Tuesday, December 31, 2013


CASSELTON, N.D. (AP) - Many residents evacuated a southeastern North Dakota town overnight after a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded [Monday], and officials warned that acrid smoke could blow into the area.

life's shut-off valve

Today is the last day of 2013. My mother is 98 today. What a lot she has known and what a lot she has forgotten. Except in a tourist-y sort of way, does anyone care what she has known and forgotten? Does she?

And what is true for her is true for others as well, I imagine. Not good, not bad ... just "enough already!" Perhaps the human condition brings with it a shut-off valve -- a time when accruing and preserving information and emotion hits a magical overflow point ... there is no more room in which to gather and organize against an uncertain future. The future is simply uncertain and always has been ... what's the big deal?

My mother lived through the Flu Epidemic of 1918 -- the one that killed 50-100 million people, claimed her mother's life and eradicated so many ship-borne soldiers before they even reached the fronts of World War I. She saw cars and planes and wars and coming-out parties and elegant intellects and ladies who played mahjong. She lived in and out of alcohol addiction. She outlasted her father's suicide. She wrote good prose. She suggested creating paperback books before paperback books were invented. And now she has survived into a time when books lose their savor. She sits through her days tended to by 24-hour minders.

It takes too much energy these days -- energy to hear, energy to see, energy to collect and care about all the things she once collected and cared about. The shut-off valve requires no energy. It's just that the bookshelves are as filled as they can to be. There is no room at the inn.

Being a tourist attraction's not so bad.

drone hunting permit

A friend sent along in snailmail not one, not two, but three drone-hunting permits. I await the weaponry and ammunition that will allow me to put them to good use. And, since I only need one such permit in order to stay on the right side of the law, I am open to bids for the other two from anyone (Pakistanis, perhaps?) who might be in need.

Monday, December 30, 2013

caring for those with Alzheimer's

Some of those suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia have found assistance on foreign grounds, as for example, Thailand.

being at home anyway

"Mommy -- what's a book?"
Perhaps because I stayed up too late watching the Eagles/Cowboys football game ...

Perhaps because I only slept four hours ...

Perhaps because I needed to get the accumulated Christmas detritus out to the curb for the garbage man this morning ...

Whatever the cause, my mind came up as a torrent of blank today. Blank in the sense that I generally like to write something of my own and not be resting my elbows on the table of someone else's thoughts. The line, "I've got nothing" came to mind.

But the email inbox and the friends who filled it helped to put me back on a more ordinary course ... and I was grateful.

There was a rewrite of an essay on D.T. Suzuki's contribution to an unquestioned or unquestioning militaristic cast in western Zen Buddhism... which led me to think that there is no such thing as a man-made endeavor or effort or belief system that lacks a soft underbelly of corruption and unkindness ... and that if this is so, then the best anyone can do is come clean, fess up ... and possibly stand a chance of doing LESS harm.

There was an array of street art photos -- wonderfully flummoxing creations.

And there was a video clip of a minister who lost his family and many friends when he discovered through visiting a tribe he had once wanted to 'convert' that he himself had been resoundingly converted. How courageous are the people who examine their own most-dearly-beloved stuff and then ... the scene changes! Further and further and further out on a one-(wo)man limb until at last the branch breaks. Talk about balls. Or at any rate, I deeply admire that courage.

Yesterday, Nick, one of the recent regulars during Sunday zazen or Zen meditation, brought along a friend, Carl. Judging by his sitting and shifting, I thought Carl was probably brand new to the sport of zazen. But he did it ... was as quiet and respectful as he could be, walked when it was time to walk, sat down again when that was the order of the moment. Imagine that! Taking yourself in hand and then doing something you had no real clue about. I've practiced for over 40 years and yet yesterday, Carl made me feel right at home.

Right at home, anyway.

Christian minister's faith unravels

Passed along in email ...

May we all be so fortunate.

for the hate-swolen

Passed along in email, this perky, musical response to all those self-centered, nasty twits who insist on spreading their venom:

Sunday, December 29, 2013

interesting music

Passed along in email:

"war on drugs?" ... oh really?

Passed along in email was this blog post about the disconnect between judicial penalties meted out to a bank that admitted it laundered drug money and the man (frequently black) on the street who is found to possess either a lot of cash or a bit of marijuana or both.

"The war on drugs" has taken on a twisted and corrupt meaning.

"Justice" is a word of diminishing -- if not diminished -- substance.

small matters of late

Another Sunday, this one grey, but less insistently cold than other recent days. Nick and Bram have indicated they will come to sit in the zendo this morning. I mopped the floor and turned on the heat yesterday. I don't clean as well as I did once, but the cushions are there and I don't imagine anyone will contract a tropical disease.

A couple of days back, I ran into my across-the-street neighbor Joe in the spaghetti-sauce section of the supermarket. I hadn't seen him of late but had chalked it up to the higglety-pigglety nature of the Christmas season. He told me he had been in bed the better part of a month, walloped by some sort of coldy-flu-y something or other. His white blood cells are not up to snuff, given either the cancer he suffers from or the treatment of it. His daughter lives in Joe's home with her baby and the baby is prone to one sickness or another -- things that will make the baby strong in time, but sap the life out of Joe.

Joe looked good. His smile was in place, his voice was strong, and he pushed his grocery carriage as well as any man. Our conversation had a kind or relaxed understanding below its eddying course ... both of us on the soft down-slope of the mountain, neither so much in need of the social controls that once ruled the convivial roost. Protecting and fixing things took too much energy for too little result, so we could just talk about whatever we liked, without urgent overlays... softly.

Somehow it put me in mind of the rocking, soothing, wry and go-gently music of the old, anonymous nursery rhyme:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Grew worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
That was the end of
Solomon Grundy.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Children Full of Life"

Passed along in email, this fragment of a documentary. If I were a Zen Buddhist, I would call it a no-bullshit teisho ... something so honest it leaves you speechless and whole.

abandoned places in the world

Passed along in email -- photos of 38 abandoned places in the world.

atheism as an intellectual luxury

I suppose the same might, on occasion, be said for belief systems, but I found this first-person Guardian essay (passed along in email) touching.


Perhaps it is time that American citizens should gather, hand-in-hand, around the Congress and hand-in-hand around the White House for a single hour.

No signs.

No talking.

Let each (wo)man come with his or her own thoughts and leave the same.

Just hand-in-hand.

For one single hour.

If asked later by a desperate-for-entertainment media "who started it all?" each might reply with complete candor, "I did."

Pope Francis ... wowsers!... not!

Earlier today, I received an email purporting to describe statements made by Pope Francis. I read it with my jaw dropping. Later, the sender sent a second email ... it was all a FAKE. But before that second email, before I was forced to admit how ignorant I was, I was enthralled and warmed and hopeful and applauding and ... duped:

This is what I wrote:

I guess I missed it somehow, but today it was reiterated to me in email -- statements by the Roman Catholic pope, Francis, that, if even half true, make me think someone will kill him and then canonize him before getting back to business as usual.

The statements appear to have been made on Dec. 5, the last day of the Third Vatican Council. The statements were astounding enough so that at least one cardinal quit, branding Francis as a "heretic."

I have no way of assessing the impact of Francis' remarks. All I can say is that they made my jaw drop in a confused wonder and delight. If this is just another Vatican bait-and-switch of the kind seen in the past vis-a-vis pedophile priests, etc., it's certainly a risky course. But if it is simply the truth, I have a feeling that is even riskier. I can do no better than to excerpt:
The Third Vatican Council concluded today with Pope Francis announcing that Catholicism is now a “modern and reasonable religion, which has undergone evolutionary changes. The time has come to abandon all intolerance. We must recognize that religious truth evolves and changes. Truth is not absolute or set in stone. Even atheists acknowledge the divine. Through acts of love and charity the atheist acknowledges God as well, and redeems his own soul, becoming an active participant in the redemption of humanity.”
“Through humility, soul searching, and prayerful contemplation we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas. The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God. God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity. God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace. Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God” Pope Francis declared.
In a speech that shocked many, the Pope claimed “All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe in them. What other kind of truth is there? In the past, the church has been harsh on those it deemed morally wrong or sinful. Today, we no longer judge. Like a loving father, we never condemn our children. Our church is big enough for heterosexuals and homosexuals, for the pro-life and the pro-choice! For conservatives and liberals, even communists are welcome and have joined us. We all love and worship the same God.”
One statement in the Pope’s speech has sent traditionalists into a fit of confusion and hysteria. “God is changing and evolving as we are, For God lives in us and in our hearts. When we spread love and kindness in the world, we touch our own divinity and recognize it. The Bible is a beautiful holy book, but like all great and ancient works, some passages are outdated. Some even call for intolerance or judgement. The time has come to see these verses as later interpolations, contrary to the message of love and truth, which otherwise radiates through scripture. In accordance with our new understanding, we will begin to ordain women as cardinals, bishops and priests. In the future, it is my hope that we will have a woman pope one day. Let no door be closed to women that is open to men!”
And there is more.

Based on the past, Francis' statements feel to me a bit like the man about to be hanged ... he feels the noose tightening around his throat; he knows that at any moment the floor beneath his feet will disappear; and then ... and then ... the rope is loosed.

Not entirely loosed, of course. There were dissenters. 
A couple of prominent Catholic cardinals have responded to Pope Francis’ declarations by leaving the church. Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria asked, “what do we stand for if we declare that truth is relative? On the contrary, truth exists independently of our personal feelings. All of this talk of love and tolerance is hollow if we have no identity of our own, if we stand for nothing. I charge that Francis has become a heretic, and that he is not a valid Pope. Indeed, Francis is no longer even a Catholic. The seat of Saint Peter is vacant. I am now a Sedevacantist. I should have become one long ago. The Vatican has embraced ecumenism in the past, but worse than that, it has now embraced moral relativism on abortion and homosexuality. At the same time it is embracing moral absolutism in favour of illegal immigration and cultural genocide against Europe.”

a little swoop and mutter

Swift and assured as swallows sailing in and out of some deserted barn at dusk, ungoverned as mercury on some tilted table top, the thoughts come up this morning. I have no will to shape or excuse or order them, to cut them into palatable and credible morsels, to argue and masticate with a mouth politely closed at some formal dinner. They swoop and are certain with no real basis for certainty. They swoop.

As much as anything, they seem to have some connection to the previous blog post here, some sense of sad, sad, sadness that, like all sadness, longs for solution or reprieve or happy ending. But this morning, sad and happy endings are left in the lurch. Swallows swoop. That is all.

... Was it Alexis de Tocqueville (I think it was) who observed that the United States, as it was in his time and would be later, was in the enviable position of being protected by two great oceans? This new country was safe from the marauding designs of contiguous states. Safe and free to enhance its longing for nourishment and riches. It was made safe by distances more compelling than the Great Wall of China.

How many lads and lasses have set out to find a safer realm -- personally or politically ... a safer way to live and be ... safe? Safety is so desirable when it is appears to be absent ... so desirable that there is a willingness to deprive others of their safety. And within every kernel of safety -- ipso facto -- there is eternal danger. No exceptions.
Where safety beckons, it would be well to take heed, be wary and not become a worse jackass still. Answers are just new questions. Safety is hopelessly arrogant... and worse, too often, cruel. Individually or nationalistically, exceptionalism secretly knows its flaws and seeks to plaster its cracks. Shall I pay the price for you or you for me?

Tocqueville pointed out the fortunate bastions enjoyed by the U.S. But these days, the walls have been breached, not by well-appointed war ships, but by the Internet and its flow of information. The country that was free from marauding contiguous states can no longer stand unchallenged. The safety is no longer safe. And it is galling enough so that the country once safe in its safe assumptions is wounded and confused and can find no better answer than the accumulation and applications of arms and an enforcing force of government. We are the best, the firstest with the mostest ... and if you don't agree, we have ways to re-educate you.

Is it any wonder that the Chinese see their chance?

I wonder today whether, assuming I had the clout, it would be wise to relocate my children to Denmark or any land that showed signs of willingness to care for its populations. It is a saddening thought, not least because I wish safety on my children and yours. I too am arrogant and, no doubt, cruel.

... Stupidity is often conceived as lacking the information that someone else has. The unemployed and under-educated are urged to sharpen their skills and knowledge. It's probably a useful suggestion. But more important than knowing what the other guy knows is knowing -- really knowing -- what you know.
Perhaps the Australian aborigines (or whatever the politically-correct terminology is these days) got something deeply right by infusing walkabout into their culture.

Six months (or however long it may be) alone is not just a matter of humility or spiritual hoohah ... it speaks to accuracy when it comes to the facts. Facts are not cruel or arrogant or safe. Facts are just facts. They were never missing. So ... a willingness, even under duress, to examine what I know or believe -- examine it right down to the get-go -- makes the kind of sense, which, in its absence, nourishes little more than unhappiness and bloodshed. Safe and stupid is ... well ... for my money ... stupid ... the kind of stupid that is unhappy ... which, in the end, is pretty stupid.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Congress at (spooky) work

Passed along in email:

I wish I thought this were a satire of some sort, but I have a feeling it is as real as it is spooky:

THANK GOD IT IS FALSE! But it has such a credible ring to it these days that even Snopes' assertion that the clip has been kicking around since 2007 (courtesy of The Onion), that there was no Rep. Haller of Pennsylvania in 2007, and there was no bill entitled H.R. 8791 hardly dims the credulous sense that even if it's not true, it's close enough to being true to be true.

an old joy for the new year

wake-up call

Before the morning light today, the house seemed to spring to life.

My wife is in the habit of getting up around three. At five, my son-in-law rose as usual for work. Somewhere in there, my daughter, who had been out drinking with the girls last night, was up paying the penalty for that pastime. I ratted around until five-thirty, then joined the already-awakened crowd. At six, still in a darkness accentuated by the street lamp, the woman who delivers the newspaper laid the day's offering on the front stoop. Only my sons slept on.

Strange how the day begins before the light or even open eyes adorn it.

A wake-up call, I imagine.

signs of the times

Passed along in email:

And likewise passed along:

Whistleblower Edward Snowden's alternative Christmas message.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

red crab migration

Every year in late spring, Australia’s Christmas Island becomes covered in crabs when the more than 40 million red crustaceans that call the northwest island territory home start their annual migration to the sea, covering the landscape in a mass of crimson claws.

welcome ... sort of

Yesterday, for Christmas, I received an email from a man who wondered about coming to sit on Sunday at the zendo here. He and his wife wanted to "check it out," as he put it.

I issued a pretty standard welcome in response ... but spliced in, as I do more and more frequently now, a small suggestion of why he might not like to come at all. I wrote, "You might want to be forewarned that Black Moon Zendo is a big name for a pretty small operation ... a little too strict for most because it is a little too simple."

Perhaps it qualifies as hypocrisy or paradox that I would, on the one hand, encourage anyone sniffing the spiritual wind in his or her life to snoop around, visit various gatherings, read up a storm, go to lectures, and find what amounts to a comfort zone ... and then practice... while on the other hand having a negatively-charged interest in being the gathering or space that might be snooped or checked out. I'm not much of a fan of the culturally-charged suggestion that people should ask three times, but perhaps I too will fall back into that hammock.

I have a lot of sympathy for those who are attempting to find their spiritual footing. It's such a confounding effort. What is anyone supposed to do when they don't know what to do? What are they supposed to think or believe or become good at? The internal longing is matched at every step by the buzzing bees of doubt ... what if it's all a crock of shit? And then there are all the external bees buzzing about how wonderful and fulfilling and doubt-exempt everything is. Most of them look pretty important and seem self-assured. And who knows? -- maybe they're telling the truth or anyway think they are. It's a daisy-cutter all right and I sympathize.

But sincerities come and sincerities go, however ornate and august and transcendent the target. Perhaps I will simply play the age card and say that although I am sometimes deeply-touched by human confusions and flounderings, I am not inclined to put a lot of money on sincerities, however sincere anyone might be.

The zendo is open to those who wish to practice. If you want to practice, practice. If you don't, don't. Just don't ask me to play along with or use my time on the sincerities.

Sign me, Cranky and Vaguely (but not very) Conflicted.

PS. 'Compassion' salesmen, please make your deliveries at the rear entrance.


There were three high-note good parts to my Christmas: 1. I didn't do any of the cooking or cleaning up; 2. my daughter hit the sweet spot when cooking the (supermarket)-fresh cauliflower and string beans; and 3. my son-in-law helped me to understand the weight-lifting world of which he is a part.

1. Not to cook and clean up ... what a luxury.

2. It is wonderful, assuming anyone does something, that they do it well ... and the beans and cauliflower were right on the money -- not too righteously raw and not too steam-table squishy. My daughter managed to honor the vegetables ... wish I could do that. Whatever, my teeth and tongue were delighted.

3. My son-in-law, who is the size of a large and sturdy dog house, got a bunch of weight-lifting gear from Santa. I took the opportunity to ask him about his world of expertise -- the various exercises performed competitively, the names of various lifting feats ... and the overall framework of his athletic choice. He was patient enough for a while, but I could sense his weariness setting in: It's not always easy to go back to the beginning and parse a preference for an utter ignoramus. It's more fun to be among club peers who know the lingo and the successes and defeats. Where there are clubs, there are outsiders, and I was a self-confessed outsider.

I wonder if there is not something to be learned from the expert who is unwilling or unable to put a field of expertise into language that addresses the uninitiated. How expert could anyone actually be if hanging out with the boys at the club were the extent of that expertise? What ignorance and lack of expertise is at play? If you can't do the foundation, how credible is the house?

My Zen teacher was always willing to admit it when he could not explain something: "If you want to know that," he might say when I asked some understandable but fool question like, "what or who is Buddha?" "you'll have to try it out."

OK ... there are brick walls in expertise ... points at which only experience can tell the tale. But before that, the irritation and the long-and-specialized words of description strike me as a good indicator that the expert is, in fact, no expert... by trappings, s/he is a pro; by essence, an uncertain and miching dandy.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

special times

Christmas arrives crisp, crunchy and clear around here. A selected and special day and yet a day like any other.

The BBC has a somewhat flimsy, but still mildly interesting, rumination on the role and function of ritual in the realm of human endeavor: Attention, attention, attention... and perhaps even food tastes better and the social weave is smoothed.

Other specialties of the day include the announcement that first-class stamps will cost 49 cents come Jan. 26, up from 46 cents. The Internet continues to siphon off postal-service income but the less-used snail mail and junk mail still make their demands.

Somewhere there is war and famine. Somewhere the pope confers his blessings. Somewhere Christmas trees twinkle. Somewhere the specialness of the day asserts itself in love and loneliness, laughter and tears -- a select and etched time and place.

Age and experience may rob specialness of its heartening and disheartening luster and allure and excitement, but still, without claiming some serene and doltish heights, isn't it a bit like two unconcerned currents in a stream that meet and greet, mix and splice, stand alone and commingle ... the special and the unspecial, smooth as glass, wandering in and out of each other's realm ... nifty?

OK, you are special ... really, you are.

Except you're not and neither am I.

Crisp and crunchy and clear.

Merry Christmas.

I can't immediately find the cutline for this Reuters photo that was selected as being among the wire service's best pictures of the year. I haven't got a clue where or when it is, but I like it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

                   MERRY CHRISTMAS AND PEACE 
                              TO ONE AND ALL!

informed by thin air

(CNN) -- If buttons are a thing of the past and touch screens are the present, what are the screens of the future?
It's not a riddle, but it is a trick question: if the projections of companies like Displair are true then the screens of the future won't be screens at all but interactive images floating in mid-air.
According to Russian designer Max Kamanin, creator of Displair, high-tech displays made from mist and air are "the next step in visual technology"....
"An airstream is created from tiny water drops, similar to the ones in the clouds. The water drops are so tiny they don't have any moisture in them; you can test it on paper or your glasses -- your piece of paper will remain dry and your glasses won't steam up. We can then see images that are projected onto these tiny water drops," he explains.

Water that's not wet ... now there's a thought.

gay codebreaker pardoned

Alan Turing
Computer pioneer and codebreaker Alan Turing has been given a posthumous royal pardon.
It addresses his 1952 conviction for homosexuality for which he was punished by being chemically castrated.
The conviction meant he lost his security clearance and had to stop the code-cracking work that had proved vital to the Allies in World War Two....
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: "I pay tribute to the government for ensuring Alan Turing has a royal pardon at last but I do think it's very wrong that other men convicted of exactly the same offence are not even being given an apology, let alone a royal pardon.
"We're talking about at least 50,000 other men who were convicted of the same offence, of so-called gross indecency, which is simply a sexual act between men with consent."
Strange to think how insistently anyone might wish for and feel reassured by the agreement of the society s/he lives in. "Everyone says so" is a great excuse for finding company and shirking responsibility ... and insuring the very sorrow that the longing for agreement hoped to elude in the first place.

no one knows

Once, as an average neurotic sixteen-year-old, I would take myself on occasion out to a nearby college athletic field at night. The grass was as soft and well-kept as only a field at a well-heeled college might be. The sky was black and huge and twinkling with stars. The silence was all over me. And there, where no one else could see, I would extend my arms -- open the tender places of the armpits -- and then close my eyes and turn slowly, slowly around on the ever-so-soft grass.

I was alone.

If there were no way to assuage the loneliness I felt as an average neurotic sixteen-year-old, then I would go out and meet it as best I might, enter what I could not escape, and see if somehow, somehow, there were meaning and peace. I imagine I just wanted to be loved. If I could not find love or meaning or peace in day-to-day affairs, then perhaps the gnawing loneliness itself could be my friend. There must be peace somewhere, mustn't there?

It never worked, but I honor the small, desperate and mildly-insane efforts of that average neurotic sixteen-year-old. Where were the hand-holds and reassurances of a life without handholds or reassurances? Where was the peace that existed when no one else was looking, no one else was around. Literally! Literally, after all the other empirical evidence was set aside. Where was the meaning when there was no one to soothe and cuddle and proclaim meaning? With the tender armpits opened to the stars and proclaimed as much nakedness as I could muster ... well, what then was the response I longed for?

I went to the lush athletic field because it was open and soft and if I fell, I would not hurt myself too badly. I had enough hurts and was in no need of more. Turning, turning, turning; eyes closed in the dark, dark night where the stars twinkled; in a place where the make-believe solaces could not follow. Now, just this once, I wanted to get things straight and be at ease.

And it never worked.

In the culture I live in, it's a dicey business to mention someone like Jesus. Christianity is so woven into local lore. Jesus is a big man on campus, whether for believers or disbelievers. And so, when I say that Jesus went alone into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, there is a woo-hoo factor that kicks in -- the kind of factor that diminishes and blurs the facts. Heroism or idolatry is not the point. The point is an average neurotic teenager whom anyone might know ... intimately. This is serious. Jesus is just a binkie.

And so, setting the culture-kool, keep-my-distance Jesus gently aside, I think rather of some darkened night where an exhausted parent rises for the umpteenth time and holds his or her child or spoons out a single, dribbling spoonful of pablum and ... no one knows. Praise and blame, gods and devils, perfection and imperfection can kiss ... my ... grits! This is it ... and no one knows. The desert is dry, the stars are just stars, and the grass is soft.

Short of illness, I never heard of anyone who had callouses on his or her armpits. For all the use they get, you might think that armpits would develop callouses, but they don't. They remain soft and tender and an expression of wide-open vulnerability. The aborigines (I've heard) and various martial artists count the armpits as potential kill zones, the targets that, when open, lack all protection or countermeasure and lie close to the heart ... and the heart of things. Even when closed, the armpit is strangely tender and new and naked... tender and naked and new as forever.

How nice it might be to write some happy ending here, some "do this or that and they all lived happily ever after." Alternatively, perhaps an abstract gloomy diatribe about the "meaninglessness" of things might be consoling in some binkie fashion. There are some wondrous binkies out there. Really, they're pretty nifty and I'm not against them: You've got yours and I've got mine.

But since, I suspect, everyone's got an average neurotic 16-year-old near at hand -- the one who cries out because no one knows -- maybe there's something to be said for the soft grass and the night sky and the tender, honest armpit that illuminates without any back-talk. Even now, no one knows about the pablum dripping down some distant or present chin. Maybe there's something to be said for that ... or not.

All this typing has made my pits sweat.

Better take a shower.

frog women

Passed along in email:

This stunning image is actually five women decorated by world champion body-painter Johannes Stötter to look like an amphibian. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

not your everyday sheepherding

Passed along in email:

"Polar Bear Love"

Passed along in email:

inventor of the snow globe

Erwin Perzy III knows a thing or two about making it snow - it's the family business.
The 57-year-old Austrian is the grandson of the man widely acknowledged as the inventor of the snow globe. His grandfather, the first Erwin Perzy, came up with the idea by accident in 1900.
Mass production started in Vienna in 1905, and 108 years later, the company - Original Vienna Snow Globes - is still going strong.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

fixing the flaws

I had thought, while thinking, that Henry James' "The Golden Bowl" concerned, among other things, a bowl with a flaw and that in the process of removing the flaw, the bowl was broken. It was an odd thought in the sense that, at a time when I read books either for fun or for homework, Henry James was one of my least favorite authors ... kind of like swimming through much used motor oil. After a quick bit of research, "The Golden Bowl" does seem to include a flawed bowl that is broken, but that's hardly the focus of James' latest (1904) bit of murky motor oil. So much for the tricks of memory.

For all the trickery, the image stuck with me -- that of the utterly desirable object which, when improved by removing its flaw or flaws, is inevitably broken to smithereens.

How much of spiritual adventure partakes of this activity -- positing a bright and beautiful and 'perfect' possibility that -- uh-oh! -- has this flaw or that and then the entire adventure is given over to removing the flaw or flaws? How much of institutional religion devotes itself to this pastime: For every flaw that is removed, there is yet another to be dealt with ... and another and another and another and another? How often is the priestly profession (or the individual effort) dependent on inveighing against or looking down upon (in subtle and gross ways) the 'lesser' aspects -- "I am deluded," or "I am a sinner?" Well, it fills the pews and the collection plate, I suppose.

How many go to the grave trying to make these improvements?

From where I sit, an unwillingness to address the flaws of spiritual adventure is really stupid... and who would know better than someone who has indulged in such stupidity? But there is a difference between seeing the flaws and fearing them. Seeing the flaws and then investigating them enhances any real beauty that may be inherent in the adventure. But fearing them merely elevates and enhances the flaw itself ... sort of like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Institutions may make a good living in this way, but individuals suffer and any honest usefulness in spiritual adventure is irrevocably lost. Talk about killing the goose that lays the golden egg!

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed, "It is not what's wrong with the world that scares people. What really scares them is that everything is all right." This may sound kool and sound profound and any two-bit hustler like me can quote the line, but as an individualized, actual-factual experience ... ah, wouldn't that be better than quoting other people or imagining with oozing goodness how "deluded" you, I, or anyone else was?

OK, the bowl is flawed.

Do not cringe or anoint!

The bowl is flawed ...

The bowl is ...

The bowl.

Give it a rest, for Christ's sake!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

old woman strikes back

Passed along in email:

Reuters photos

A cow, which escaped from a truck, attacks a farmer trying to catch it in Liangdun village of Nangang township, Anhui province, December 15, 2013.
REUTERS/China Daily
An internally displaced man holds his son inside a United Nations Missions in Sudan compound in Juba, South Sudan, December 19, 2013.
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
A flock of migrating cranes is seen at the Hula Lake Ornithology and Nature Park in northern Israel December 20, 2013. The Hula Valley is a stopping point for hundreds of species of birds along their migration route between the northern and southern hemispheres.
A journalist, wearing slippers to protect the glass floor, stands in the 'Step into the Void' installation during a press visit at the Aiguille du Midi mountain peak above Chamonix, in the French Alps, December 17, 2013.
REUTERS/Robert Pratta
A child cries as her mother (not pictured) works to earn money by carrying bricks at a brick factory in Lalitpur, Nepal, December 20, 2013.
REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar


On the most sunless day of the year, in a season of acquisitive cheer, perhaps it is understandable that the blues should come calling. Whatever the cause, the blues came calling yesterday and linger today. They relate to a lifelong neurotic habit of imagining that because I care and act on that care, others will do the same. It's ludicrous, perhaps, but there it is. No one ever said neurosis was a reasonable cuss.

The apex of it all welled up in recognizing that I can no longer wish well for those who do not wish me well. Not that I wish them ill, but simply that I cannot afford, physically and mentally, to put out the effort. I'll get over it, I suppose, but in the meantime, it is a deeply dispiriting thought.

It amounts to meeting selfishness with a selfishness in which I am less skilled than others. I suppose it might amount to a well-dressed self-pity, but whatever it is, it sits like a ball of acid in my mental gut. I can do the Buddhist prattle and bring psychobabble to bear, but it is powerful enough so that I am more inclined to let it be, let it work itself out without imagined improvements.

I can no longer wish/act well for those who do not wish/act me well. This is going to take some practice.

And into the mix dances the old vixen, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

Friday, December 20, 2013

the king of "Duck Dynasty"

Phil Robertson
I had never heard of the wildly-popular reality TV show, "Duck Dynasty," until I stumbled upon a news story about a kerfuffle that has risen up between Phil Robertson, patriarch of the dynasty in question, and the A&E network which is squirming in the wake of Robertson's pedal-to-the-metal, come-to-Jesus, sinners-repent remarks made in other venues. Specifically, he sounded off about homosexuality.

Will A&E shit-can this guy permanently and kill the goose that lays a hundred golden eggs? Or will there be a treaty with this unabashed Christian and his family who proclaim right and wrong the way Republicans proclaim money? 14 million viewers is a lot of money.

Whatever the case, I very much enjoyed the GQ profile of Robertson, not least because it portrays a man as both a man and a philosophy. Usually you just get the philosophy and everyone dons their war paint for battle. Yes, he shoots animals. Yes, he's a little short on American history (founded on Christian values ... that kind of thing). Yes, he can drop a sermon at the drop of a hat ... or find a biblical relevance in the great outdoors. And yes, he feels that the right-and-wrong of things has become badly skewed. All this and more appears to be true of Phil Robertson.

But there are a hell of a lot of people who agree with him and they aren't all crazy just because they don't sip frappuccinos and don't make an upscale habit of 'tolerance.'

"the oldest profession"

The Supreme Court of Canada has unanimously struck down the nation's anti-prostitution laws.

'tis the season

Passed along in email:

great minds, small minds column

Withdrawn from submission to the local newspaper as much as anything because I am tired of submitting things for free that receive no acknowledgment ... even of receipt:


It's one of those tasty quotes uttered with a smug and sometimes satisfied wink: "Great minds think alike. Small minds rarely differ."

Of course, definitions of "great" may vary and the difference between "great" and "small" is sometimes blurry and it is sometimes hard to know which great mind came up with the idea first, but it's nice to have a socially-lubricating quote handy at a cocktail party.

And when it comes to great/small minds, Japan's passage Dec. 8 of the State Secrets Act -- a bit of legislation so vague that journalists may be jailed for five years for reporting unapproved facts if they continue to raise health concerns about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster of 2011 -- is a wonderful example.

The law seeks to impose harsher punishment on individuals or institutions divulging whatever is deemed a "state secret." To the best of my knowledge, there is no written list of what constitutes or is a state secret.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Chinese 'stake' lunar claim

Passed along in email, this (humorous?) take on Chinese sovereignty.
Following the successful launch of its first lunar rover, the Chinese government has declared a defensive zone extending vertically from China into space and encompassing the moon.

relying on others

With Christmas shopping and food shopping on my mind, I am bereft of any especially original thought this morning ... reduced instead to the second-string habit of noting others' work and perhaps critiquing it as if I were on a par with the high-profile person I can mention.

An icky habit: Look ma! I can mention Albert Einstein or Jerry Lee Lewis or Siddhartha Gautama! Is my halo on straight?

As the one-time sports writer Red Smith once observed, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

No blood, no writing.

a little (universal) perspective

Passed along in email: "The Scale of the Universe."

thumbs-up for the NSA

Even as a U.S. advisory panel suggests that the intrusiveness of the National Security Agency should be reined in -- a suggestion that is likely to find little implementation -- Russian President Vladimir Putin says NSA's activities are needed in order to fight "terrorism."

Was there ever a word more beloved by centralized governments than the ill-defined-but-lovingly-nourished notion of "terrorism?" How better to control the unwashed masses than to posit an unknowable future that is dangerous ... and we need to protect you?

Well, if NSA has Vladimir Putin for a cheerleader, they must be doing something right ... right?

David Brooks' "Thought Leader"

Passed along in email this morning was a nice rumination by NYTimes columnist David Brooks on "The Thought Leader," who, among other achievements, "is widely recognized for his concern for humanity. (He spends spring break unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.)"

Wish I'd written that "unicycling" line.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

welcome, dictatorship!

On Dec. 8, Japan's upper house made the State Secrets Act the law of the land. The people most likely the feel the effects of the law were not amused and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quick -- like politicians everywhere -- to acknowledge his sagging (13.9-point drop) support:
"With humility and sincerity, I must take the severe opinion from the public as a reprimand from the people. I now look back and think with regret that I should have spent more time to explain the bill carefully," Abe told reporters on Monday.
"But there have been no rules on designating, releasing, and preserving state secrets. That is where the real problem is."
Does this sound like politicians living near you? Hint: Think of the Department of Homeland Security or those who defend the ranging incursions of the National Security Agency.

Among other things, Japan's new law is so vaguely worded that it could make it a crime to report information on the continuing radiation effects from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011... a very public and punishing health hazard.

According to the Associated Press of Nov. 26, 2013, 
Critics say [the State Secrets Act] might sway authorities to withhold more information about nuclear power plants [...] The move is welcomed by the United States [...] lawyer Hiroyasu Maki said the bill’s definition of secrets is so vague and broad that it could easily be expanded to include radiation data [...] Journalists who obtain information “inappropriately” or “wrongfully” can get up to five years in prison, prompting criticism that it would make officials more secretive and intimidate the media. Attempted leaks or inappropriate reporting, complicity or solicitation are also considered illegal.

Ahead of the passage of the bill in the upper house, The Australian, reported on Nov. 25, 2013:
 [...] Taro Yamamoto [an upper house lawmaker] said the law threatened to recreate a fascist state in Japan. “This secrecy law represents a coup d’etat by a particular group of politicians and bureaucrats,” he told a press conference in Tokyo. “I believe the secrecy bill will eventually lead to the repression of the average person. It will allow those in power to crack down on anyone who is criticising them – the path we are on is the recreation of a fascist state.” He said the withholding of radiation data after the Fukushima disaster showed the Japanese government was predisposed to hiding information from its citizens and this law would only make things worse. [...] The Asahi Shimbun newspaper likened the law to “conspiracy” regulations in pre-war Japan and said it could be used to stymie access to facts on nuclear accidents [...]
Speculation has it that Japan's prime minister, having felt the public backlash, will divert attention elsewhere -- as for example to the budget -- before making use of the new and constricting regulations. Once things have calmed down, the implementation will be less ... uhhh ... onerous.

As elsewhere in the world, once a law is on the books, it will be nigh-on to impossible to reverse the flow. There may be tweaking and revision, but the basic premise will remain in force. It will be acceptable to withhold information and punish those who do not agree.

As always and as everywhere, Shinzo Abe trotted out the last refuge of a 'compassionate' scoundrel:

“This law is designed to protect the safety of the people,” he said.


Most club memberships entitle the donor to use facilities, participate in activities, rise through the ranks, wear lapel pins and otherwise enjoy the perks of belonging. Each has paid the requisite dues -- s/he's entitled.

But belonging to the human club is slightly different: Everyone pays their dues, sometimes at great cost, but the only entitlement acquired is that they can pay more dues. Any other entitlement is entirely fabricated.

On the face of it, paying dues in order to pay more dues may sound like a gyp.

Strangely, it's worth it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

bless the rapscallion!

Unannounced, the light-hearted words skipped across my mind: "God bless the rapscallion!"

The words arrived on the heels of a skein devoted to the place of institutional spiritual endeavor and the role of the adherent within such institutions. Although the words were light and smiling, still they had a serious hue as well.

Tricky as they may be and misused as they certainly might be, still, "God bless the rapscallion!"

How many days and weeks and years of devoted study and effort must pass before anyone is stormed by the suspicion that the very institution or very beloved teacher is the very barrier to entering the light that such institution or teachers might extol? Or, as the Buddhists put it, "If you meet the Buddha on the way, kill him!"

I like the word "rapscallion." A rascal. Light and nimble as a sylph. Smiling and zippy. Happy to be here and not averse to being there. Immune to blandishments of "the one true way." Neither contriving nor contrite. Neither supportive nor obstructive. Attentive but not attending to. Whistling, though no longer whistling past the graveyard.

Yes, surely there will be fakers ... as many fakers as there are institutions or teachers who frown that anyone should so blithely dance when there were serious matters to attend to... the matters that gave gravitas to one institutional hearth or another.

A rapscallion ... who is this one who dances away on moonbeams? Isn't s/he the one who ever was? Nothing hot-shit about it, but it's kinda hot-shit anyway.

Look Ma! I've got five fingers!

the day the sun stands still

Passed along in email was this nicely-quiet rumination on the coming winter solstice and related thoughts.

car buyer's deal goes bust

(Reuters) - It used to be that people in the market for a new car could go to the car-shopping website TrueCar.com, which collects bids from auto dealerships, and get dealers to undercut one another on price. Dealers could see the rival prices, so prices tumbled lower over time almost like a reverse-auction.
Faced with complaints from dealers over the way that worked, TrueCar changed its website, the system became less competitive, with dealers no longer seeing rival prices, and now U.S. antitrust enforcers are trying to unravel what happened.

NSA's gospel challenged anew

A US judge has ruled the National Security Agency's mass collection of telephone data may be unconstitutional.
Federal District Judge Richard Leon said the electronic spy agency's practice was an "arbitrary invasion".
The agency's collection of "metadata", including telephone numbers and times and dates of calls, was exposed by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Not even the judge thinks that the discussion about mass collections of personal data is over, but his move certainly provides a small crack in the eggshell of fear and dictatorship erected under cover of 'protecting' people.

In a related development, Snowden wrote an "open letter to the people of Brazil" in which he asserted that NSA's world of indiscriminate global espionage "is collapsing." I can imagine Snowden might hope his sacrifices in fact led to such a result, but I think he is being unduly optimistic, perhaps as a means of keeping his spirits up.

The fact that Snowden may have dented the veneer of NSA righteousness is no measure of the probable outcome. Or anyway that's my guess. Mediocrity has a way of rising to the surface and the trump card in the NSA pack is fear ... a fear that can never adequately be analyzed because the particulars -- out of fear -- need to be kept secret. If I told you what you need to know, I'd have to kill you.

It's secret. You have to trust me that it needs to be secret. To question would be to dislodge the alleged (but unproven) protections that have been provided.

And yet the suspicions remain rightfully high. However many protections are provided, however many 'terrorist' plots are allegedly foiled before implementation ... still, there is room for a successful 'terrorist' plot. No one can see into the future, no matter how afraid they may be, but in the meantime, unexamined and undocumented fear is given a place of honor at the global table.

Even if Snowden 'wins' in some sense and even if the judge's ruling is given status, still there is the willingness to believe that someone or something can ward off a future that the present fears. The NSA mind has a toehold and the odds favor a future -- if vaguely revised -- foothold, no matter how many Snowden's or judges cry foul.

those ODD crazies

Passed along in email:

From the article/essay provided, and based on my laziness to research the matter, I have no way of judging to what extent it might be true or to what extent it was simply the pouncing proclivities of a writer in search of an oh-my-god conclusion...

Still, it's an interesting proposition -- that the world of psychology as represented by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the go-to arbiter of what's crazy, has identified free-thinking and non-conformity as a mental illness. This is defined as "oppositional defiant disorder" (ODD) and is characterized by "an 'ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile and defiant behavior,' [whose] symptoms include questioning authority, negativity, defiance, argumentativeness, and being easily annoyed."

You can imagine such a yardstick being applied to obstreperous children, maybe, but there is an eek factor when it is applied to adults. And once the eek factor enters, it naturally segues back onto the world of children as well: Here is a generalization that may fit in the DSM by way of description, but creating such a description can have the effect of de-juicing the juiciness of life, of creating a world of shuffling, obedient clones. A Thorazine universe.

I can imagine the world of psychology might offer a robust reply to such suppositions. Perhaps it would say something like, "the DSM is descriptive, not prescriptive." But given the laziness of the human mind which quails at the notion that life is nothing if not tentative, you just know there are mediocre mentalities out there that are capable of making a lock-step order out of a passing suggestion.

Ah well ... a bit of mental bubblegum.

no excuse

And in the what-if department:

Whether within or without, I think making mistakes goes with the territory: Correct as possible.

But making excuses only blurs the vision and adds to the burden.

A life without excuses -- what might that be like?


Passed along in email:

Monday, December 16, 2013

errr ... cosmic harmony or something

If this doesn't make you laugh, nothing will ....

objectivity ... again

Today, in email, it was fired across my bow once more -- an argument for "objectivity."

"Objectivity" is defined by an Internet dictionary as:
-- a state or situation in which something is based only on facts and evidence
-- the ability to make decisions based on facts rather than on your own personal feelings or beliefs
If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then there is a high probability that it is a duck, irrespective of the perceiver's political preference, love life, religious affiliation, or strongly-held conviction. 
There is a good deal to be said for keeping personal matters out of serious, issue-based discussions. All anyone has to do is look at the blogosphere to see how frequently personal persuasion out-shouts (and often corrupts) factual assessment. It's pretty thin tea to assert that just because I like or love or detest or am appalled by something it therefore must be right or wrong or just or unjust. Tantrums don't clarify much.

But there is another side to this coin. Keeping personal opinion at bay can sometimes be elevated to witless height and "objectivity" can be used to camouflage an unwillingness to take responsibility. Not owning up to a personal tantrum or bias is probably as bad as wallowing in it.

Who chooses and orders the facts, after all? Who chooses the words? Whose perception is in play and can that perception honestly be called "objective?"

In the world of reporting I enjoyed so many years ago, "objectivity" was a touchstone. It took me several years to acknowledge that reporting objectively might be a goal, but it was entirely unattainable. The best anyone could hope for was to be objective-ish. Keeping things at a cool distance was a good idea in serious discussion, but asserting a lack of involvement based on that distance was both ludicrous and cowardly.

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck I will put my money on the fact that it is a duck ... but that's just my money.

propping up American Jews

JERUSALEM (AP) - More than 100 Israeli leaders gathered with Jewish-American counterparts in Jerusalem last month with a daunting mission: to save Jewish life in North America.
I wonder to what extent religious persuasions, like any other, simply run out of steam over time. It seems reasonable to me.

the Horoscope Healer


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Sunday, December 15, 2013

farming out the baby

(Reuters) - An advocacy group called on toy maker Fisher-Price to stop selling a baby seat designed to hold an iPad at the front, saying the product encourages parents to leave infants alone to watch screens that could be harmful.

snow fall

Six or eight inches of snow fell between yesterday and today. Luckily, Rich, my daughter's behemoth husband, is out shoveling the driveway and sidewalk as once I did.

The way out to the zendo, which lies at the rear of the backyard, is likely to be a slippery slog. No one goes there except me and the effect of shoveling a path excludes the likelihood of its getting done.

Sometimes I dislike not being able to do what I once did. The mind insists "yes you can" and the body snickers smugly.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

"23 skidoo"

In the early 20th century, during more genteel times, gentlemen who were, after all, men as well, would sometimes gather at the confluence of Broadway and Fifth Avenue at the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street in New York.

There, the winds blowing up and down the intersecting streets would collide and sometimes, with luck, raise the skirts of passing ladies and provide the gents with a look at a usually-unseen ankle or, on a good day, even a calf.

Police officers, being men as well, but still charged with a certain level of moral decorum, would shoo such gatherings of men away and thus, perhaps, give rise to the American slang term, "23 skidoo," meaning to leave quickly or be forced to leave quickly or "get while the getting is good."

I wonder if a time will come when there is some wider recognition that "sexy" has more to do with being dressed than undressed.

birth and death

Here, because it came up in another context this morning, is a reprise of something I have posted more than once before:

snow in the offing

Sweet reason advises against trying to circumvent or control or understand that which is not really in evidence and yet here I sit, under grey and lowering skies, waiting for a predicted snow.

As an entertainment, I suppose it is more convincing than a laugh track on a sitcom, but not by much.

"Chance of snow," the weather report asserts: "100%"

And the skies are grey. And the air has an icy wetness that makes the tips of my fingers ache. And I worry that the outdoor bulkhead leading to the cellar is not yet covered with a tarp that, I hope, will keep accumulated water from seeping into the newer basement. And I will have to ask one of the guys who may show up at the zendo tomorrow to arrive early and shovel a path because I am not as strong as I once was. And ... and ... and ... and... and...

And not a flake has fallen from the sky as far as I can see.

The Boy Scout motto is, "be prepared" and sweet reason applauds from the peanut gallery. A person who does not think things through has an idiot for a companion. And yet what sort of companion does a person have when s/he does think things through? After the fact, sweet reason will juke and jink and revise and applaud its pretty-close predictions: The idiot factor will be held at bay with a well-lubricated hindsight. But I suspect that just because something is held at bay doesn't mean it doesn't exist... and, worse, the more effort that is employed in keeping it at bay, the greater the existence and force.

"Be prepared," the Boy Scouts advise.

And Robbie Burns replies, "The best laid schemes plans o' mice an' men/ Do oft times go awry."

Both make sense. Both ring true. Both exist comfortably in precisely the same experiential space. And yet sweet reason is left gasping for breath, rushing around proclaiming a "paradox," when what sweet reason really means is that it needs a well-feathered pigeon hole for its own confusion and impotence and fear that its ascendancy is not really all that ascendant.

What is it that is so irritating or frightful about the tentative nature of things? Would the sky fall if they were just tentative -- which is what they are in the first place? True, my sense of self might be dented or even demolished, but at least I would not be in need of a badly-needed reality check.

It's a curious matter ...

... he said as he sat waiting for the snow.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"The Last Thing on My Mind"

Tom Paxton, Liam Clancy and a pretty nice ale-house rendition of Paxton's old love song:


My Zen teacher's teacher once said, "There is birth and there is death. In between is enlightenment."

With thanks to the email that passed it along.

appeal to writers of the written word

Passed along in email:

An Open Letter to My Fellow Authors

It’s all changing, right before our eyes. Not just publishing, but the writing life itself, our ability to make a living from authorship. Even in the best of times, which these are not, most writers have to supplement their writing incomes by teaching, or throwing up sheet-rock, or cage fighting. It wasn’t always so, but for the last two decades I’ve lived the life most writers dream of: I write novels and stories, as well as the occasional screenplay, and every now and then I hit the road for a week or two and give talks. In short, I’m one of the blessed, and not just in terms of my occupation. My health is good, my children grown, their educations paid for. I’m sixty-four, which sucks, but it also means that nothing that happens in publishing—for good or ill—is going to affect me nearly as much as it affects younger writers, especially those who haven’t made their names yet. Even if the e-price of my next novel is $1.99, I won’t have to go back to cage fighting.

Still, if it turns out that I’ve enjoyed the best the writing life has to offer, that those who follow, even the most brilliant, will have to settle for less, that won’t make me happy and I suspect it won’t cheer other writers who’ve been as fortunate as I. It’s these writers, in particular, that I’m addressing here. Not everyone believes, as I do, that the writing life is endangered by the downward pressure of e-book pricing, by the relentless, ongoing erosion of copyright protection, by the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them, by the “information wants to be free” crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to on-line sites that sell pirated (read “stolen”) books, and even by militant librarians who see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to “lend” our e-books without restriction. But those of us who are alarmed by these trends have a duty, I think, to defend and protect the writing life that’s been good to us, not just on behalf of younger writers who will not have our advantages if we don’t, but also on behalf of readers, whose imaginative lives will be diminished if authorship becomes untenable as a profession.

I know, I know. Some insist that there’s never been a better time to be an author. Self-publishing has democratized the process, they argue, and authors can now earn royalties of up to seventy percent, where once we had to settle for what traditional publishers told us was our share. Anecdotal evidence is marshaled in support of this view (statistical evidence to follow). Those of us who are alarmed, we’re told, are, well, alarmists. Time will tell who’s right, but surely it can’t be a good idea for writers to stand on the sidelines while our collective fate is decided by others. Especially when we consider who those others are. Entities like Google and Apple and Amazon are rich and powerful enough to influence governments, and every day they demonstrate their willingness to wield that enormous power. Books and authors are a tiny but not insignificant part of the larger battle being waged between these companies, a battleground that includes the movie, music, and newspaper industries. I think it’s fair to say that to a greater or lesser degree, those other industries have all gotten their asses kicked, just as we’re getting ours kicked now. And not just in the courts. Somehow, we’re even losing the war for hearts and minds. When we defend copyright, we’re seen as greedy. When we justly sue, we’re seen as litigious. When we attempt to defend the physical book and stores that sell them, we’re seen as Luddites. Our altruism, when we’re able to summon it, is too often seen as self-serving.

But here’s the thing. What the Apples and Googles and Amazons and Netflixes of the world all have in common (in addition to their quest for world domination), is that they’re all starved for content, and for that they need us. Which means we have a say in all this. Everything in the digital age may feel new and may seem to operate under new rules, but the conversation about the relationship between art and commerce is age-old, and artists must be part of it. To that end we’d do well to speak with one voice, though it’s here we demonstrate our greatest weakness. Writers are notoriously independent cusses, hard to wrangle. We spend our mostly solitary days filling up blank pieces of paper with words. We must like it that way, or we wouldn’t do it. But while it’s pretty to think that our odd way of life will endure, there’s no guarantee. The writing life is ours to defend. Protecting it also happens to be the mission of the Authors Guild, which I myself did not join until last year, when the light switch in my cave finally got tripped. Are you a member? If not, please consider becoming one. We’re badly outgunned and in need of reinforcements. If the writing life has done well by you, as it has by me, here’s your chance to return the favor. Do it now, because there’s such a thing as being too late.

Richard Russo
December 2013