Monday, April 30, 2012


At the exit to the supermarket, there was a semi ahead of me waiting for the same red light. It's Maine license plate bore the requisite numbers to identify the trailer and then, below that, the word, "SEMI- PERMANENT" was stamped into the metal.

I was stymied. What the hell did "semi-permanent" mean? Was this some bureaucratic construct (too much time and too little work to do) or a yuppie-esque way of saying "temporary" or did it have some specific meaning that was outside my ken? It felt a little like using the word "issue" to designate something that was once a far-less-soft-soaping "problem." But who knows, maybe "semi-permanent" had a specific meaning I could not hope to divine.

What is NOT semi-permanent?

Which is the same as asking, what IS permanent?

In what world does any of this actually compute? In what world does "semi-permanent" sound sane or does it require a certain insanity in order to plumb its honest depths?

I was stymied.

I like being stymied -- outfoxed by a world I thought I knew something about only to find that I was completely out of touch.

No matter: I came home to an email thanking me for one I had sent. "Thanks for sharing," it said. The phrase irritates me in its egregious, self-protective and well-manicured kindnesses. I feel none of the stymied quality I got from "semi-permanent." "Thanks for sharing" is too foxy by half to outfox anyone.

Oh well ... it's a semi-permanent resentment.

hookers downgrade U.S. credit rating

Every day, I read four or five news outlets. Increasingly, I am not especially interested. But when someone comes up with a humorous take on the news, well, that gets my attention.

The Borowitz Report seems to do just that and do it with a wit that the likes of Stephen Colbert is lacking.

Here is an example: Hookers Downgrade U.S. Credit Rating.

fame ... connecting the dots

Every week, the local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, runs a tab called "Hampshire Life." The inserted tabloid is full of events and small stories about musical, artistic, culinary and other creative endeavors. Stuff to see, stuff to listen to, stuff to eat, stuff to do, stuff to buy... adventures in discretionary income of which this region, despite the economic woes of the country, has quite a bit.

And one of the tab's pages is devoted to something entitled "id A personal Profile." No, not Freud's id, but rather I.D., meaning identification. The person being profiled offers brief answers to brief questions and in those questions and answers provides a rough sketch of who they are. It is like the children's puzzles in which numbered dots invite the child to pencil in the connections between one and two and three ... and come out with a picture of a fire truck or a horse. I enjoy reading these profiles because it allows me to wonder and connect the dots and fill in my own blanks: If someone describes who they are, there are implications that fill out a picture that can never be accurately filled out by the numbers. It's fun ... like watching a TV program that is better than mere drivel.

Where were you born? Where do you live? What do you do? Who lives under the same roof with you? What's the dumbest thing you ever did? What book would you recommend to a friend? What's the best advice you ever got? Do you have children? What are your hobbies? Name five things you can't live without. What do you like to do in your spare time? Who's your favorite athlete? People who knew you in high school thought you were? What gives you the creeps? Favorite TV shows or movies or places to eat out. And a "parting shot."

There are other questions as well, each requiring three or four lines of response. More dots for me to try to connect. I like doing it and always read the profile, even when the responses don't interest me much. It's like people-watching ... trying to guess from a stoop or park bench what passers-by are really like based on very spotty information like looks or gait or hair style. Any picture you paint is, of necessity, incomplete and possibly wrong and yet ... well, I do it anyway as a matter of habit or enjoyment.

But the other day, as I was reading the latest profile, I thought how I might like to see my own profile in the paper. Fifteen minutes of fame -- that sort of thing. What dots would/could I offer up for someone else's gossipy delectation? For a whispering wispy moment I wanted to be famous and yet could not honestly conjure up the elements that might constitute a worthiness to be noticed and famous. Naturally, I was famous in my own mind -- who isn't? -- but as a matter of public consumption ...? I was stumped and vaguely sad.

Ferdinand the Bull
At first I thought perhaps it was simply my age and employment status. Seventy-two and retired is not very interesting in a world that reads its newspapers based on action and interaction. Where many readers may be are places I have been. No one wants to hear that the places in which they find themselves are no longer compelling to someone else. I have read books and eaten out and seen things that touched me, but at 72 much of that is in the past and far less etched and compelling than it once was. I don't stand on the peace picket line on Saturday mornings because I imagine that "peace" is something I could talk anyone into. I don't write because I feel I have some prismic vision or gimlet eye without which others will be lesser (wo)men. The 'greatest' or the 'best' or the 'dumbest' or the 'smartest' are possibilities, some of which bang my chimes, but more often represent dots that lead me to other dots. There is no fire truck or horse ... no one wants to hear that: It's too upending and perhaps depressing from where they sit in the eye of the storm -- the vortex of excitement and action and meaning and importance. No one is interested in a "Ferdinand the Bull" who would rather smell the flowers and sit under a tree than rush across the hot sands in a vain and ultimately fatal attempt to gore a red cape.

Vaguely sad. I feel vaguely sad to have little or no 'id' fame and yet it also feels more realistic and more contenting somehow ... though perhaps that's just fooling myself. From the I-want-to-be-noticed point of view, it feels anti-social and dreamy and self-serving and unproductive. When did sitting under a tree ever accomplish much, let alone invite the applause of an attentive and approving audience? No one in the 'id' column ever seems to be beyond a certain age ... 30's, 40's or even 50's. And if I am any example, I can see why. Memory may suggest that getting out there, getting involved, keeping active and all the other feel-good nostrums are where it's at. But, even when I am not content, still sitting in the cool shade on a hot day makes sense to me. I have eaten in world-class restaurants around the world but none of them can hold a candle to a good bowl of soup, the ecstasy of real chocolate, a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, or an honest piece of bread. I do love excellence, but the excellence no longer requires neon. There is enough magic in the world without ballyhoo-ing 'the magic.'

At my age, what makes sense makes better sense than fame.

necessity and choice

Is there a hierarchy or contrast between "necessity" and "choice?" Is the one more accurate or useful or true than the other as a reference point when circumstances pop up? Or is it just apples and oranges?

I don't know, but I have a hunch that even if the load is initially heavier, the result is more peaceful and coherent if "choice" is awarded the high seat.

No excuses, no gods, more appropriate responsibility, less whining ... I choose.

After that, the only question that remains is the reliability of this "I."

But I could be off-base ... a choice I have made often enough in the past.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Leeds Reservoir pix

Just a couple of friends encountered today at Leeds Reservoir near here:


It seems to me that among the assumed rights that any civilized country might hold as being worthy of assumption is the right to commit suicide. Wikipedia cites numbers of countries in which suicide is against the law in one way or another. Most such laws find their basis in religious doctrine, but I think individuals find it repugnant or incomprehensible in ways that deny the individual his (so to speak) God-given right. As regards the U.S.:
Historically, various states listed the act of suicide as a felony, but these policies were sparsely enforced. In the late 1960s, eighteen U.S. states lacked laws against suicide. By the late 1980s, thirty of the fifty states had no laws against suicide or suicide attempts but every state had laws declaring it to be felony to aid, advise or encourage another person to commit suicide. By the early 1990s only two states still listed suicide as a crime, and these have since removed that classification.
There are still a variety of adjunct laws that are connected with the act of suicide -- as for example the disposition of property or the act of assisting a suicide.

What brought this to mind was that today I saw Toby walking to his apartment across the street. Toby is a man in his 40's who has had his brushes with the law in the past. Toby drinks. Two or three days ago, two cop cars and an ambulance pulled up outside Toby's dwelling place. One of the cops asked me without explanation if I had seen Toby. I said no, but that I had heard him earlier in the day, cussing out a nearby barking dog. The situation remained unclear until today when I again saw Toby and subsequently heard him talking to one of his next-door neighbors. "They thought I was going to hurt myself," I heard him say.

The context of the remark was entirely missing, but it did make me wonder who had ratted him out in the first place and on what basis. It also made me think that a man should be allowed to commit suicide in peace and quiet if that's what he wants. Of course, if peace and quiet was what he actually wanted, it seems to me that even a drinker could find the time and place in which to act uninterrupted.

Yes, perhaps a planned suicide is a "mistake." But we've all made mistakes. Yes, perhaps a planned suicide is really a "plea for help." Perhaps it is "cowardice." Perhaps it is "irresponsible." But whatever the perhaps's, still I think that individuals should be granted their 'God-given' rights in the minds of others.

A little peace and quiet is a nice thing to grant to others.

what things are not

How many things rely for their definition -- whether in whole or in part -- on what they are not?







I think many things may be like this -- relying on the earnest descriptions of what they are not and yet gob-stoppered or wildly and ineptly garrulous when it comes to saying what they actually are. Any honest evaluation of what such things are dribbles through the fingers like a fistful of water.

Maybe it's all a bit like what the Supreme Court Justice said about pornography (approximately): "I may not know what it is, but I know it when I see it."

This is useful to know, I think. If the only -- or perhaps most frequently employed -- way of saying what something is is to depict what it is not, then how reliable is saying what it is not in saying what it is? And if you can't say what it is and if you can't reliably say what it isn't ... well, maybe it's all porn.

I'm not interested in this as a philosophy exam test question. I just think it's useful on a personal level.

from tantrum to satisfaction

Shaving, a pastime that many American men and women indulge in, is a strange duck. It's both a pain in the ass and yet somehow satisfying once complete.

In Berlin, when I was there, it was common for women to shave neither their armpits nor legs. The popularity of shaving the public hair hadn't gained currency as far as I could tell. And after a while, the novelty wore off for those like me who were used to women shaving.

Because I am not a very hairy person, I shave every other day. But the lead-up to shaving on shaving days is always petulant: I really don't want to do it. The fact that I don't have to do it does not come into play: The alternative is too sloppy for me. No way am I going to look like some assertive and smug Middle Eastern man whose facial hair is both a matter of male woo-hoo and a success story in its luxuriance.

But still, on shaving days, I kick my mental feet and complain childishly, "I don't wanna!!!!"

The activity forces me to slow down, to move with care and attention. Once started, the tantrums subside. You can't have a tantrum and shave at the same time ... it's one or the other. Carefully, attentively, with as few nicks as possible until finally it's time to rinse off the excess soap, dry the face and apply a little astringent Witch Hazel. And at that point I feel somehow better, as if I had done something 'right' although there is no one else to commend my efforts.

I wonder how many things are like that -- from tantrum to satisfaction.

where chocolate and cocaine collide

I love good chocolate. I mean, really good chocolate ... not just the wussy stuff sold at American stores everywhere. Mind you, I'll eat a Hershey bar or Snickers if it is offered, but a really good chocolate bar is ... is ... is ... beyond words.

Now comes word that the American government is encouraging Peruvian coca growers to use an inferior coca plant ... something that will diminish the potential for producing cocaine, the illegal drug which some enjoy as much as I enjoy real chocolate.

Where there is delicious, I guess there will always be danger, but I for one am willing to suffer the dangers if it means I can get my chocolate fix.

grateful for zazen

One of the practical aspects of Zen Buddhism that I am grateful to have become acquainted with is this: Zen practice -- the sit down, shut up and focus the mind practice of zazen -- offers the opportunity to address the matter of being alone ... alone among others.

I think it was Oscar Wilde who once observed more or less, "If you don't want to be lonely, then never get married." Besides the bon-mot witticism and apparent paradox the observation provides, I also think it touches on something very human -- the sometimes-whispering-sometimes-fierce sense that however 'connected' I may be in a social sense, still there is something missing and I am not truly as connected as I would like to feel.

In formal zazen practice, a person sometimes enters a roomful of other people -- each sitting on a cushion, often facing a wall, still and silent. Laced with occasional bouts of walking 'meditation,' this silent stillness can go on for hours or days or weeks. Alone together: There is no other option than to wrestle with or relax into the intimate sense of aloneness.

This is a useful exercise, an in-your-face confrontation with what I would guess everyone feels, Buddhist or otherwise: I fit and yet I am not content with the ways in which I fit; the definitions of closeness and love that ramble through my life seem to carry with them a screeching sense of distance and incompleteness.

The nub of the issue, I think, is the fact that human beings cannot share experience. The ooey-gooey, spiritual gimcrack about 'interconnectedness' may please the intellect and emotions, but it just doesn't fill the bill. The perfect connection, the perfect peace, remains just out of reach as I rush around trying to 'share experience' or assert my connections.

Zazen is practical in this regard: A roomful of people, silent and still ... alone together. And the practice works even when anyone practices alone in some corner of the living room or bedroom. Am I alone? Not really. Am I together? Not really. So what is it like when I am whatever I am really?

Naturally, because I am so important, I can paint zazen in some vast palette of important colors. I can concoct something called "Buddhism." It's OK as far as it goes, but of course it doesn't go far enough. Zazen is for the perfectly obvious stuff -- the part that exists and insists before anyone started making up Buddhism. It's the bedroom ceiling on sleepless nights. It's the sense of distance and disconnection and dissonance anyone might feel in a crowd. Zazen is just an exercise that addresses perfectly human uncertainties: It's as if someone handed you a hammer when you were trying unsuccessfully to pound a nail. Somehow this very-human edginess doesn't respond well to all the social Band-Aids I may attempt to apply. It's not that those Band-Aids are good or bad -- it's just that they don't work and the edginess remains unresolved. Zazen is a good tool for very human concerns.

Yesterday, on the peace picket line, a fellow I had known briefly when I worked at the newspaper stopped to say hi. Andrew is now working at Smith College, preparing students for Fulbright and other fellowships. He comes from South Africa and has that sort of distant, smiling assurance that comes with having money. Andrew asked if I were still doing Zen practice and, since I was standing along the peace picket in my robes, I said sure. He then took a conversational side-trip into koan study. It's a wonderful tease and perhaps a useful tool, but, as I stood along the peace picket line, all I could think was, "What the hell are you badgering the scene with koans for? Isn't this life enough? Aren't there enough so-called koans without adding these Tiddlywinks?" I'm not bad-mouthing koan study -- who knows what will bang whose chimes? -- but really, isn't this life enough without adding twists in your knickers?

And one of the perfectly ordinary koans is this sense of being alone -- alone together. How to crack that nut does not require anyone to cross the road to the local koan store. It's as easy as peanut butter -- homemade and compelling and tasty. Intimate. No outsiders necessary.

But some tool does seem to be necessary for those who consent to quit slapping on Band-Aids and really take a look. I am grateful to zazen for providing a format within which to serious up, set aside the usual Band-Aids, and take a look. Zazen may not be for everyone -- I certainly wouldn't recommend it -- but some tool, something that effectively addresses what is already intimate and obvious, does seem to be required.

I am grateful to have made the acquaintance of zazen.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

issue and ego

One of my blind spots is this: If there is a problem, I tend to assume everyone will stick to the issue. Though less disastrous, I generally think of situations as I might when coming on a car accident: The accident and any possible injuries would take clear and compelling precedence over my fear of getting blood on my clothes or any horror I might want to express.

Issue over ego.

But in less disastrous situations, ego is frequently involved, sometimes to the exclusion of the issue. And the capacity to thread the needle -- to address the issue while being sensitive to the ego(s) involved -- is not my strongest point. Maybe it's a guy thing ... guys like to think they can solve problems, from lawn mowers to quantum physics... let's just stick with the issue; we can do the head-patting later.

And then of course there are those times when the ego is the issue...or when a person claims to be talking about the issue when really they are on some kind of ego trip.

I don't have a clear bead or a wide and wise generalization to make here. I just know that I'm more comfortable -- assuming there's a problem -- with addressing the issue. I'll try to help someone fix the lawnmower, but I run out of patience where wails of displeasure overtake and perhaps smother the effort to actually fix it. I guess it's a good thing I'm not a shrink. In my next incarnation, perhaps I will be more patient.

ministerial duties

As a companion piece, perhaps, to the dour assessment of life that goes, "Womb. Gloom. Tomb," there is the description I heard first today of a Christian minister's responsibilities:

Hatch 'em. Match 'em. Dispatch 'em.

religion vs. intellect

Ah, the fisticuffs in which intellectuals and spiritual adherents can indulge!

Each can point -- with aptness and/or venom -- to the failings of the other.

And yet the religion of the intellect and the well-tailored mental gymnastics of spiritual life both cry out and point to only one useful suggestion, as far as I can see:

The willingness to investigate honestly.

As Rumi suggested:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

the five senses

Somehow, yesterday and today, the five senses nudge and frolic like puppies around my mental feet: see, hear, smell, taste, touch ... and the fly in the ointment, think.

How enormous the senses are before they get sent through the meat grinder of thought ... and thus explanation ... and thus meaning ... and thus belief ... and thus control ... and thus ... and thus get lost.

This nipping, happy gaggle of puppies began their frolic yesterday. The peppers and onions being sauteed in preparation for the spaghetti sauce. Quietly snap-crackle-and-popping in the frying pan and loosing a smell that told a story that was bigger than Cecil B. DeMille before the story-teller got his hands on it all.

And then there was the rich smell of dark, damp mulch the fellow laid down on the lawn to help make it grow. So quiet. So huge. So non-verbal and yet compelling.

And the three cords of newly-delivered fire wood dumped in the driveway.

And the two sticks of incense I light every morning.

All of them huge and unknown -- ranging hither and thither without explanation or by-your-leave. Utterly clear in what is known within them ... and the moment the story-teller goes to work, they recede and lose their lively savor ... and become unknown.

Is it the same with all the senses? I think it is. Live it and it is clear. Explain it and it is lost.

The Zen teacher Ummon once observed approximately, "When you can't say it, it's clear. When you don't say it, it's missing."

No one wants to be lost, I suppose. But what's so bad about being lost ... assuming there were any other choice?


At the boarding school I was sent to from the fourth to the eighth grade, no one got into the dining room without first showing his or her hands. A monitor standing at the dining room entry would, if necessary, say, "hands!" and the hungry child would extend both arms, showing first palms, then backs. Clean hands were required before this privileged throng would sit down at eight-person tables and be served by a teacher sitting at the head. North Country School in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The food was always good and healthy and the children had no way of knowing their life of privilege -- fed and housed and ... well, kids know what is and are ignorant of what might be. Years later I came to know a man who had taught at the school and he told me that after summer vacations, when the kids returned to the school, it took a couple of months to revise the attitudes and neuroses visited on the kids who had spent  vacations with their sometimes well-heeled and self-invested parents. My mother asked me in the sixth grade if I would like to come home and live with her instead of going to boarding school. In a burst of sanity whose source I cannot guess, I said, simply, "no."

Clean hands come to mind this morning.

Clean hands and the fact that the dining room always bore on its aromatic wings, not just roasted meat or baking potatoes or some warm dessert, but also and always the smell of horse shit.

Every child at the school had a chore to perform once or twice a day. Some set tables or swept hallways, but many had "barn chores" -- taking care of horses or pigs or chickens. It was a twice-a-day chore, once early in the morning and once in the evening -- piling into the back of a Ford pickup and being driven to the barn. It had to be done, no matter how cold the day and sometimes the temperatures were well below zero. Those assigned to a horse had to muck out the stall, provide hay and oats, and then curry and brush the animals whose coats were sometimes matted with horse shit the animal had lain in overnight. The close quarters of the stall meant that children took on the odor of their charges and that smell would travel with them back to the school buildings and into the warmth and nourishment of the dining room.

Looking back, I wonder what the parents who often lived among white linens and crystal wine glasses might have thought of the company and smell their offspring kept. Horse shit in the realms of foie gras.

But I came to associate horse shit with the warmest of warmths. One whiff and in a great rush of non-verbal communication, horse shit still spells h-o-m-e. It spells without spelling ... l-o-v-e. Perhaps it is the same for men and women who fish for a living ... a scent that tells a tale wider and deeper and more touching than 3-D movies. In a nanosecond, a vast and convincing tale is told... and told as quietly as a mother might touch a child's cowlick.

"Hands!" the monitor would say. Everyone had to wash their hands. It was not acceptable to come grubby to the table. It was not hygienic. But there was nothing that could be done about the smell, which tiptoed in under the exacting radar and was integral to a benevolent universe.

I don't know why it is but I think it is true -- kids hate washing their hands. They seem to hate it in part because, what the hell, their hands work perfectly well whether dirty or clean. Or maybe it's just written on their DNA -- any day you can get away without washing your hands is a good day. But over time, the habit sinks in until you can't quite remember the time when you hated washing your hands.

And maybe spiritual endeavor is a little like that monitor standing in the doorway to a roomful of nourishment saying, "hands!" DNA says that these hands, this life, seems to work perfectly well without making any effort, so why bother with the effort? And yet the nourishment is barred without the effort, so, a little at a time, the effort is made ... until one day you can't quite remember why spiritual effort was called "effort" at all. And passing through the doorway into a roomful of chatter and clatter and delicious and disastrous adventures, you know it was worth it, even if you can't remember what "it" was:

The horse shit greets you, wordless and warm, like a long-lost friend, and you are h-o-m-e.

Friday, April 27, 2012

if I knew then what I know now

It's one of those rueful, wistful sentiments: If I knew then what I knew now ....

A sentiment of wishful regret. With any luck, if I knew then what I know now, I might have sidestepped a lot of tom-foolery or serious error.

This morning, the sentiment strikes me as pure horseshit.

If I knew then what I know now, all that would have done is to open up whole new vistas for other more colorfully appointed bits of tom-foolery or serious error.

All that tom-foolery and error ... wasn't that the very stuff that brought you to where you are now -- supposedly more experienced and wise -- and wishing you had known then what you know now?

Regret is such a poor companion, not least when you stop to consider that what was regrettable is so richly informative in a present where there is no time to regret.

religious nightmare

I guess it's some sort of archetype nightmare, dreaming that you're walking down the high school hall, headed for a history test when you suddenly realize you haven't studied for it. A variation might include the fact that you didn't have any clothes on.

Maybe another dreamland archetype is the scenario in which you feel deeply committed to something and are addressing an audience. You muster all your heart and all your commitment ... and suddenly the audience is just laughing. They find your most deeply-held view irrelevant and worse, silly.

Watching the Bill Moyers show the other night, there was a fellow named Ross Douthat arguing that Christians are dropping the ball in the face of and evolving society. To Douthat's mind, if I got it right, Christians should be willing to step up to the plate and draw moral lines in the sand. Instead of remaining silent, they should stand four-square for the rules and regs and faith that their religious persuasions thrust upon them. Douthat described himself as a Catholic and he described do-little-or-nothing Christians as "heretics."

I could sympathize (if not agree) with Douthat's line of reasoning, but it did put me in mind of some embarrassing nightmare: What if there were a war and nobody came? What if there were a religion and nobody believed it? What if all the heart-felt conviction and proselytizing just left your audience yawning ... or possibly snickering?

I don't suppose it's going to happen anytime soon, but I have a sense that the sales pitch of Christianity is losing its grip and savor. More people are "spiritual" and fewer are Christian in this most Christian of countries. Perhaps the audience has moved on and what was once an assumption that could be seen in the white spires on every street corner was now ... not exactly bad or stupid ... just not particularly relevant... a small, neurotic, yappy dog behind a white picket fence in some suburban neighborhood. Sure, the white hot love or disdain might raise its head here or there, but otherwise ... well, perhaps the nightmare is not so much a nightmare as it is a quiet and implacable reality.

What if there were heretics as far as the eye could see, but the religion on which heresy depends had simply blown away in the wind?

weird, weird-er, weird-est

Honest to God -- just about the time I think I have seen the outer limits of 'weird shit,' along comes something to prove precisely how narrow and unimaginative I have been.

Today it came in an email from a friend -- a news story saying:

Egyptian husbands will soon be legally allowed to have sex with their dead wives for up to six hours after their death, local media is claiming.
I would like to think that this is some elaborate April Fools' tale ... a lie so extreme and so egregious that it makes the onlooker think twice ... maybe it's true. The Onion -- that tongue-in-cheek publication, came to mind.

Please notice that I am too damned lazy to check this out on Snopes. The tale, whether whopper or bald fact -- is just too delicious to interfere with.

There is "weird," and perhaps there is "weird-er," but I seriously doubt that there is such a thing as "weird-est."

Skype ... another app in my life

Bowing to the observation of a friend who suggested I was behind the up-to-date computer curve (less politely, that I was indulging my capacities to be an old fart), I went to Walmart yesterday and purchased a little camera that sits on top of my computer screen and allows me to talk to others while looking at them in real time. My friend then held my computer-inept hand and led me through the process of plugging in to the program that would facilitate the camera's uses and meaning. So now I have "Skype."

It's an "app" I guess. Short for "application." The telephones that others carry these days are top-heavy with apps. The television advertises for apps. Talking on the phone is no longer its sole purpose. There are Internet connections, instant messaging in various forms, maps, directions, restaurants and, yes, some version of the ability that Skype provides.

I was wowed by Skype when it first swung into operation on my computer. How magical! My friend introduced me to a woman in Phnom Penh via Skype and we chatted a bit. Half a world away. Imagine that! I love being wowed and I was duly wowed. I could actually 'see' this person I had never met and probably never would. My friend uses Skype to talk simultaneously with his two sons who are in different parts of the country. They all get to 'see' each other. Wow.

Today, I am less wowed by the wow that wowed me yesterday. Today I think that Skype is a little more like Facebook, a social 'networking' site I abominate. What I dislike about Facebook is that the 'networking' it professes to enhance merely underscores the separations it implicitly and explicitly claims to erase. It's not bad or naughty and I can imagine it might have its uses. It's just, from my point of view, not true in any meaningful way.

How much of anyone's life is an 'app' life? Everyone adds on new aspects and abilities. Job, marriage, athletic skill, problem-solving, knowledge, driver's license, religion ... the list goes on and on and on. Taken together, these apps give meaning to the person in the bathroom mirror. "I am _________ (fill in the blank)" or "I am not just _______, but also _______." Others, with their apps, lend support through agreement or disagreement to the apps I have acquired from the Walmart called life.

As I say, I see nothing wrong in it except that relying on such apps to provide an honest and relaxed peace in this life never works. As with Facebook, there is always an unspoken recognition that the solution the apps provide is a simultaneous reiteration and enhancement of the problem.

The connection app is wonderful AND it asserts separation. The goodness app is wonderful AND it asserts whatever the mirror image of goodness is. The kindness app is wonderful AND it asserts unkindness. The belief app is wonderful AND it asserts disbelief.

So many apps. Day after day, more apps. Week after week, more apps. Apps that will make things better ... always better apps to rely on and find meaning in and ... how come I'm not finally and with certainty happy and at ease?

Well, to stick with the computer for a moment, my guess is this: There is nothing wrong with apps, but without looking into the nature of the computer that hosts these apps, things will always be unsatisfactory. More apps and more apps and more apps are added to ... well, to what, precisely? Without answering this question, life becomes not just life, but an app life that requires ever more apps for existence. Who lies at the heart of all these apps? What about the computer itself -- the computer before the apps get shoved down its throat or up its ass? All those reassuring apps ... but who is it who cries out to be reassured?

The Zen teacher Rinzai (one of my Rinzai apps) once encouraged his monks, "Grasp and use, but never name." He could have been talking about apps. Circumstances present themselves and each of us have got one app or another to address those circumstances. So ... use the app. Use the app but don't imagine the app is who you are, don't name and rely on it. Just use it. Once used, address the next set of circumstances ... find an app ... use it ... isn't that enough?

To mangle Gandhi a bit, be the computer you seek.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

the understandable mistake

It's a slippery slope that I imagine anyone goes down several times a day -- the "understandable mistake."

It's slippery because one man's "understandable" is another man's "unforgivable."

For all that, I felt some sympathy for the Parisian driver who ended up parked in a metro stairwell.

who ever said God was nice?!

The question arose with all of the infuriated heat of an acetylene torch last night:

"What nitwit(s) ever came up with the idea that God was nice?"

And the simplicity of the enraged question was immediately matched by the simplicity of the unapologetic answer that followed close behind:

"What nitwit(s)? The money-changers."

The question and answer came and went like lightning in the night sky -- etched, bright and incontestable. In the breathing room that followed the exchange, naturally I could do the explanations and feel the sorrow at the sorrows of mankind. But by that time, I had been informed and scarred: There was no going back, no way to un-think a purple cow, un-taste a chocolate milkshake. God, by whatever name and in whatever tradition, was a selling point, though hardly an adequate representation of what was being sold.

The back story to this enraged, bright-light epiphany went something like this:

I was sitting on the couch watching "Law and Order" a little before 9 when my younger son appeared in the doorway as he has for the last few nights and asked if I would put ointment on his tattoo. He had gotten the tattoo shortly after his 18th birthday -- had wanted it, had sat patiently while I suggested a tattoo was often a matter of regret as the years passed, had stuck to his guns and gotten it anyway ... an interesting but meaningless design across his shoulders. Once he had gotten it, the two of us ambled around the idea that I too might get one. My crepe-y and flaccid skin suggests that the result would be less glorious than his own, but I considered it.

Anyway, last week he went back to have the tattoo touched up where it seemed to be fading a bit and the post-tattoo ritual was to put healing and moisturizing ointment on it -- triple antibiotic ointment. Ives can't reach the tattoo easily, so I have put it on for him.

After I applied the ointment, the two of us stood in the kitchen gabbing about this and that. I told him that I had received what I considered a pretty good war novel ("Once an Eagle") and suggested he might like to read it too since he has, in the past, liked war stuff.

"I'm kind of off war stuff," he said more or less. "Studying 'The History of the Holocaust,' we've seen a lot of movies. We watched one about Rwanda. It was horrible. It was as if ... " and he searched for the right words, "it was as if God had left that place."

And as quickly as the words left his mouth, he looked at me as if I might correct him or jump down his throat. "Don't get me wrong ... I believe in God ... but ...." And he trailed off in confusion.

Ives' grandmother, my wife's mother, is a go-to-church-every-day Catholic. She's not offensive or pushy about it, but it is what she does and what she does has a trickle-down effect. So Ives, who is a gentle soul, was probably the long-distance beneficiary of her actions. And I did not begrudge him the tale. Goodness and kindness are a good tale, a kindly and consoling hint. I wouldn't for a moment begrudge someone a loving tale. But this was my son, a person I loved viscerally ... and while I do not begrudge him his tales -- the tales anyone might tell before they settled down to what ever life-tale they found most compelling -- still, in last night's lightning moment, my visceral desire to protect my son rose up like fire. It was an utterly fruitless desire -- hoping to defend him from foolishnesses I had experienced -- but there it was in my mind and heart, bright and hot and furious.

And so I told him in words that probably didn't mean much, words he might have heard as the old man getting off on one of his toots ... I told him as best I could after the lightning strike:

It is OK to believe in God, by whatever name. Go ahead and believe in God. But don't be a pussy. Don't get smug and assured and rest there like some baby robin in a nest. If you believe in God then don't imagine that God is absent from the slaughter in Rwanda or the soul-searing atrocity of the Nazi concentration camps. To imagine that God is "absent" is to reduce your god to fairy dust and bullshit. To avert the eyes or close the heart to god's presence is the common way, the coward's way, the false way. If you believe in god, believe in god ... but don't stop, don't nest, don't rely on consolations or explanations. That's crap! And more, it's crap that leaves a man or woman with an uneasy heart and an unsettled life. Is it hard? Are the explanations inviting? Yes, yes and again yes. But averting the eyes and heart, relying on explanations ... well, it's like a one-night stand: You may have a lovely orgasm, but that leaves the rest of life orgasm-less. The orgasm of "nice" or "consoling" or "benevolent" or some similar intellectual or emotional pleasure is really not enough when it comes to whatever you credit as god. This is the money-changer's way.

The minute I had finished sounding off, I looked at my son and realized I had learned again what I had sometimes credited myself as having learned before: You can't tell people stuff like this, no matter how much you love them. It just doesn't work. Everyone has to figure it out for themselves. The part of me that desperately loved my son and wanted to protect him was left gasping and tongue-tied by the futility of it all. The longing was so enormous within me, the fire so hot and bright and ... tough titty!

What a good lesson. How I hated it. Like the despairing heart that uncovers endless rows of bodies in Rwanda or elsewhere, I too longed to avert my eyes, to be consoled, the make lemonade out of lemons. I too was the money-changer.

The Zen teacher Ta Hui (1088-1163) once said approximately, "I have always had a great vow that I would rather suffer the fires of hell for all eternity than to portray Zen as a human emotion." What a scary, searing observation and yet all he was really saying was, "If you're going to love God, then love God ... and never give up." Such an observation may leave the money-changers within and without wriggling on the hook, frantically running hither and thither seeking relief, but Ta Hui was not a man to turn his back on the suffering of humanity.

Bless his hide ... that old motherfucker!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

the camera ain't dead yet

A story from Reuters points out that while the onslaught of picture-taking cell phones has made some inroads, still the life of the specifically-intended camera is not lost.

Perhaps it's just the fact that I used to love taking photographs or perhaps it's just the old-fart having his say, but I find something interesting in that.

sincerely yours...

What a scrumptious and in some cases imperative commodity sincerity is. Sometimes, sincerity is what one person hopes to impart to others as a means of being taken seriously. Sometimes sincerity is what a person invites within as a means of finding some peace in an otherwise superficial lifestyle.

An Internet dictionary defines "sincerity" briefly as, "an honest way of behaving that shows that you really mean what you say or do." The definition is not exactly deft since it opens the door on another realm of scrumptious and often amorphous assumptions: Honesty. The definition also offers another fly in the scrumptious ointment: "Behaving" ... sincerity more generally is relegated to mental, rather than physical, fluctuations.

Oh well ... for the moment, let's pretend we all know what sincerity means and what it supports and what benefits it may impart.

Last night I got mesmerized watching a public broadcast program here in the U.S. called "Frontline." "Frontline" sometimes strikes me as the only remaining program that offers a credibly thoughtful look at whatever topic they have chosen to investigate. The program offers a weaving of facts. It does not -- for once, in this sincere age -- comment on the sincerity of the situation or lay claim to any sincerity. What a relief. Last night's program -- a two-parter that kept me up past my bedtime -- was about the economic meltdown of 2008.

I can't pretend to have understood the complexities of the meltdown presented. From the signing in 1933 of the Glass-Steagall Act with its regulatory aims to the gutting of that act in 1999 ... and on to the weed-choked front yards of abandoned houses and the harried families left to cope ... the program did not paint a pretty picture. The creation of unregulated and largely hidden financial instruments represented a bonanza in money-making and people are pretty sincere about money.

Those interviewed or assessed on the program were almost entirely white, well-educated, well-dressed, and carefully well-spoken. Barack Obama was only coincidentally black -- a black man who knew the levers of a white man's world. No one on the program was anything less than sincere. No one overtly blamed anyone else although it seemed clear that each felt s/he was not responsible. No one got spitting mad. No one said things like, "What a bunch of fucking assholes!" Derivatives trading had been invented and then took on a life of its own -- a life whose ramifications even the inventors had not envisioned and only later understood ... but for which, in any case, s/he was not responsible. The sincerity of money-making had led to a sincerity of explanation. Everyone wanted to be well-thought-of and, in many cases, perhaps they were. The vast majority of those interviewed was well-dressed, well-educated and white.

Talking about the economic meltdown of 2008 is numbing these days. So many people are actually suffering that talking about the causes of that suffering represents an expenditure of energy that is taken away from the factual suffering that exists. Who gives a shit why it happened when the fact that it is happening and saps the soul ... right now, day after day. Who even wants to read another take -- like this one -- on the soup so many are drowning in?

Well, using the Facebook-mentality approach: Calamities are a dime a dozen. Look at the number of activist efforts around and it's pretty clear. Activists set out to correct the wrongs they sincerely envision. Their efforts may be well- or poorly-grounded ... but one thing's fershur: Those efforts are sincere.

Thank goodness for activists ... up to a point. The problem I see is that activists can get so ensorcelled by the 'good' they hope to accomplish in a calamitous world and they are so sincere in their efforts that they neglect the examining of their own sincerities. I cannot tell you how many activists have come to the zendo in my backyard, looking for some peace of mind, wondering why their good and sincere efforts have left them feeling slightly or profoundly out-of-kilter in their own lives. They have been so sincere and that sincerity has, in some strange way, not produced a relief within that they implicitly assumed would be the result of their oh-so-sincere sincerities. Why oh why, when I love my scrumptious sincerities, do those sincerities fail to bear an equally scrumptious fruit?!

And this, to my mind, is the important learning curve about sincerities: On the one hand, in order to behave better, in order to be more honest within, a balls-out effort, a sincere effort, is required. On the other hand, an unwillingness to dig deeper than the scrumptiousness of sincerity leaves this activist feeling hollowed out ... and somehow insincere. How come I do all the 'right' things and come up with results that are somehow 'wrong' ... or, if not 'wrong,' still, somehow, lacking in peace and relief?

This is a one-(wo)man investigation. No one else -- no activist group or well-intentioned religion or well-coiffed philosophy -- can look into our own, very personal, sincerity. No one else can "behave" for us. No one else, no matter how sincere, can promise and deliver peace.

From scrumptiousness, individuals may muster some courage to investigate precisely how honest they are actually being. Some will always remain in the realm of self-serving scrumptiousness ... I want you to think well of me; I rely on you for my own self-image; I will therefore act in ways that ignite your approval.

But then perhaps the dime drops a little: Hitler was sincere; Osama bin Laden was sincere; Mother Theresa was sincere: Wall Street machers were sincere; activist groups of all stripes were sincere; friends and enemies have been sincere ... and most of all, I have been sincere. To borrow from another sincerity-prone expositor, Sarah Palin, "How's that sincerity thingie working for you?"

It's not a joke, setting aside the scrumptiousness of sincerity in order to make a sincere effort. Gautama, the Buddha most commonly credited with getting "Buddhism" up and running, is said to have said, "It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern." And whether he actually said it or not is immaterial: The observation and implicit suggestion are correct. All the activism and good works in the world won't avail much if there is no effort -- sincere effort -- to examine the implications and sources of this very convincing sincerity that may delight and yet throttle our own lives.

If the intellect (sincere intellect) is not enough and emotions (sincere emotions) are not enough to insure a sincere and peaceful lifestyle ... well, what is? I wonder what would happen if anyone stopped trying to be "sincere." Would such a person really be any less sincere?

I don't know. Check it out.

How's that sincerity thingie working for you?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

thoughts on parenting

I wrote this yesterday on a Buddhist bulletin board where a young mother was suffering with the overwhelming nature of having a baby boy she adored. I kind of liked it, so I think I'll save it here:

First of all, welcome. I hope you find something useful here.

When my daughter -- first of three kids -- was born, I was panic-stricken: How the hell was I supposed to do things 'right?!' I didn't know, but I knew I wanted to do the absolute best for her ... and didn't have a clue. At the time, my sister with two kids of her own reassured me a little. "Adam," she said in a mock psycho-babble tone of voice, "you can read every book that was ever written about child-rearing or you don't have to read any of them. Either way, you won't know shit."

Her advice, after quite a lot of experience, was right on target. Every moment is new. And the required attention is exhausting. Not only is there the birth itself, but there is a terrible corner that has been turned ... suddenly, the subtle or gross self-centeredness with which I had been living was shattered. Guess what -- I wasn't the center of the universe! I'm only half joking about this. It's a pretty severe change. Since most of us survived our parents' ineptness, it's a good guess that you and your boy will too.

For my money, trying to divert yourself from current circumstances is not the best route. Sure, get out to a movie or dinner if you can, but don't take on some zippy new project. Buddhism means coping with what is in front of our noses It does not mean stuffing our mind's mouth with a lot of 'Buddhist' cotton candy.

First: The first rule of parenting is this: All parents will fail. Not "some," not "maybe" -- all parents will fail. And since this is true, it's time to slow down and take it easy on yourself.

Second: Find small escape routes. Get someone to watch the baby and jump in a warm bubble bath. Wine, tea and aromatic candles are optional. For 20 minutes ... bliss out.

Third: Go outside. This is one of the simplest and most effective tools I know for bringing the blues into perspective. No, it doesn't get rid of them ... but a wide sky can help to mitigate things.

Fourth: The baby will win. You will not win. Get used to it. Just because the baby will win does not mean you have lost. It just means the baby has won. My brother-in-law once told me that when his son was a baby, he was determined to get up every time the baby cried in the night. My brother-in-law was a Type A, I-can-do-everything-and-more kind of guy. But he had a full-time job, so getting up each time the baby cried was a challenge. He did it for about a week until one night, in the middle of the night, he heard the baby cry, got out of bed ... and passed out. The baby had won.

Fifth: The best thing you can do for your baby is to take care of yourself. This is harder than it sounds. Do it anyway. You have to see what you need and then find ways to fulfill those needs irrespective of the I've-got-to-be-perfect chattering mind. If Ben&Jerry's is what you need, do Ben&Jerry's. If A, B, C, D, E ... is what you need, then seek those things out in your heart and nourish them as best you may. Not perfectly of course (see rule number 4) but as best you may.

Sixth: When it comes to Buddhism, all I can tell you is what my Zen Buddhist teacher told me after my daughter was born. He was a Japanese man, the abbot of a monastery, and was given (like a lot of Japanese people) to an immodest use of understatement. After my daughter was born he told me TWICE (which is the equivalent of a Marine Corps drill instructor screaming in your ear), "Take care of your family." Never mind the scriptures and the imagined realms of something called "enlightenment" ... just take care of your family. My teacher had no children, but he too knew ... the baby will win. And further, Buddhism has to do with the here and now, not some hymn-singing 'there' or 'then.' If you want to make a little meditation or reading part of your escape-route agenda, fine. But remember, the baby will win. Why? Because the baby is now and Buddhism concerns itself from muzzle to butt plate with what is now.

Just slow down and take good care of yourself. This IS Buddhism.


who is NOT Jizo?

In Buddhist mythology, Jizo is an enlightened being who has "vowed not to enter Nirvana until the Hell Realm is empty. His vow: 'Not until the hells are emptied will I become a Buddha ....'"

Everyone has their particular hell to cope with. Uncertainty, sorrow, confusion ... the tendrils are specific and compelling. There is no one-hell-fits-all, unless, perhaps, it is the hell of wishing to get to heaven.

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva like Jizo is held up as a mentor and bright light -- an aspect of human capacity that beckons and whispers. Non-Buddhists are the same. The names don't matter. 

But since there is no escape from hell (religious doctrine to the contrary notwithstanding), it seems to me that everyone, not by wish, but by necessity, is just Jizo ... always. Even if the fires of hell singe and sear the skin, still, since there is no other choice, Jizo -- this very Jizo -- enters the fires and extinguishes them from flame to ember.

Being Jizo is nothing spectacular or out of reach or holy. It's not as if some guru walked up to Sally or Peter and announced in a grave voice, "You are Sally" or "You are Peter." If someone tells you that you are Jizo, you are well within your rights as dictated by common sense to tell that person, "Go suck an egg!"

Of course you're Jizo. What other choice is there? Any other choice would be an endless hell.

your assumptions and mine

Assumptions are interesting and assumptions that receive a direct challenge from reality can be spooky. The ocean is inviting to swimmers during the hot summer days, but the book "Jaws" made it clear that the idea of being attacked by a shark is both unsettling and tantalizing. The books sold millions.

Then there is less dramatic stuff, as for example, the video of this Chinese woman falling through a sidewalk that anyone might assume was perfectly safe and not threatening at all.


870,000 photos of New York


An Associated Press story says that 870,000 photos of New York City, from as far back as the 1800's, have become available for viewing.

The photos are apparently available here, though I couldn't immediately access them by clicking on the "here" button on that page.


'defending' the Dharma

Yesterday it was huge and snarling. Today it is barely a blip on the radar screen. Ever notice how that happens ... what was important with a capital 'I' ... what was serious-serioser-seriousest yesterday takes a back seat to a bowl of Cheerios today? Love, hate, anguish, delight, disdain, wonder ... that was then -- now where are my Cheerios?

Oh well -- language always relates to what happened in the past, so I will return to It was soooo important then, and I guess it has some importance still.

I was brought up, so to speak, in Zen Buddhism. I conceived an interest in it about 40 years ago and decided to put it to the test. I was bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed and threw myself at it with all of the fervor of a high-school boy who mistakes hormones for love. My efforts and importunings on behalf of Zen Buddhism were every bit as stumbling and unsure as the stumblings and uncertainties of that high school kid. I was sincere and serious, but I had yet to learn what, precisely, I was being sincere and serious about. I thought I knew and pretended I knew ... but all my seriousness and sincerity were untutored. I look back on my idiocies with a certain warmth and kindness ... what the hell, I didn't kill anyone along the way and stumblings and uncertainties are a sure-fire precursor to something less agitated. What an idiot ... and thank God for it.

Anyway, along the way, I ran into the word "Dharma." "Dharma" is one of those slippery-slope references that is like a drop of mercury on a table top: Poke it here with a pencil point and it moves there; break it with a hammer and it not only is unfazed but its bits and pieces return to each other without bidding. Depending on circumstances, it can mean the bedrock essence of all things or the phenomena in which those things participate. Maybe it's "God" or "Tao" or some other great big word whose users are tongue-tied by the meaning. Whatever it means, it is one of the big bangers in Buddhism ... one of the things that is referred to as a treasure. Poets and holy men genuflect ... that sort of thing. For the bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed, Dharma is serious ... even to the point of solemnity. Try to attain it and it moves away as surely as mercury on a tabletop. Try to sidestep it and you are flummoxed again.

What set my tail on fire yesterday, because my mind had involved itself in various discussions premised in a Zen Buddhism I had once been bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed about, was the phrase "defending the Dharma." I had heard the phrase in my travels. Who knows, maybe I even used it. Yesterday, it purely infuriated me.

The base line for this anger -- or rather pure wrath -- was my own sense that Dharma really does mean something; that it is worth knowing about; that it is worth actualizing. The name doesn't matter. "Dharma" does mean something even if that something cannot be spoken. But 'defending' it is a sure sign of the most abject ignorance, an insignia of a grasping, self-serving faith. Defenders of the Dharma, like all defenders of the true faith, are people to flee as anyone might flee an enraged grizzly bear or a herd of stampeding cattle or a case of the clap. The enemies of spiritual life are not so much the ones who abominate and disdain it. It is the ones who extol and defend and lay out a scenario in which "defending the Dharma" or "defending God" or "defending Islam" is put forward as both possible and worthy. Such a course is a defamation of its own purported goals. Icky. Disgusting. And dangerous in both practical and metaphorical ways.

Beware of such friends. They will cut out your heart and eat it before your eyes. Beware of those clerks and administrators who claim to love you. They will call the "Dharma" (or whatever) precious to your face, without batting an eye that should be cast down in shame.

The "Dharma" is not precious and it cannot be defended.

You, by contrast, are precious. This is not a joke or just some spiritual eyewash.

Oh, I cannot tell you how this pissed me off yesterday! George Carlin's cuss words simply could not rein in or define my wrath.

Today, by contrast, I need my Cheerios if I am to regain my bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed capacities.

Monday, April 23, 2012

crime pays

(Reuters) -- Crime generates an estimated $2.1 trillion in global annual proceeds - or 3.6 percent of the world's gross domestic product - and the problem may be growing, a senior United Nations official said on Monday.
Need a job?

Be a criminal.

The force of the logic grows as economies tumble and twist and the 'collateral damage' mounts.

10 obvious questions and few not so obvious

I have this posted among other links on the left of the blog, but I thought it might be a good time to reprise it:


rain and more at last

The rain, so desperately needed in the dry earth, has been coming down steadily now for the better part of 24 hours. There is snow in higher elevations, though not here. Flooding and downed power lines are a consideration. The wet pavement is cold beneath my bare feet as I go out to retrieve the emptied trash receptacles placed by the curb.

administrative and command decisions

In one of the volumes of "The Brotherhood of War," author W.E.B. Griffin depicts a dust-up between a commanding general who is intent on sending a wounded soldier back to the United States, where he could receive treatment not available on a hospital ship in the war zone, and a lower-grade, but nonetheless senior officer who points out that such an action would be "against regulations."

Thus challenged, the commanding general blows a gasket and points out in an icy fury that regulations are for the "guidance" of commanding officers and that he "commands" his constituency ... a horse of a completely different color. The confrontation was a wonderful depiction of the friction between chair-warming bureaucrats and battlefield officers: The former administer; the latter lead.

Anyone who has worked in an office knows this friction first-hand -- the executives who, through diligent following and application of the rules have advanced to pivotal posts and yet are dogged by the inability to do more than follow the rules.

And in spiritual life, I think the same format exists -- not just in an organizational sense, but also at a very personal level: We follow the rules because without following the rules, the chances of reaching our goals go begging. You can't play baseball without learning the rules and yet if the rules are the only thing you can exercise, winning the game, while possible, recedes from view. A single swing of the bat has precisely zero to do with the rules in one sense: It is sui generis; it is now; it is everything; it commands.

In spiritual endeavor, the rules and format, lend a helping hand. They guide the uncertain. They point out the direction. And they are not, in themselves, necessarily wrong. If everyone did what s/he wanted, then what was sought would not be attained.

But how many times has anyone seen this observation extended to mean that if you follow the rules and keep following the rules and rely utterly on the rules and keep relying on the rules that therefore you have attained the goal or are somehow in compliance with that goal? Becoming a spiritual-endeavor administrator is an easy tar pit to slip into. And there are plenty of examples anyone might point to ... the bureaucratic administrators of spiritual life ... so correct, so observant, so undeviating, so deserving ... and so full of shit.

What others do and do not do really is not the point here. A critique of others is no more helpful than the role played by those critiqued. The point is not someone else's bullshit. The point is my bullshit, my own willingness to settle for a spic-and-span cubicle whose walls are lined with the true regulations.

It's a sticky wicket. Dismissing the one and elevating the other doesn't work. Becoming a bull in a china shop doesn't work ... but neither does becoming and administrator in a china shop. Between these two extremes (and let's steer clear of using administrative nostrums like "the middle way"), there has to be a willingness to seek out the peace ... or to lead ... or to win the war.

Maybe it's like this at a personal level: 1. The student enters the spiritual fray. S/he is uncertain or sad or finds life somehow unsatisfactory, so giving spiritual endeavor a whirl may appeal. 2. S/he learns the rules of the road and exercises them with whatever wholeheartedness s/he can muster. 3. Some spend the rest of their lives in this administrative mode ... having learned the rules, s/he is content to remain in these comforting doldrums. Others, however, begin to recognize what was true from the get-go: Rules are by nature limiting and what is sought is unlimited. This can be pretty upsetting, given all the effort that has preceded the recognition. A kind of fuck-you of disappointment can rear its head: This bullshit is not what I signed on for. I need to breathe ... to lead ... to win the war and find peace. This realization can be explosive: Fuck this cubicle lifestyle! 4. A revised course of action opens up, one in which the rules, as in the military commander's observation, are for the guidance of the only true commander. The commander is in charge. S/he leads. S/he is attentive. S/he is wholly responsible.

All this may sound sexy and alluring from a hypothetical distance, but up close and personal it can be a surprising and scary approach. It is scary because heretofore there has been an implicit reliance on something or someone else, a reliance that assured, if not accolades, at least fewer reprimands. In this new world, however, the audience has gone home, the boss is no longer looking over anyone's shoulder. Suddenly I am the boss and the number of ways I can screw the pooch, the number of ways in which I can to harm, the number of ways in which others may criticize my conduct, the number of ways in which failure and success are viewed ... well, it's all on me ... just as it was all along, but in times past, I could escape the lash by nesting in administrative comforts. Now, the excuses, the limitations, just don't work.

It is common to want to be the leader, the chief, the commander and less common to want to be the spear-carrier, the Indian in the crowd, the follower. But, in making the peace necessary between commander and administrator, between limitlessness and the limited, maybe it is useful to wonder, "What if you became king or queen and there were no realm, no peasants, no courtiers, no lands to tax, no wild applause?" And the same question might be asked of the administrator -- what end do these regulations actually assure?

Once the fear and glory have abated a little, I think it is time to relax ... to command when it is time to command. Use the regulations when the regulations are needed.

And don't allow yourself to be tricked by either.

Or maybe not.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

the mystery

Somehow there is a need to find assurance in the mystery.

I call it a "mystery" reluctantly, but because it seems to have qualities that are hidden or unknown, "mystery" sidesteps the icing that might be involved with calling it "God" or something similar. "Mystery" has its own icing, its own trip-stones -- as I say, it seems to have qualities that are hidden or unknown -- but it's the best I can come up with and since I think the longing to be at peace finds its resolution in mystery, I will call it "mystery."

For starters, everything is a mystery. Or, everyone chooses the mystery that suits or invites them. But the deeper anyone looks down the "mystery" rabbit hole, the deeper it gets. A caterpillar moving along a leaf, a small pile of dog shit on the sidewalk, a frying pan soaking after some breakfast bacon, the single hair growing luxuriant off the top of a big toe, the baby sleeping in a crib, the wry smile of a poker player ... there's no need to try to see everything as a "mystery," but with a little (sometimes spiritual) practice, or perhaps just with a little living, the mystery seems to make its own assertions and the mystery is always just the mystery... something known and unknown all at once.

Christians say, if I'm not mistaken, that God cannot be known. But God can be known through His works, they asset. Perhaps that is sort of what I am saying, but that gets into the whole ooooeeeeoooo scenario, the holy scenario, the religious institution bolstering its needs scenario, the good and evil scenario ... and all the other scenarios which the mystery can acknowledge and perhaps dance within, but never succumbs to.

For those with a spiritual practice -- a practice they do practice -- I sometimes wonder if they wonder what I wonder, which is this: The mystery is perfectly clear as a basis, but if the mystery wanted you to know more, wouldn't it just tell you? I think it would. The mystery is not mysterious or withholding like some staid Englishman or unduly circumspect Japanese. Who cares whether its doors are locked or unlocked. Locked or unlocked doesn't change the mystery.

And maybe that's the usefulness of practice -- the actual practice... getting used to the fact that the mystery is never missing, always just goes about its business, both when it is called a mystery and when it is not. My job is just to get out of the way and enjoy myself. When I know, the mystery is apparent. When I don't know, the mystery is apparent. You got a problem with that? And the answer is yes, sometimes I do have a problem.

But bit by bit and grain by grain and snippet of evidence by snippet of evidence, I get more accustomed to the mystery. It's like having a nice dog. Take care of it. Feed it. Pay attention to it. Ignore it. The mystery won't let you down, any more than your peace will. When you understand it, that's fine. When you don't understand it, that's fine. Whatever and whenever, still, the mystery jumps up on the couch beside you to watch your favorite TV show or weep your bitterest tears.

Around some mysterious corner up ahead, Rumi's wondering words are heard:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.

Somehow there is a need to find assurance and peace.

How mysterious could that be?

in defense of linguistic courage

I can hear the well-populated and viscous moans already -- language is for communication and thus should be readily available to all; it should not challenge or appear arrogant -- but it was hard for me not to feel some pleasure when reading Will Self's defense of obscure words.

He isn't likely to win the war -- and the use of obscure words a la James Joyce is pretty tedious -- but at least he raised the banner.

becoming what I abominate

Jesus, Joseph and Mary!

Google seems to have gotten its hands on Blogger, this site where I do whatever it is I do while I try to figure out what I am doing.

There's a new format (which I dislike), but there are also buttons that not only track the traffic but name the (mostly made-up) names of those who view or read it. There are little pictures of these people, or, if not pictures of people, then pictures of preferred bits of symbology. There is a chart of the number of views.

Suddenly, I have become what I abominate -- a Facebook pimp pretending to a wide acquaintanceship with people I don't even know. It was a shock to find this out, though being shocked probably just shows how un-au-courant I am, how stupid about an age in which the Internet is allowed to define and distinguish and lull people.

My first reaction was to warn all of these neatly-listed individuals to head for the hills ... get the fuck away from this well-lubricated hydra. But, like some badly-made Japanese horror movie, there is no escape. The monster is everywhere and putting on a horror-stricken face or screaming on the cardboard set makes precisely no difference. Mothra or Godzilla or Google or the Department of Homeland Security is here to stay ... and they are murmuring, "It's for your own good, Adam. Just swallow your meds."

Another version of Aldous Huxley's soma! The drug, which was integral in Huxley's "Brave New World," is described on the soma-inspired Internet site Wikipedia this way:

Soma is an allusion to a mythical drink of the same name consumed by ancient Indo-Aryans. In the book, soma is a hallucinogen that takes users on enjoyable, hangover-free "holidays". It was developed by the World State to provide these inner-directed personal experiences within a socially managed context of State-run 'religious' organizations; social clubs. The hypnopaedically inculcated affinity for the State-produced drug, as a self-medicating comfort mechanism in the face of stress or discomfort, thereby eliminates the need for religion or other personal allegiances outside or beyond the World State.
A drug so good that it is no longer described as a drug.

Lordy ... not only am I a pimp, but also a pill pusher.

Funny how Google, with all its soma apps, designates the people who read here or on Facebook as "followers" or "friends."  Question: If everyone is following everyone else, who the hell is leading this lash-up? I know no one likes looking for unpleasant answers, but the bathroom mirror is a pretty good antidote for a soma-shaped life.

PS. I just found a button that allows me to return to the format that existed before the latest update with all its apps. But the genie is out of the bottle: Just knowing I can know all the lulling information about visitors and visits and pictures and charts and numbers and, well, importance means that changing the format does not mean I can change or undo my mind. "Don't think of a purple cow."

praying ... for rain

The earth is begging for water these days and today's forecast sees a 100% chance of rain. The skies are grey, but the water has yet to fall. I too pray for relief for this parched earth.

Funny how the most heart-felt prayers simply cannot hold a candle to what actually happens: Prayers, answered or unanswered, dim and dwindle and die in the face of this bright light.

And it's not as if anyone in his right mind would pray for what is.

Help Wanted: Experienced Anti-Christ

The successful candidate for this position will see endless opportunity in the economic and human malaise of our times. We are not looking for lazy cynics, politicians who rely on spin doctors, pope wannabes, disappointed Confederate flag wavers, think-tank prognosticators or Ayn Rand lookalikes.

Instead we would like to consider anyone who is comfortable and assured. An intern background with a megachurch or the Joseph Goebbels dissemination of information as seen on Fox News may be helpful. 2.5 children is a plus. Internet savvy is secondary. Male candidates may wish to include a trophy wife who dresses according to her own tastes. Female candidates may wish to include a trophy husband who is not an intellectual toady or similar good ol' boy.

A certain wisdom is required -- enough to raise the hopes of those who currently have lost it, but not the kind that seeks or depends on the hopes of others. Applause is part of the position, but the successful candidate needs the experience and skill to live his or her own life. The ability to envision and promulgate a Christ is obviously needed for the position of any prospective Anti-Christ.

Remuneration, of course, will be set by the successful candidate.

Please apply in confidence to:

Search Committee
PO Box 616
Arrowhead, N.D. 58701

Early tongue-in-cheek applicants include:

Saturday, April 21, 2012


As a twenty-something, bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed newspaper reporter, it took me a while to learn that some people never had an original idea and were more than willing to co-opt mine. And it...was...infuriating. I would come up with an idea, float it and then hear it parroted back as if it were the original idea of the parrot. I learned to keep my good ideas to myself.

Intellectuals do this shit all the time, trying to look smart by using someone else's ideas without attribution. In earlier times I was willing to call such people scumbags. Now I don't do that so much ... but I sometimes think it.

Today in email, a friend sent along a link to a story about one of the newer religions in Sweden. The Missionary Church of Kopimism is described by Wikipedia in part like this:

A "Kopimist" or "Kopimist intellectual" is a person who has the philosophical belief that all information should be freely distributed and unrestricted. This philosophy opposes the monopolization of knowledge in all its forms, such as copyright, and encourages piracy of all types of media including music, movies, TV shows, and software.
The implications of this 'religion' are explosive. I can imagine musicians, music companies, film makers, film distributors, novelists, historians, scientists, car makers, pharmaceutical firms and who knows who else spinning in their mental graves. If ideas are to be shared without restriction well ... how am I supposed to make money or, more important, think well of myself?

It's not going to be easy to convince anyone that the notion of "intellectual property" is an oxymoron ... and an oxymoron for morons. I have a feeling that the thrust of Kopimism is the wave of the future, even if not under that particular banner. Owning an idea is like owning smoke -- the tighter you grasp it, the less substance you find.

Everyone knows everything always and the sooner anyone gets used to that fact, the easier life will be. It's not as if we could escape it.

In Zen centers I used to attend, I and fellow students would sometimes feel that the moderator or teacher was "reading my mind." In some instances, this feeling was elevated to a mystical power ... a real oooooeeeeoooo. But the facts as I know them are this: No teacher or any other human being wants to read anybody else's mind -- s/he has enough fucking problems with his or her own mind. In given circumstances, such as a Zen center, people are all pretty much on the same frequency, with pretty much the same set of concerns ... and that framework means I will think what you think (give or take a little) and you will think what I think (give or take a little). Same light, different prisms.

This thought thread leads back to the notion of "originality" or "original ideas." It is the moment that is original: I have little or nothing to do with it. Ideas filter through the prism called "me" and then, like smoke, are gone.

Maybe it's like the local electric company that provides light on my block. I can turn on the living room lamp at the same moment, using the same electric company, you turn on the toaster across the street. Circumstances dictate my actions or yours ... end of story.

But I don't expect "intellectual property" or "original ideas" to go anywhere soon. After all:

I love myself
I think I'm grand.
I go to the movies
And hold my hand.
I put my arm
Around my waist
And when I'm fresh,
I slap my face.
In practical terms, I think Kopimism has already started to assert itself. People boost stuff from the Internet all the time. And for a long time I have felt that if someone wanted to keep something close, to 'own' it and protect it ... well, don't put it on the Internet. To want something protected and to put it on the Internet is like a man who really doesn't want to get wet and walks into the rain.

I'm just muttering here. No clear point of view, except perhaps, going back to the electric company metaphor ... let's just own the electric company.


Enthusiasms are delicious. They course through the mind like cheetahs at 120 mph -- sleek, fluid, unimpeded and perfect.

Enthusiasms know no questions.

They are woo-hoo and wow like some recent religious convert. Being around someone whose enthusiasm you do not share is like being subjected to an Oklahoma tornado ... oh shit -- where's the escape route? And being around someone whose enthusiasm you do share is ... what? ... perhaps it is the first hint that the perfect yumminess is not as perfect as it was a moment ago.

The Catch-22 of enthusiasms that linger and nag is that enthusiasms are only as good as the tests to which anyone puts them. And putting an enthusiasm to the test undermines the sleek perfection and wholeness that enthusiasm knew at its inception. Enthusiasm without any investigation is just a delicious circle jerk ... delicious, yes, but equally, a circle jerk.

Nobody wants to examine anything as delicious and compelling as an enthusiasm. There is too much joy and certainty in NOT examining it, in simply wallowing and soaking up the joy. The joy addresses the tests to which enthusiasms might be put: "What a fucking spoil sport!" Sincerity of emotion owns the scene ... I'm so sincere, I must be right... right and righteous in my sincerity.

But without testing enthusiasm, without finding the practical applications and drawbacks, it seems to me that anyone might be left with the life of a teenager who has discovered the wonders of masturbation and has no sense that the best is yet to come.

Friday, April 20, 2012

a penny full of thought

A rare 1792 U.S. penny, one of only 14 known to remain, sold at auction Thursday in suburban Chicago for $1.15 million ... a million for the coin and 15 percent vigorish for the auction house.

The front of the penny bears the words "Liberty Parent of Science and Industry" around a depiction of Miss Liberty.

Is that the reason there seems to be a diminution of science and industry in this country ... a dwindling of liberty?

I don't know.

It just crossed my mind.

Adolf Hitler's birthday

I almost forgot: Today is Adolf Hitler's birthday. If he weren't dead, he would be 123.

I like remembering April 20 not because it was Hitler's birthday, but because a longtime friend and army buddy had a birthday on the same date and I liked to tease him, when he was alive, about the company he kept.

Since I have a poor memory, it's nice to have a memory touchstone ... for Hitler or for Bill McKechnie, take your pick.

little and large (very large) hoaxes

Awoke frisky and uncharacteristically rested this morning. The only 'problem' was that it was 2:40. I lolled a bit, thinking I 'should' go back to sleep -- it was nighttime after all -- but finally gave up and got up.

Given a recent influx of Christian-issue email, my frisky mind began by creating T-shirts:

Christ was crucified
And all I got was
A religion??!!

Enlightenment is not
For the unwary ...
Or the wary either.

And then, finding the T-shirt pond dried up, I segued back to a beer-and-chips monologue that whined before I had gone to sleep:

Given the political run-up to the November 2012 election, everyone is getting a media snootful of political posturing. Issues are not the issues with candidates; election or re-election are. The contempt in which powerful institutions and individuals often hold their constituencies (as for example by not addressing the issues in a substantive way) makes them contemptible in their own right. Not to pick on Republicans unduly, but Mitt Romney offered a good example of his blase contempt recently when discussing unemployment with a group of unemployed Floridians and saying, "I also am unemployed." In the setting, he expected and got a laugh. And no doubt there were excuses and other buffering remarks post facto ... but once again the substance of the issue was bypassed and then papered over with promises Romney or any other politician has no chance of assuring.

If such contempt comes around to make the contemptuous one contemptible, I wonder if the same yardstick might be applied to goodness. Does what is called goodness come around and, by its nature, make the good (wo)man good? I kind of doubt it ... which makes me wonder about the validity of the 'contemptible' assessment.

I guess the bottom line is the same as it has always been for me when assessing mistakes: If it's a mistake, just don't YOU do that.

True dat ... and yet it is hard not to marvel and be irritated.

The Catholic League has promised to mobilize its troops against Jon Stewart who, on his tongue-in-cheek Daily Show, skewered the latest chestnut in the political fires -- the 'war on women.' In a blaze of contemptible glory, both political parties have disclaimed any role in the war on women: Women, after all, are 51% of the U.S. population and a politician would be unwise to disregard or piss off such a constituency.

But Wisconsin gave a fair example of what the war was all about when it voted to repeal the equal pay law because, as one of the proponents of the move put it, "money is more important to men." Without Jon Stewart, whose humorous aptness varies, we'd all be watching the Joseph Goebbels Show, occasionally called Fox News. The Catholic League in its dudgeon wants Stewart to back down. Christians are offended, the league suggests. Excuse me, but is that the Christians whose cornerstone is charity and lifting up those in need ... or is it the other Christians who see nothing wrong with elevating their stock at the expense of others?

The same question might be asked of the Vatican which seems hell-bent on assuring itself as The Power in power. Not that the Vatican is alone, but its huge constituency worldwide makes it a more obvious case study.

Asserting its bishops "are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals," a recent Vatican report came down hard on Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group too devoted to social justice and poverty and inattentive to Catholic political planks like those on abortion and gay marriage. The conference says it represents 80% of America's 57,000 nuns. It claimed on its web site to be "stunned" by the Vatican critique. Never fear, ladies, the Vatican is sending in a bishop or two to show you the errors of your ways ... and coincidentally rewire the electric fences around its pasture. Women, even mere nuns, are a pretty formidable voting bloc ... even when they don't get to vote.

The Vatican has likewise made moves to assure that the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X don't just dissociate themselves from Rome. "Schism" is the $5 word. The society says it has 500 priests and a million followers in 38 countries. That's nothing to sniff at, even for a Vatican that claims 1.18 billion followers worldwide. The society ran afoul of Rome by sticking with a Latin Mass, rejecting some aspects of the liberalizing Second Vatican Council, and 'illegally' consecrating four bishops -- an act that led to their excommunication in 2009. The latest pope, Benedict, lifted the excommunication order in a move towards reconciliation. "The pope values the SSPX’s commitment to Church traditions and wants to avoid their movement creating a permanent schism claiming to be Catholic but outside Vatican control."

In his very good and pretty ballsy book, "The Religious Experience of Mankind," author Ninan Smart sets out to track not so much the beliefs and regalia of various religions but rather to try to pin down the experience within those religions. I read it a long time ago and was enthralled as much as anything by the examination that led away from convenient touchstones of organization and finery and into the hearts of those professing a faith. Pretty damned nervy!

At the end of the book as I recall it, Smart offered the opinion that only two religions seemed to have what it took for a long and healthy life ... Vedanta and Buddhism. I was somewhat surprised by his willingness to go out on such a limb, though of course I was delighted that the two spiritual persuasions that drew me were Vedanta and Buddhism.

Today, I am less certain about Smart's deductions, but it hardly seems to matter much since I will be dead before the truth or falsehood of his speculations become apparent. But when I read about organizations scrambling to make sure that none of their sheep stray off the reservation -- the implicit fear and assertion of power primacy -- I wonder if things aren't drip-drip-dripping in Smart's direction ... a kind of precursor to dissolution after some pretty violent death throes.

If religion is nice, if it warms the heart for whatever reasons, what need is there to be so craven and self-serving and nasty? Isn't this a poor man's recipe for disaster? Not trying to pit one thing against the other, but one of the things I always liked about the practice of Buddhism was the implicit teaching, verified in experience, that people are welcome to disbelieve: "Go out and sin some more" seems an almost-adequate expression of that confidence. You don't gotta be a Buddhist to suffer the lash of change.

Well, as P.T. Barnum was falsely credited with saying, "There's a sucker born every minute."

The man who actually said it, banker David Hannum, was miffed at P.T. Barnum when he uttered the line. Barnum had one-upped the money-making Cardiff Giant hoax in which Hannum and a four-man syndicate had invested $30,000 in 1869.