl, there will be great cheers from the family outside. If it's a boy, you will hear them mutter politely that, 'Whatever God gives us is quite all right.'"
"A tree is masculine, but when it is turned into wood, it becomes feminine," he begins.
"The same is true of many of the nouns in our language. When something becomes useful, its gender becomes female.
Tender and touchy as a rug burn.

Not for the first time, I realize how fortunate I was to have been sent away to a boarding school from the fourth to the eighth grade. The paralyzing sense of abandonment I initially felt gave way to a recognition in some part of my being that this was a healthy setting. Boys and girls did the same things. They hiked and learned to type. They wore sheath knives or carried pocket knives as tools to be used for cutting the strings around hay bales in the barn ... where everyone did barn chores. Everyone learned how to shoot. When there was a knitting fad or the game of jacks became popular, everyone was knitting or playing jacks. Some were better at one thing and worse at another. But, in a setting where parents could not interfere, it was just boys and girls. They were different, but the same. When it came to kissing and other amorous pursuits, the differences were a delight ... but not extraordinary or debilitating. Who can possibly be "better" or "worse," "stronger" or "weaker" in the midst of a single kiss? I was so fortunate to have lived in such an environment that when, in the sixth grade, my mother asked me if I would like to come home and live with her, I said simply, "no."

Tender and touchy as a rug burn.


There was a small snowfall last night ... pinpoints of silence falling out of the sky ... wafting effortlessly around the street lights straining to be heard.

Softer than the word "hush," it seemed to whisper without a word, "Rest now. The sun will rise in the East tomorrow and you will always be a partless part of it."

Today, I will search out the shovel.

No need for dreams of "part" or "whole."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

cleaning up the shit

Across the street, a medium-sized tan dog on a leash stopped to take a shit in my neighbor's yard.

The dog's owner, bundled against the morning chill, waited patiently, then inserted his right hand into a blue plastic bag, reached down, gathered the turds, turned the bag inside out so that what had been gathered was now contained, and moved along with his companion, tying off the blue bag as they walked.

It was a conscientious maneuver carefully executed.

I wonder how many are as conscientious and careful and caring about their own shit.

lessons in the news

-- If you thought Vlad the Impaler (sometimes called Dracula) was bad news for Transylvania, this may be the time to rethink the priorities of horror. In Vlad's country, Romania, the riots based on economic difficulty are rising. Those who cannot point to Romania on a map may think that "Romania ain't us," but I would argue that Romania is our very own kissing cousin and that taking a lesson from our horrific kin is not so farfetched after all.

-- A study claims that dementia patients who are given anti-depressants suffer relatively more falls -- some with serious results -- than those whose depression was not addressed with such drugs. Depression is no joke, but then, when you're 82 or older as most in the study were, neither is a broken hip. Aging is a conundrum only as long as anyone insists on youth and vitality.

now and then

In a column, a young mother unburdened herself to readers and described her feelings of inadequacy when confronted by older women whose children had grown and gone. "Carpe diem" (seize the day), these wistful elders counseled ... it all goes by so fast, so enjoy it while you've got it. The writer pointed out that when it came to child-rearing, she barely had time to complete all the chores that needed doing, let alone doing something splendid like "seizing the day."

I had to sympathize with the young woman whose column I mostly-read yesterday. "Seize the day" has a wonderful and somewhat imperious ring to it. Who wouldn't feel inadequate? Who wouldn't feel wistful? Who wouldn't like to get a day off in order to seize the day?

In the world of spiritual adventure, there are those -- I sometimes think they are the military-industrial complex of spiritual effort -- who make a handsome living by addressing (or is it 'preying on'?) the wistful inadequacies of others. It's all as a matter of 'kindness' and 'compassion,' of course -- urging others in one way or another to seize the day or live in the moment. Their Bentleys and entourages follow them from one upscale hall or temple to another. Seize the day, live in the moment, stop feeling uncertain and inadequate and wistful. I guess it can't be helped: The 'now' is an elusive cuss and yet people remember their own, actualized 'now' moments and long to return. Even a nanosecond of clear understanding whispers and taunts ... come home, come home! Someone's bound to make a buck on it all.

But sometimes I wonder if the cure isn't worse than the disease... encouraging others, encouraging ourselves, selling ice to Eskimos ... it's serious, it's touching, it's human, it's ... profitable. And there's always the question, "What's the alternative?" Well, I haven't got the answer. Is there an endeavor -- any endeavor at all -- that doesn't require people to wade through a thicket of bullshit and lies before they relax into their fields of sweet grass that lie beyond 'the truth?'

I am no better than the high-profile hucksters, no doubt, though the money doesn't appear in my bank account. Encouragement. I encourage myself. You encourage yourself. Everyone encourages everyone ... and the advice is always the same ... advice is what anyone offers to themselves. The only question is -- is it good advice? "Carpe diem," seize the day, live in the present moment ... etc. etc.

As I read the young mom's column, it crossed my mind that the sense of inadequacy arising from the encouragement to seize the day and live in the present moment might be eased a little.

Live in the 'now.'

But if, somehow, that inescapable realm is unattainable in the midst of diapers and dishes and commuting to work and paying the bills and watching TV, well ...

Try living in the 'then.'

Seriously. If someone can't live in the wistfully-remembered or longed-for 'now,' then they must be living in the 'then' -- some past or future that is not the 'now.' And if that's the fact, then go with the facts. Try living in the 'then.' Use every ounce of 'spiritual' effort and ... live in the 'then.' Don't be a sissy about it. Put the pedal to the metal: Enter and embrace the sense of inadequacy that may arise when hoping to live in the 'now.' If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. But no wussing out ... if you can't do 'now,' do 'then.'

Of course it doesn't work. Do it anyway.

Bit by bit, the need for the now's and the then's, the need to feel inadequate and incomplete and somehow unenriched ... well, see what happens.

And if that doesn't work, just send a fat donation to the Church of Unexcelled, Brilliant and Profound Understanding. I think they're located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but I could be wrong about that. I do know that wherever you send your donation, there is a phalanx of spin doctors awaiting your call -- ready, willing and able to encourage your carpe-diem inadequacies.

Do it now!

Of, if you prefer, do it then!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

unexplaining things

Before dawn today, an indolent crescent moon crossed the sky in the southeast. It was crisp and clear and seemed to loll like a teenager at the back of the classroom.

What was its meaning or explanation?

The better question is, what idjit came up with the notion that things needed meaning or explanation?

bad news and worse

Even hiding your money under the mattress seems unworkable these days. After all, the hoard would simply shrink there -- though perhaps at a slower rate than in the stock market. "The light at the end of the tunnel" and "it's always darkest before the dawn" ring increasingly hollow. Sometimes today's bad news is just a precursor of worse news tomorrow.

-- A report from the World Bank suggests that preparing for worse news is sensible. Times ahead could easily be worse than the meltdown of 2008.

-- And for those who live in the United States, there is data suggesting that there is meat on that worse-news bone. During the past decade, the U.S. has lost more than a quarter of its high-tech manufacturing jobs.

My older son is studying computers in college. My suggestion -- which he pooh-pooh's -- is that he should learn how to FIX computers. People unwilling to pay for snazzy web sites are always willing to pay when the screen goes black. And as someone whose college debt makes college seem a dubious proposition (a college degree for what?), his having a decent trade strikes me as sensible, if not exactly glorious.

your history and mine

History is so much more interesting than the overlays of bias and judgment that are brought to bear within its realms. But it is also a conundrum. On the one hand, the closer the study, the more its lack of resolution becomes apparent. On the other hand, the mind demands resolution (and applies bias and judgment) as a means of informing the present.

Last night, I got sucked into watching a TV examination of George Armstrong Custer, an American colonel who was wiped out at Little Big Horn by Indians whose land an expanding America and its government was seeking to control. It was a nice study, one whose commentators did not altogether lie down and spread their legs for the easy judgments of those who look back casually.

As always, the examination boiled down to people -- real individuals with real agendas and a willingness, however tempered, to advance those agendas. Each aspect of personality and agenda, when examined, had a way of having plots within plots, connections within connections, enmities and friendships that relied on other enmities and friendships. "God" and "justice," "hell" and "injustice," "truth" and "lies" were woven into the panorama. And the further the examination went, the more intricate and human it became... and the more judgment and bias seemed irrelevant or perhaps just self-serving.

Because I have a poor memory, I have always admired those who had a good one -- the historians who could bring facts of the past to bear in the present. There was a part of me that was ashamed to be so poorly equipped. I imagined I was full of facile bias -- remembering what was convenient to me and my agendas, but not really capable of sussing out the particulars that could create a more accurate past.

But today it occurs to me that history is a business that cannot help but be inaccurate. No one can grasp the past. History, when its any good, is basically just the least-inaccurate rendition of what happened in what is imagined to be past. It is useful stuff, but it is also biased and incomplete stuff. Why? Because history concerns people and people are chock-a-block with information and emotion and connections from which only a fool would draw fershur conclusions and hence bias.

And if any of this speculation is close to being true, what can it tell anyone about his or her own history, his or her own past? No one can grasp the past and yet their own past can be very compelling. Habits shaped in the past can strangle or inform the present. Sorrows once borne can be sorrows that still whisper. Accomplishments of another time can linger and bring a joy or create a building block for further accomplishment and satisfaction.

But is it all true -- can we really remember what we claim to remember? I am inclined to say no. We remember approximations and treat them as fact. It's not good or bad -- but I do think it is what is. People are too intricate, too wondrously messy, to be nailed down. They are the Jell-O which refuses to be nailed to the wall.

And there is usefulness to be found in such approximations, I think. The usefulness lies in the ability to investigate our least-inaccurate facts. What worked? What didn't work? What either worked or didn't work and yet might have the opposite effect in other circumstances, other people, other flavors of Jell-O? It's an iffy realm, but getting used to the 'iffy,' making friends with it instead of spreading our legs for facile judgment and conclusions, is useful. Such an investigation does not mean dissolving into a puddle of simpering relativism -- if nothing can be grasped then any choice, any grasping, is equally fruitless -- but it does mean getting a perspective that does not rely so much on the unreliable.

Everyone's got a history.

And here it is.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

attacking the train surfers

Indonesia has found a new weapon in its effort to derail the "train surfers" who ride on the tops of the rail cars. Dangling concrete balls that might deliver a serious blow have been hung over the tracks, intending to scrape off all who are not able or willing to sit in the crowded interiors. The 16-inch gap between the balls and to rail car roof will be revised downward, authorities have said. A roof rider who has eluded several earlier inventions said simply, "We always win."

a day without Wikipedia


Tomorrow, Wikipedia, the Internet resource for those like me who lack the skill or energy to do honest research -- will black out its English-language offerings as a means of protesting an anti-piracy bill working its way through the U.S. Congress.

"If passed, this legislation will harm the free and open Internet and bring about new tools for censorship of international websites inside the United States," the Wikimedia foundation said.
The action is a powerful statement when the number of credulous users is as high as it is. How many kids won't be able to do what passes for homework? How many journalists will be forced to ... look it up for real? How many others will be deprived of ... well, whatever it is they will be deprived of?

The action suggests to me that, aside from the philosophical arguments, Wikipedia is probably a pirate in its own right. I have had stuff of mine pirated without attribution and frankly I don't mind: My view is that if you're going to put it on the Internet, then you'd better be prepared to have it 'pirated.' If you want to keep it secret or inviolate, just don't put it on the Internet in the first place. As Dorothy Parker once observed more or less, "How can we expect others to keep our secrets when we can't keep them ourselves?"

But a day without Wikipedia has a nice effect: Doesn't it force everyone to rethink the reliance they put on this Internet resource? Like a utility blackout, everyone gets to reflect on what they take for granted.

the baby steps of philosophy

Philosophy -- that realm defined as the love of knowledge or wisdom -- can be pretty informative for those inclined. And even those who couldn't spell the word "philosophy" still seem to have a philosophy -- a set of precepts and touchstones that point the way and offer comforting conclusions. Ku Klux Klan or well-versed existentialist ... no different.

But this morning philosophy rose up in my mind in the form of a baby's walker -- a really useful tool that provides mobility and fun and training for the legs on which a grown (wo)man will one day walk. It's hot-damn delightful, deeply informative, and yet, and yet ....

And yet philosophy remains at one remove, at a distance. And in your life and mine, the fact is that there is no distance. Our closeness to ourselves is so close it cannot even be called "close," much less a "philosophy." Philosophy points things out. It separates. And our own lives are not separate. This is more than philosophy on which any of us might learn to test our tender legs.

And I think all of this is important in the sense that the disconnect between our reality and our philosophies makes us edgy and no one likes to be edgy. Hell, the reason anyone adopted a philosophy in the first place was to overcome a sense of edginess and uncertainty, to rest easy and be at peace. Outgrowing our walkers may not be easy, but that doesn't mean it's not necessary ... or anyway I think so.

"Philosophy" is a grand word. Maybe it would be easier just to say "bias" or "belief" or "judgment." Not so intimidating. "Philosophy" might feel miffed to be lumped into such pedestrian company, but people and entities on high mountain tops always find a reason to be miffed about what does not accord with their lofty station. OK ... call it what you like, but notice the edginess and not-quite-completeness. Notice that and use the walker to good effect.

Philosophy separates. Whether lofty or base, I think that's a fair statement.

It is nice to visit a fine restaurant. People pay $10-$20-$50-$100-$200 to be served a delicious meal. Besides being delicious and luxurious, it is nourishing. What is nourishing keeps us alive. And the bottom line is that "alive" is good. So a meal is good. But is there anyone who pays $10-$20-$50-$100-$200 to take a shit? Probably there are a few who might, but it would be more the exception than the rule. To eat a fine meal is savory, delicious, fun, nutritious, and good. Taking a shit is ... well, it's stinky and does not win a five-star rating on the philosophical ladder. It may not be bad, exactly, but effete writers do not wax lyrical about it. Shit, after all, is sort of shitty.

But who, after examination, can find the line separating what is wonderful, tasty, nourishing and good from what we all may flush away without a backward glance? Seriously, where is the line of separation ... literally. Check it out. The filet mignon goes in (assuming anyone has the money) and we pay for it. The shit comes out and we pay for our septic systems to take it away. The aroma of the one is delightful. The aroma of the other is distasteful. Ditto the attitudes. But where is the line? Where is the separation? Literally ... never mind any philosophical crap.

In Walmart, along the greeting card shelves, there are hundreds of cards wishing people a "happy birthday." Joyful, silly, religious ... happy birthday! There don't seem to be any cards wishing anyone a "happy death day." Birth is OK. Death is shitty. They are different and separate, whether philosophically or in our hearts. Up with happy! Down with sad! In this walker of ours, we tool around with a smile on our faces: The walker provides stability, mobility, and faith.

In the summer time, there is the experiment anyone with a little patience might try. Take a lawn chair out into the backyard at 3 a.m. The sky is dark and twinkling with stars. This is "night." Now wait a while and there will be a glow that appears in the East. It is still "night," but there is a small shift. And you know the punch line -- eventually the sun comes up and "night" becomes "day." Intellectually and philosophically, there is night and there is day. But does this observation hold up to scrutiny? Does it allay edginess and foster peace? I mean personally ... is it true for you? Does it compute or does it simply contribute to the edginess anyone might seek to allay through intellect or emotion or philosophy or belief or bias or judgment or any of the other tools meant to soothe the separation beast?

At this point, someone is likely to drag out the walker of "oneness" and "God" and "enlightenment" and ... other bits of explanatory smugness. Never mind. It's still crap. And it still stinks. And the walker that was meant to insure anyone a firm footing becomes a ball and chain, imprisoning the one who would be free, starting wars where peace was the vision.

The lines of separation are not good and they are not bad. They are a walker. They are not yet grown up. It's OK. Shit has its very good uses, just like filet mignon. But somehow there needs to be a willingness to investigate what it is that creates edginess and uncertainty.

Is separation true? Is it false? Don't ask the teacher -- ask yourself. Where precisely are the lines that shape this walker? If you say they exist, well, that doesn't seem to pan out empirically. If you say they don't exist, well, that's a nitwit pastime. How long is anyone willing to rely on their walker -- this ornate and intricate walker?

Setting the walker aside guarantees one thing for sure -- falling flat on your ass. Of course we fall down. It's one of the things we do best. But another thing we do pretty well is to get up and try again. Over and over -- birth and death; filet mignon and shit; night and day -- we practice. Sure, whine and whimper, love god and curse the devil, strike a pose only to find out these clothes don't cover nakedness ... play the game and with time, like all games, it will take more energy than anyone's got.

Might as well enjoy yourself, don't you think?