Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Oh Sweet Lorraine"

A 96-year-old widower's small song for his wife  has gained a popular standing. Fred Stobaugh doesn't sing the song himself ("I don't sing, I would scare people, haha!") but his song has struck a popular chord: "Oh Sweet Lorraine is number seven on US iTunes and has 1.9m YouTube views." The couple would have celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary in June.

cannibal freed

And, in the fact is stranger (and sometimes more grisly) than fiction category, there was this that was passed along in email this morning:
On the afternoon of June 13, 1981, a Japanese man named Issei Sagawa walked to the Bois de Boulogne, a park on the outskirts of Paris, carrying two suitcases. The contents of those suitcases, to the lament of a nearby jogger, was the dismembered body of a fellow student – a Dutch woman named Renée Hartevelt, whom Sagawa had shot three days prior and had spent the days since eating various parts of her body.
He was soon arrested. According to reports, Issei uttered, “I killed her to eat her flesh,” when they raided his home, whereupon they found bits of Renne still in his fridge.
Sagawa was declared insane and unfit for trial and was institutionalized in Paris. His incarceration was to be short, however, as the French public soon grew weary of their hard-earned francs going to support this evil woman-eater, and Issei was promptly deported. Herein followed a bizarre and seemingly too convenient set of legal loopholes and psychiatric reports that led doctors in Japan declaring him “sane, but evil.”
On August 12, 1986, Sagawa checked himself out of Tokyo’s Matsuzawa Psychiatric hospital, and has been a free man ever since.
This is where the real story begins. VBS met up with him to find out what he’s been up to in the 30 years since.
Video interview: There is a Part I and Part II, both of them sensationalized, I gather. I say "I gather" because I have to admit I could not bring myself to watch them.

under the Zen bed covers

One man's seriousness is another man's frivolity.
One man's frivolity is another man's seriousness.

To the extent this observation has any usefulness, I think it lies not so much in the self-anointing smugness that can arise when applying it to others, but rather in the willingness to apply it within. And I think that whether this is a serious or frivolous pastime is entirely up to the one applying the yardstick.

I guess this came to mind after a short email to-and-fro yesterday with Stuart Lachs, a friend and author who might roughly qualify as one of the bad boys of Zen Buddhism. Where others might lie down and swoon for the subtleties and wisdoms of Zen, Stuart, as someone who has actually practiced the practice, examines with the care of someone who really loves Zen ... loves, as opposed to simply being infatuated with... the meal-ticket approach to Zen. Stuart examines the fart under the marital bed-covers of Zen ... a reality check that is inescapable in the realms of true love.

As I admire Stuart's efforts, so I admire the efforts of Brian Victoria, another author unwilling to skip over the savory, smelly bits of Zen history and outlook. Brian writes in a meticulous and clear English ("Zen at War" among others) that pretty nearly escapes the academic world in which he writes.

I am grateful to both of these men because, among other things, I occasionally think that I love Zen -- not often, but occasionally. I too have been and remain capable of a lick-spittle approach that goes with an infatuated mind. Both of these men remind me to take a little care, not just of the capacity to swoon in favor of something, but also my capacity to swoon for a lock-down, fart-under-the-covers approach.

Truth to tell, it is every bit as tiring to find flaws in the realm as it is to roll over and wallow in that realm. As with unexamined praise, so it is with examined love ... couldn't we talk about something else for a while .... baseball or gardening maybe?

I am grateful to these men ... but sometimes I wish they weren't my friends or brothers or whatever the right term is. And part of the reason for my gratitude is that they have helped me examine my own seriousness, my own frivolity... how do I know what I think till I see what I say?

And what I said to Stuart the other day was this:
 "I don't mean to say that Zen has nothing to offer, because I think it does."
Some day you'll tell me what that is. :)
Recently, like you I think, I had a few small to-and-fro's with Brian Victoria. What good stuff he writes ... just like you. It really is a kindness from where I sit to hear/see careful examinations of the emperor's clothes. True, I find it somewhat wearing these days, but that doesn't mean I can't applaud. As far as I can see, spiritually-inclined institutions will always fail but it is salutary to admit it up-front and then move forward, as distinct from buying boxes and boxes of sparkly Band-Aids. And when those Band-Aids are shelved, as in Brian's case, in the halls of academe ... well get thee behind me, Satan! What a true-blue mishegas!

Stay well.
Stay safe.
And raise some hell.

I don't mind it so much when I or others lie. Where else could anyone find the truth? But what I do hope to keep an eye on is the lick-spittle willingness to believe in and then promote those lies.

It's just my own seriousness, my own frivolity.

Friday, August 30, 2013


Lyrically, spiritual life is often bathed in light. It shines. It casts out doubt and fear and darkness. A torch is lit and brightly-arrayed angels emit soaring harmonies. It's like swimming in some luminescent chocolate mousse to hear the lyricists tell it. En-LIGHT-enment!

Lyricists, of course, can only reach so far and there are those of a serious nature for whom lyrics do not suffice. They want to shine, not just be shone upon. And it is here that practice begins -- practice and practice and more nitty-gritty, lose-the-lyrics practice.

And it is in this realm that I wonder vaguely at the literal role of darkness. Literal, nighttime darkness. Darkness when most creatures sleep. Darkness, where mind lets go on its way to sleep. Darkness, where egg and sperm conjoin. Darkness where what is feared, though fearful, is not so etched. Darkness where other possibilities seem more possible because, perhaps, they are closer to the free-wheeling world of dreams. Darkness, where there is less stuff and hence a more relaxed approach to the stuff that remains. Darkness, a razor's edge between relaxation and utter vulnerability ... a delicious eek of a time when light makes better sense ... in the darkness.

Is this true or am I making it up? It seems to me that there was a time when darkness held my hand -- ever so late at night or ever so early in the morning. It was quiet and it seemed, somehow, that I was more open to the light ... or was I just making it up?

The well-coiffed lyricist (who may or may not be imbued with experience) can intone with a knowing scowl, "Light or darkness -- no difference!" or "Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha." But at a time when darkness held my hand, I was in no way ready to swallow those morsels of wisdom, those morsels of chicanery. I was just some poor schlub wrangling and tangling with whatever it was that spiritual life was supposed to be ... in practice ... fuck the lyrics.

Fuck the lyrics and yet in the darkness, the lyrics seemed less like lyrics and more like something honest. I loved them in the darkness where I could not see or be seen ... in the quiet when all others slept ... in the darkness that relieved and relaxed and opened me up ... even if it was a dreamy, lunatic fairy tale.

None of this is to suggest that darkness was always a boon companion. Sometimes its solo solitude was enough to rip my eyes out. But was it true or did I make it up -- the seated meditation pains were less intense at 3 a.m. than they were at 3 p.m.? Comparing pains is an idiot pastime, but I never claimed not to be an idiot.

Darkness and light. The light beckons but the darkness ... is it true that the darkness -- the literal, physical darkness -- lights the path in some more quietly compelling way, some easier way, some way as secret as egg and sperm uniting?

I honestly don't know. But it crossed my mind.

UK targets New York Times

After a three-week delay on a topic the UK claims to have the gravest of implications, a senior unnamed official at the British embassy in Washington finally got in touch with the New York Times and asked the newspaper to destroy documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Release of the documents, both the UK and the U.S. have alleged, would harm national security and risk lives and ... well, you can fill in the well-worn blanks. It's all important enough so that British authorities put on a full-court legal press at The Guardian, which did comply and did destroy documents.

But when the Guardian informed those same authorities that the same data had made it to the New York Times and the investigative journalism group, ProPublica, it took three weeks to contact the Times and ProPublica has not yet been contacted, according to the Reuters story.

The most plausible excuse I can imagine for the delay in this deeply-important, life-threatening, and national-security-breaching matter is that ... well, it's summer time, dontcha know: Everyone's on vacation.

This whole situation is more full of shit than a Christmas goose. And what's more galling still is that you just know those bright-as-a-pin bureaucrats with the American-flag lapel pins and flip-open credential wallets are going to win in the end. Democracy may lose, but they'll win ... that's the nature of people who need lapel pins: Sellout patriots.

"Alice's Restaurant"

I hadn't heard the whole thing in years, but today someone else posted it on her blog and I listened to the whole witty, light-fingered, pointed protest song, "Alice's Restaurant." It's probably too long for the Twitter-minded of today, but I stole it without compunction because it feels somehow right in my mind-heart panorama. Just a nice "hot damn!"

"no one cares"

Yesterday, a low-flying aircraft dropped a firebomb (napalm? thermite?) on a school playground in northern Syria.

As the TV-sanitized survivors wandered to and fro across the evening-news screen in the film-maker's vain attempt to convey the horror of the situation, a doctor with a British accent and a large nose stopped working long enough to be interviewed.

In keeping with the at-a-distance capacities of both Brits and doctors, she detailed what she knew of the event and then, without raising her voice or weeping, she said, "No one cares."

It was like a scream issued in a whisper: No one cares.

The vast heinousness of firebombing a playground (or the demolition of the World Trade Center towers or the Nazi concentration camps or hundreds of other vile and hellish events) beggars the mind, assuming the mind is brought to bear. It is beyond even "beyond" and then, like icing on a cake, "no one cares."

Somewhere within there is a desire or need or impetus to care, but then the vastness of the event couples with the distances involved and, it seems, it's not that I don't care, it's that I simply can't. Were I to care about all the things that deserved caring, I would be paralyzed ... and the toast would get burnt.

Nor is this the case simply for horrific events. Turning down the horror volume and looking around, it seems to me that what is wondrous and marvelous suffers the same fate, although the desire to throw up is not in play. An achievement, a kiss, a smile that can light the darkness ... what a blessing ... and yet ... no one cares.

Of course people do care and are caring. Sometimes such caring bears wonderfully sweet fruits. Sometimes it nourishes cynical and self-centered cruelties. Caring matters. It fertilizes action. Life would be too unutterably bleak, too vastly lonely, too meaningless to mention, too scary beyond measure if no one cared. And so, in one way or another, enormous effort is brought to bear in an attempt to turn back the night and hear the blessed voice of a caring peace.

And yet, lurking in the background like some Cheshire Cat, there is the old conundrum: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, is there any noise? If I say yes, I am unable to produce evidence, and the same is true if I say no. It is a reasonable, if quirky, question for which I can produce no reasonable or credible answer. There is no emotional or intellectual tool for this gob-stopping event.

Am I wrong or is it true: Everyone is backed against a gob-stopping wall in their lives. It's not always apparent and it's not always grueling, but still it lingers and whispers like a woman doctor with a large nose and a tempered tone: There simply is no way to share experience in ways that are complete and convincing. Any teenager who has attempted to tell a friend about how much in love s/he is has faced this fact: The talk may go on and on, the caring may go on and on, the experience may be more compelling than an orgasm ... but ... no one can know and, by pessimistic extension, no one cares.

But when the clouds of terror or cynicism or abject insistence or sadness abate a little, isn't this a good time to sit down quietly with this inescapable companion? Just quietly, as over a cup of tea? No need for altruistic pamphlets here. Just quietly.

If experience cannot be shared ...

If a tree falls in an unpopulated forest...

If no one cares ...

Then who cares?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Senior Moments"

Passed along in email:

labor crucifixions

Eight Paraguayan bus drivers and a woman have submitted to crucifixion in a protest against being sacked.
The men have been nailed to crosses through their hands for 20 days, and have vowed to continue their protest until they are reinstated.
The drivers say they were fired after "asking for overtime pay, medical insurance and state pension contributions."

PS. In another sort of crucifixion, fast-food workers were scheduled to go out on strike in American cities today.

driving drive dwindles

Whether for economic or sociological reasons, driving is losing its cachet in the U.S. according to a couple of studies.

The expense and the Internet seem to be joined at the hip with a simple loss of lust as impellers of the trend.

Perhaps the love affair will regain some vim and vigor in the future.

Perhaps not.

relying on what it isn't

Love, freedom, justice, honesty, equality, peace, goodness, enlightenment, community, compassion, kindness ....

To the extent that anyone finds such suggestions personally compelling ....

Then I think it is worth investigating how much each or any beloved realm might be defined according to what it isn't.

Love is not a, b, c, d, e, f....
Freedom is not a, b, c, d, e, f....
Justice is not a, b, c, d, e, f....
Honesty is not a, b, c, d, e, f....
Equality  is not a, b, c, d, e, f....
Peace is not a, b, c, d, e, f....
Goodness is not a, b, c, d, e, f....
Enlightenment  is not a, b, c, d, e, f....
Etc. is not a, b, c, d, e, f....

I repeat -- it is as a personal matter and not, for the moment, how any of this plays out in the public square or in some pan-banging arena: How much of what something is in a personal pantheon finds its meaning and impact solely or even largely according to what it is not?

Peace is not war; equality is not segregation; love is not anger; enlightenment is not delusion ... like that.

I don't mention this because I think that defining values according to what they are not is somehow wrong or stupid or even cruel. I think it is more common than not and quite human into the bargain. But just because something is common and human does not mean it doesn't deserve consideration.

It deserves consideration because there is a linked-in tendency to start believing that because anyone might say what something isn't, they therefore have corralled what it is. And resting on those laurels invariably produces a sense of dissatisfaction and dis-ease. Saying what something is simply cannot touch what it actually is and this disconnect is worth noting because everyone would like to be happy and this is not a happy-making agenda.

It is often easy to say what I am fighting against, but not so easy to say what I am fighting for. For example, for years I have found myself sympathetic to the critiques of Buddhism -- its hypocrisies in lineage, its errors in emphasis as displayed in the west or whatever. I have been in contact with those who made what I consider very good critiques ... very thoughtful and careful critiques that displayed a greater historical ability than I have. Intellectually and emotionally, those critiques made sense to me and I applauded them: They were far more sensible and practical in my mind than a lie-down-and-spread-your-legs sycophancy and adoration I sensed in other quarters. Corrections were necessary and the critics pointed the way.

Those corrections required that something or some set of things be removed if Buddhism were to flourish in a more perfect way ... some even used the word "authentic." But when I asked, as best I could, what it was that such critics envisioned -- what was left after the detritus was stripped away -- not one of them responded and for a long time I thought my question might be impertinent or poorly asked. Did I have bad breath or something? Didn't it make sense to ask what, precisely, anyone might be for if they could use so much energy depicting what they were against?

These days, I am a little more relaxed and feel a little less guilty or inferior. No, I still don't think much of falling into a mindless and adoring swoon. And yes, I do appreciate carefully-crafted critiques. But what adds a little relief to my panorama is the recognition that saying what something isn't is about all any human being can muster. The trick is not to imagine that because you can say what it isn't does not mean you can say what it is. And that if you tried to say what it is, you would immediately be beset by demons.

What love and freedom and justice and honesty and equality and peace and goodness and enlightenment and community and compassion and kindness aren't may be a very good exercise. But imagining into the bargain that what they aren't is the same as what they are is a foolish and upsetting business.

A little humility will probably oil the wheels of unsatisfactoriness. Relying on what it isn't as a means of saying what it is has all the earmarks of an unpleasant failure. Peace does not come cheap.

Apples and oranges are both fruits, but to say an apple is an orange would be stupid.

Take a bite -- you'll see what I mean.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

terrorism in New York

The New York Police Department is alleged to have designated entire mosques as terrorism organizations. The umbrella covered anyone attending a given mosque and led to open-ended surveillance even when no hard evidence was uncovered.
The New York Police Department has secretly labeled entire mosques as terrorism organizations, a designation that allows police to use informants to record sermons and spy on imams, often without specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Designating an entire mosque as a terrorism enterprise means that anyone who attends prayer services there is a potential subject of an investigation and fair game for surveillance.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD has opened at least a dozen "terrorism enterprise investigations" into mosques, according to interviews and confidential police documents. The TEI, as it is known, is a police tool intended to help investigate terrorist cells and the like.
Many TEIs stretch for years, allowing surveillance to continue even though the NYPD has never criminally charged a mosque or Islamic organization with operating as a terrorism enterprise. (Rest of article here)
The next time anyone looks down a moralistic nose at China or Russia with their human rights abuses, it may be a time to rethink the criticism. If this ain't terrorism, I don't know what is.

down the Syria rabbit hole

If I am not mistaken, there were warnings issued before the United States attacked both Iraq and Afghanistan: A coherent strategy involved a beginning, a middle, and an end, and without all of those elements, the countries involved were likely to devolve into a chaotic and bitter and sectarian outcome that would drain U.S. attention and coffers with no credible silver lining.

The same lack of coherence shows every sign of being applied in the current war dance over Syria -- a country that has suffered enormous civilian casualties and displacements. A "humanitarian disaster" is not too strong a phrase and with the latest nerve-gas attacks, the volume has been ratcheted up.

Setting aside the fact that "humanitarian disasters" are seldom, if ever, the concern of governments, still the chaos in Syria is a rock-and-a-hard-place for the U.S. and others similarly (pro or con) concerned: Go in and risk a wider conflict; stay out and risk an unending chaos and, as a sidelight, a bloodbath.

Will there be a strategic beginning, middle and end woven into whatever action is taken? Much as anyone might protest, I seriously doubt it.

It's all enough to make a blind man -- or a sighted one either -- weep.

3-D printing ... the future?

Sent along in email:

The video may be a little too glib, a little to slick and a little too bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed, but the advances and potential for three-dimensional printing certainly seem to hold out both enormous hope and enormous fear:

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

five-minute conspiracy theory

In hard economic times, I suppose cozying up to a good conspiracy theory is pretty far down the list of  household priorities ... which, I imagine, is always factored in to the conspirators' original plan. Still, if anyone has the disposable mental power in reserve, here's one to brighten up your day.

out of the button jar

Once, before the advent of bottled water and a life that would implode without a cell phone, people saved buttons.

It was a homey chore, cutting the buttons off worn-out garments and tossing them into a jar against a time when there might be need for a button and, yes, you could sew it on all by yourself. The worn-out garment ended up in a rag bag ... for cleaning or polishing or Halloween costume masks or even a bit of creative art.

Once they enhanced or completed a given chore, but now the buttons are just a collection in a jar up on the shelf. They don't complain. And it's probably too anthropomorphic to say they wait: People wait; buttons just ... well, they seem to hang out.

Each morning, I sit down to write something, rustling around in the button jar for some newly-discovered bit of brightness or color as a means of enhancing or completing a chore ... reconfiguring what was once configured but then wore out.

But it becomes harder, somehow, to find the button that will attract my attention, let alone anyone else's. I'd like to write something bright and firm and well-sewn, but the buttons don't come to hand as once. They're there, all right, up on the shelf, but, well ....

Here I sit, writing about buttons.

whither education?

Perhaps the United States will see some suggestive writing on the wall....

In Liberia, there will not be a single freshman at the University of Libera after nearly 25,000 test-taking applicants failed the entrance exam.

It reminds me of the old, unprovable hypothesis that if you put an infinite number of monkeys in front of an infinite number of typewriters, one of them would be able to write Shakespeare: Wouldn't you think that of 25,000 applicants, one might pass the test, if only by guessing the answers?

Maybe, if the Liberian trend gains traction, some cost-aware and fear-prone Republican will deduce that, "Oh well, higher education never really meant anything anyway. Let's just have another war: That's where the money is."

Welcome to Attila the Hun University.

"Unfinished Sky"

Last night, at the suggestion of a friend, I watched "Unfinished Sky," a 2007 independent movie about a live-alone Australian farmer who takes in a brutalized Afghan woman.

At first I thought the silences might be too artistically loud, but as the movie progressed, I found myself being happy that there was still some appreciation of the small tale well told. It was like a good short story that uses plain, contained and human matters to illuminate a wider world ... touching and tough by turns.

A pleasure.

Monday, August 26, 2013

woman takes two husbands

In Kenya, a widowed woman with two children has agreed to take two husbands after the men realized both had been having an affair with her for four years ... and began squabbling. The woman refused to choose between the two and the result was ....
Polygamous marriages often take place in Kenya, but wife-sharing is unheard of, correspondents say.

breast-feeding and yoga

Too nifty not to steal ... or anyway, it made my day:

Mother Amy Woodruff lives in a clothing-optional community in Hawaii. She was practicing a yoga inversion naked when her daughter Naia crawled over, hungry. A photograph of her in this moment went viral, and Woodruff said the photo was not staged.

gas attack in Syria

A man holds the body of a dead child among bodies of people activists say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus. Reuters

Erbin News/© Erbin News/Demotix/Corbis

Livestock corpses collected after a suspected gas attack in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus.

religion as privilege

In principle, spiritual endeavor is largely benevolent.

It is in practice that anyone might be wise to keep a flak jacket handy.

Today I wonder to what extent (if any) religion gathers its power from a longing for privilege -- a piece of a well-heeled pie that one man might imagine another man had. How nice to think that you could bring little or nothing to the table and receive nonetheless some palatial surcease and peace.

A privileged pastime.

Those in the biz may skitter and scurry like roaches beneath a bright light: "Everyone is welcome" is a fine principle, but if it were a truly-desired fact, why would there be so many roaches? 

Of course religion is not frequently compared to a collection of designer-label toilet brushes or a good education or a house on the hill or a capacity to broker the next big merger or a second Rolls Royce in the garage. Religion is for everyone ... sort of.

Is it true? I think it is: That anyone in the throes of privilege is more often than not unaware of the privilege enjoyed. From the merchandizing mind of the American to the delicate snuff box observances  of Downton Abbey to the languorous courtoisie of Versailles to the intricate briberies in Beijing to the elevated mind-set of the mind ... well, this is the way things are, isn't it? There is nothing special about being special.

Is religion a privileged pastime?

I don't know.

But I wonder.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

bits of news

Bits of news ...

-- In hard economic times, private lobbyists are receiving public pensions in 20 states here in the U.S.

-- Syria, a country wracked by an endless slaughter, has agreed to allow U.N. inspectors to investigate a site that left another 300 slaughtered, apparently with chemical weapons that were skilfully administered. The greater the delay in allowing investigators in, the greater the chance that evidence will go missing. If the evidence is missing, it will be one more reason for 'civilized' nations to delay whatever engagement might mitigate (or perhaps increase) the slaughter. The U.S. -- once a leader worldwide -- has been and continues to be stymied by the uprisings in the Middle East.

-- The 16th largest forest fire ever in California (203 square miles) is now seven percent contained as it edges towards Yosemite National Park in very rugged terrain.

-- Who knows how long it will last given the resurgence of the mindlessly strict Taliban, but currently there is a children's circus making the rounds in Afghanistan, home to the latest American invasion.

this and that enthusiasms

As if to buttress some comforting conclusion of my own, a young squirrel skittered through the Japanese maple across the street this morning, halting here and there and then hanging upside-down as a means of reaching and eating otherwise unreachable shoots. Based on years past, I have dubbed the tree "The Tree of the Hanging Squirrels," partly because the name is savory and partly because the facts always bring with them a small delight.

Of course the squirrel knows nothing of my conclusions -- or, who knows, perhaps s/he does. The squirrel goes about its business. The delight is my schtick. One day the delight may fade, but for the moment I am delighted to be delighted in this small matter: It's as yummy as I imagine hard-to-reach shoots might be.

It is strange to think that there are those who will say "it is what it is" and yet in the very saying, it isn't at all what it "is." It's like aiming a rubber band off the tip of the thumb only to have the rubber band reverse course and smack you in the eye. It is what it is.

In passing, my older son, 21, said to me yesterday, "When anyone mentions politics or religion, my eyes glaze over." I was utterly sympathetic on the one hand and yet felt (uselessly) that I should point out that even if politics and religion bore you deaf, dumb and blind, still, as a matter of common sense, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with both or either: The society of others is a human drive and not having some idea what makes others tick is a recipe for pain or worse. No need for criticism or praise ... just a little familiarization strikes me as sensible.

Is there anyone who has not been bored deaf, dumb and blind by the enthusiasms of another? Baseball, the stock market, a love affair, religion, politics ...? On and on and on and on. It's a tedious business that recalls the comic's suggestion: "Why don't you take a big swallow of shut-the-fuck-up." The drive for human contact is compelling, but sometimes the price is too high.

But if it is hard to be enveloped by someone else's enthusiasms, what happens when your own enthusiasms begin to fray and you wish to god they would shut the fuck up?

The other day, a friend of mine described being invited out to dinner by a young guy who had become newly-interested in Buddhism. My friend has spent some time tilling that soil and the young guy was looking to him for counsel ... and imagined that because my friend had a longtime interest, he was wiser and better informed and, most important, was every bit as enthusiastic as he was. On the one hand, the young man was correct in seeking out someone who was better informed. On the other, his enthusiasm and the invitation to share in that enthusiasm, was tedious and misguided. "Buddhism is just part of my life," my friend observed with a mildly-crabby tone. And then, with a make-lemonade-when-life-serves-you-lemons resignation: "Oh well, I got a good steak out of it."

Aldous Huxley once wrote, more or less, "If the intellectual travels long enough and far enough, he will return to the same point from which the non-intellectual never started." Even leaving the "intellectual" out of it, I think this is true: Take any topic, be drawn to it, dig deep-deeper-deepest into its deliciousness until, one day, the enthusiasm and praise wears thin and there is nothing for it but to start sniffing the edges of the negative aspects that helped form the impetus for the original determination to plumb the depths. All that's left, it seems, is the 'other' side of the coin.

In Buddhism, for example, there are the precepts -- suggestions for a level-headed and peaceful life that include things like don't-kill, don't-steal, don't-lie ... the usual roster. These are serious matters that may require a very healthy dose of determination and effort. At first, such suggestions burn very bright. Very bright indeed for the enthusiastic traveler. They are truly very good suggestions, very good pointers.

But then, perhaps, drip by drop, a recognition takes shape: In the midst of this determined enthusiasm, I recognize that I do kill, I do steal, I do lie and there is no getting around it. The precepts exist because they cannot be kept. While this may come as a disheartening recognition at first, perhaps bit by bit it is more interesting than it is disheartening. It is fertile soil in soil that may otherwise be played out. This is not to say that anyone would want to take up a life of self-serving crime ... it's just an interesting 'other' side of the coin.

And then, perhaps, the dime begins to drop: The 'other' side of the coin is not the other side of the coin because there simply is no 'other'  ... or no coin ... pick your poison. This too can occasion enthusiasm for a while ... how about them apples!? For a while, this offers a new realm of enthusiasm, a new and flavorful shoot, a new venue in which to bore yourself deaf, dumb and blind.

And then the comedian's words ring out with a brand new meaning: "Why don't you take a big swallow of shut-the-fuck-up?!" Cut the crap with "it is what it is" and all the rushing around making it what it isn't. Stop being so goddamned borrrrrrrring!

But of course all this is easier said than done sometimes. Based on past interests and activities, there will always be a young and enthusiastic visitor nudging and prodding and smiling and ... well, everything is so important! It's important = I'm important ... and after hanging around with me all these years ....

Well, you can see why someone might want a good steak.

Or a nice upside-down dinner in the Japanese maple across the street.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm." The drive for human connection is great. But how great could it be when the 'connection' already exists?

When I grow up, I believe I will be a squirrel.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Fear is such a boisterous customer that it is sometimes hard to hear a quiet question.

It's not that fear is without its quite-sensible attributes: Anyone who does not fear a pissed-off mama bear has got a fool for a companion. Life and limb (self-preservation) are important and fear is a good ally in that regard.

But more often in 'civilized' society, the fears are ephemeral, more gossamer and less well-grounded. This does not detract from their constricting boisterousness. Snakes, bugs, love, employment ... each and any can have its brightness in a fearful sun. Greater and lesser play no role when fear comes calling. It is assertive and sometimes debilitating in its unremitting insistence. There is no place to run even as outrunning it may fill the mind.

Boisterous, constricting ... and as smooth as cyanide released in a gas chamber: Fear.

But, leaving aside the contrived cuteness of the question ... seriously ... the quiet query strikes me as plainly useful: Is the fear afraid?

My guess is that it is not. Fear is assured. It is certain. It brooks no doubt. It infuses in triumph like Alexander at the head of a victorious army. It is, in its being, at peace with the war it wages.

And if this is the case and if the metaphors are not too cute by half, then I think it is useful to ask, in quieter moments, what groundwork it is that assures this peace. From what earth do these wretched and rending thorns grow up? Fear is assured even as its fallout is nothing less than a loss of assurance.

Is there a peaceful earth in all of this? Is there some reason why, if fear is at peace, we might not do the same?

on the margins

Suddenly, like a tornado descending on an Oklahoma trailer park, all of the kids are home. The house becomes small with their large presence ... each with an agenda that marginalizes those who more recently lived here.

Daughter and her husband are off to a wedding; younger son is planning a pilgrimage to a Mets baseball game; and older son has to get back to college to fulfill the duties of a part-time job tomorrow. Here and gone. Small, howling winds of activity, moving the furniture of a less-active daily life from here to there.

It is hard to remember a time when I was precisely the same ... not at all on the margins.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Bradley/Chelsea Manning

Pfc. Bradley Manning, the young man recently sentenced to 35 years in prison for his release of classified documents via Wikileaks and others, has announced that he would like to live his life as a woman named Chelsea.

The announcement throws a spanner in my works, not because transgender desires are especially off-the-wall in my mind, but because my mind had settled on Bradley Manning as what I consider to be an admirable whistle-blower. It was out of that mental pigeon hole that I was willing to support and defend and critique and counter-critique and generally shape my opinions. Bradley Manning was a young man with a kind of courage I applauded even as I recognized that courage as an uphill -- and probably losing -- fight. Bradley Manning was, in many senses, just plain right.

The transgender direction reshapes my pigeon hole. Not only is Manning someone who has taken up one terribly difficult task, now he has taken up another. The number of critics can multiply. I kind of wonder how many of them will go transgender on the issue and conflate the whistle-blower 'traitor' with the gender 'traitor.' ("Not only is he a treason to his country, now he's a treason to his sex" ... something like that.)

I kind of enjoyed and was comfortable in the pigeon hole of Bradley Manning as a national hero in a world that acts without reference to the democracy it claims to inhabit. Hero or traitor, Bradley Manning fit into my convenient pigeon hole ... an important pigeon hole that deserved gimlet-eyed, no-flinching attention. This was serious stuff.

And now Bradley Manning has added another facet to the serious-stuff jewel -- a facet that can easily be as serious as the previously-acknowledged one and simultaneously diminishes the attention that previously was paid to Bradley-Manning-as-whistle-blower.

I have no doubt that there is considerable seriousness being paid to Manning's transgender desires. This is serious, life-changing stuff. This is uphill stuff. Only Manning can judge how serious or crazy this stuff is. This is the sort of stuff that can consume an individual's life. Not taking it seriously or comparing it to other things that might be serious would be a serious blunder.

I guess I'll just have to reconfigure my pigeon-hole ... which makes me wonder a bit what the hell need I had for pigeon holes in the first place.

Go get 'em, Chelsea!

what is it?!

What is it?!

Sometimes, I guess, stupid questions are all that's left, and this morning I ran head-first into one of them. And, as a means of finding out precisely how stupid I was being, I wrote a note to a former newspaper colleague, photographer Bob Stern, and asked for his thoughts. I can't do better than to cut and paste the email I sent:

Bob -- I remember that once you and Mieke and perhaps a couple of others were considering starting a photo business -- something that would focus on portraits that would be, for lack of a better word, "alive." If I guess correctly, the business never got off the ground because it was a hard, if not impossible, sell.

Today, I was looking at the Gazette as I do each morning. My eye, like others, was drawn to the photos first and, not for the first time, I realized without checking the credit line, that a particular photo was by Jerrey Roberts, a guy who used to be (and perhaps still is) Lu Feorino's main squeeze. Whether the picture is pedestrian or exciting, Jerrey's got something that I recognize without being able to put a name to it. "Magic" or "a gift" is too airy-fairy, but saying it is nothing special isn't quite right either. And this morning I wondered again, "what the fuck is it?!" The photographs of others range from mediocre to adequate, but Jerrey's stuff resonates and transmits ... something.

And I was just wondering if you had a name for it. It seems to be conscious, but to pick it apart with analyses falls on its face. It is an instantaneous recognition and yet imagining I could say what it was a recognition of is purely stupid.

I don't really expect you to have an answer -- and if you did have an answer, I suspect I would never accept it -- but ... well ... what are your thoughts?

Hope all is well.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Our Greatest Fear"

Worth a reprise, I think:
Our Greatest Fear 
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other
people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

—Marianne Williamson


It seems a pity, but par for the course, when the shrine ascends to a position once reserved for what anyone imagined could be enshrined in the first place.

Take "help" for example. It seems to me there is a trick to it.

"Help" is wonderful stuff and it's easy to imagine why anyone might enshrine it. The world is filled with cruel winds so "help" can don a lustrous glow and an intricately delicious catechism. The walls of the shrine rise up. This is good-good-good ... brick by brick, intention and encouragement take shape... a holy and defended hiding place.

The trick is this ... at least from where I sit: No one can help anyone else. The world of "other" is a world of shrines and cruel winds are unimpressed by goodness and safety. No matter what the mortar and how impressive the brick, winds are just winds much as help is just help.

So maybe it's OK to visit and pay homage at a local shrine, to build intention and assume that encouragement has been offered. But in the end ...

Do not mewl and genuflect within the sacred shrine. Do not imagine you could help. That is just extra shrine-building weight on an already-freighted path. Surrender this shrine to the level, lovely ground.

Do not imagine you could help.

Just help.

This is the way of the wind.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

don't mess with "blind faith"

[Narendra] Dabholkar, who founded the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith two decades ago, encountered opposition over the bill from Hindu nationalists who feared it could be used to curb religious freedoms.
Dabholkar. 71, was shot dead Tuesday by two unidentified gunmen on motorbikes. The assassination brought business to a standstill and protesters into the streets. Now "The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill" appears to have some chance of passage.
Details were not yet available but an earlier draft proposed bans on beating a person to exorcise ghosts and on raising money by claiming to work miracles.
And here I was scared of the Bible Belt.

Bradley Manning sentence

Pfc. Bradley Manning has been sentenced today to 35 years for having released thousands of classified documents.

Although Manning admitted stealing files, the case against him seemed to rest on the premise that "we say you broke the law but the specific fallout is not up for very precise discussion."
"Trust us. This is national security, dontcha know."

And no doubt there will be those willing to trust the shrouded accusations and the vast over-classification of government documents.

I am not one of them.

PS. In related news, it turns out that British Prime Minister David Cameron was behind the nine-hour detention of a Guardian reporter's partner at Heathrow airport. The Americans admitted they knew about the detention of David Miranda, partner of reporter Glenn Greenwald, but claim they neither encouraged nor discouraged that detention. Greenwald has led the journalistic charge with the release of information provided by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who has received asylum in Russia.

be yourself

Of all the assertions of hope and direction, I think "Desiderata" might be enough for any man or woman ... as good and simple and straightforward as anyone could desire. Taste is taste, but I like it, not least for the ordinary but confounding words:
                                                         Be yourself.
Two very simple words and yet, for anyone trying to actualize in fact what the intellect might embrace with gusto ... what a pisscutter! By even mentioning the words, I can see my Buddhist brethren scurrying like roaches in a light-switched-on kitchen, looking for the succor of some safer and more cozied realm. Nor do I imagine they are alone. The minarets of belief and discipline are not limited to a single thought corral.

                                                          Be yourself.
But who am I? In good, plain English, who am I? Who am I before the minarets arise and the applause begins and the tears begin to flow ... before temple and text and marriage vows and office promotions and athletic prowess and adjusted gross income and academic degrees and changing the oil in the car ... who am I before the add-ons begin... and to what, exactly, is anything else added on?

Seriously -- it's a simple enough question, isn't it? Every day of the week I get up in the morning to take a leak and there is no doubt about it. But what is it about which there is no doubt?

I cannot be other than who I am and yet who I am seems to elude me. To sidestep the question with a cavalier "fuck it!" means that I am left running on the gasoline that others possess -- ideas, beliefs, intentions, hopes, wisdom ... and all the other borrowed stuff.

Years and years of effort can be applied to those two small words: Be yourself. There is no other choice but to be myself, but what, precisely, the choice is remains ephemeral. And then there's always the skittish question, "If I were myself (whatever the hell that means), would I have any friends?"

Deeper and deeper the rabbit hole goes.

Is it worth the price of admission?

I think so but I also think it is not my call.

It's your call.

mental Cheerios

Watching a poorly-edited public broadcast essay on Mohammed last night, it crossed my mind...

-- I wonder if religion would be less galling if it were less good.

-- Reaching for the stars, any sensible person will touch the earth, but I have my doubts that enshrining the earth amounts to reaching for the stars. It's just a doubt. I don't know.

-- Is it because I live in a Christian culture that, while watching TV, I found myself thinking Mohammed, as a prophet of Islam, was just plain more interesting than Jesus? A wife and kids and a sense that everyone might come together beneath a single, unrestrictive roof. Somehow the old palindrome comes to mind: "A man. A plan. A canal: Panama."

-- Feeling that oh-well sadness that creeps in where the principles are delicious and the facts fill up with bitter bile. Poor old communists. Poor old Christians. Poor old Muslims. Poor old Buddhists. Poor old industrialists. Poor old ... poor old whoever, leg-hold-trapped by goodness and improvement. Is making a choice really that scary?

-- I am still waiting with the insistence of some obstreperous convert for the line of ornate and illuminated text that reports "and Jesus/Mohammed/whoever laughed." How can you trust a man who doesn't laugh? It's just a personal bit of bias.

So much for the mental Cheerios of the morning.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

the Spanish Civil War

This video made me want to go back and reread George Orwell's "Homage to Catelonia," though who remembers the Spanish Civil War any longer I'm not quite sure.

killing 'em with kindness

Let me see if I've got this straight:

An isolated indigenous tribe in Peru has emerged from their jungle home to beg for food.

The tribe has been designated by the government as one with which Peruvian society may not consort for fear that tribal members may lack an immune system capable of withstanding the germs to which Peruvian society is generally immune.

Simultaneously, the government has allowed logging and other interests to gobble up the hunting and farming grounds once used by the tribe for sustenance.

Wouldn't machine guns be more humane?

Glory, God and guts

Sometimes, I suppose, the sheer desperation when seeking out the good and benevolent might make anyone immune to the malignancies lurking just off-stage.

This morning, I read an elegant and crystal-clear essay by Brian Victoria about the ways in which spiritual endeavor has been used to enable all sorts of bloodshed. Fact by fact, incident by incident, name by name, century by century ... religious constructs used to facilitate and encourage enormous killing sprees ... all without guilt or a moral backward glance. Glory, God ... and guts. The very quietness and care of the essay (which I would reproduce if it were open for Internet usage) left my mind glum.

Glum and glad.

Those who despise religious approaches might delight in a fact-based compendium like Victoria's. But to my mind, caterwauling enemies are small potatoes: It is the friends who pose the greater threat.

Having been steeped in Buddhism as my spiritual endeavor of choice, naturally I paid attention to Victoria's dissection of "compassion" and "emptiness" and "no (abiding) self" and a variety of heavy-hitting sutras used to support and encourage bloodshed. Oh look -- there's Zen Buddhism! oh look -- there's the Dalai Lama! oh look, oh look, oh look. This was serious scholarship Victoria offered and as someone who admires and employs aspects of spiritual endeavor, I felt duty-bound to read and heed.

And there's the rub: Duty-bound. As sure as the cyanide pills given to the CIA-trained Tibetan guerrillas in the 1960's, without acknowledging the downside of things, the upside looses any real substance and becomes a trinket hung around a whore's neck.
Bapa Legshay, one of 259 Tibetan guerrillas trained by the CIA in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, explained how he felt at the time he and his fellows parachuted back into Tibet: "Thanks to Buddha, even if we were to die, our spirits were high. The CIA had given each of us a cyanide capsule to take in case of capture."
A part of me writhed within as I read this essay. I don't much care for bad news and in general I would prefer to think that spiritual life has some seriously -- and not just air-head -- good news to offer. But how good could my good news be if I would not or could not address some very palpable and quite nasty fallout? I'm talking about a no-excuses embrace, not some mealy-mouthed, analytical bobbing and weaving.

A part of me hated Brian Victoria ... and lord knows there are plenty of people who feel the same for somewhat different and self-serving reasons.

But another part of me rejoiced. Without an embraced confession, where would spiritual endeavor be? Can anyone live a substantive spiritual life by relying on the likes of "Mr. Rogers?" Can anyone skip over the bad bits and extol the good as a means of wooing more and more needy customers? How honest is that? And, in the end, how kind?

Well, everyone figures it out on their own time and in their own way.

My own half-baked response is this: It's not just the good bits and it's not just the nasty bits. But it is something that might be called all the bits, each of them offering potential for decency and deception. And in general, it is better to heed words attributed to Gautama -- really take them to heart:
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.
Let others 'defend the Dharma' or revere the relic or marvel at an unbridled joy. If you must shed blood in some noble cause, shed it honestly within, not standing beneath another's flag.

In this regard, as a practical matter, I think zazen or seated meditation is a worthwhile pursuit. But I could be wrong: As Victoria points out, that too has enabled devotees to do harm.

It's all pretty confusing, but I would rather be confused than assured. Nailing things down never works very well.

foggy morning

A fog worthy of Sherlock Holmes ...

A fog as plump as Victoria's bloomers ...

A fog silent as honesty ...

A fog where lost and found dissolve ...

It's foggy this morning ... wide-screen foggy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

the dangers of shorthand

This morning I got a note from Brian Victoria, author, among other things, of "Zen at War." Last week, Brian had sent along another article for perusal/critique and I had sent him back a few suggestions. In this morning's response, he offered this observation among others:
First, before I forget I wanted to mention that I am in full agreement with you on the importance of translating an-atman as "no abiding self. In fact, the Chinese first translated this term with three characters, i.e., no - eternal - self. Later it was 'shortened' to just 'no-self' and, as you will see in my new attached article, this has contributed to yet more death and destruction!  
None of this will amount to a hill of beans for those unconcerned with Buddhism. But for those who are concerned with Buddhism -- either by practice or as part of an intellectual toy box -- I think it is pretty goddamned important.

Using shorthand expressions is common enough. The underlying premise is that everyone knows the warp and weft of what is being referred to. The difficulty lies in the fact that sometimes others don't know the warp and weft and are reduced to taking the short-hand version as the long-hand fact.

I haven't got the energy here to do all the brightly-lit arguments about how short-handing no abiding self leads to nihilism or how no abiding self is a much more delicate and intricate proposition/fact ... the kind of assertion that means some hard work will have to replace a simplistic absolutism: If it ain't something and it ain't nuthin', then what is it?
For Buddhists, I think, the matter needs to be front-and-center as they issue their wise nostrums.


I am always wowed when I get one of Barney's occasional emails. Each reads more like a letter than a Twitter sound bite. And each seems to be packed with faraway places like Zagreb or Zurich or Paris or Berlin or Singapore or Ho Chi Minh City or Sydney or some other venue in which Barney will give his professorial lectures on economics. Later there will be time for him to sit in restaurants or cafes to converse with people in these faraway places ... and perhaps a little time to sketch buildings and scenery, which he likes to do.

Barney and I were in the army together, both of us German linguists stationed in Berlin in the early 1960's. I always liked him because his University of Chicago education did not seem to come with an attitude on top: When I asked him for some bit of information, he would impart what he knew in a way that left wisdom and ignorance out of the equation ... it was just information after all. Anyhow, we became friends and our connection, however frayed by time, remains as comfortable as an old shoe.

There is something to be said for travel. I too have been to a few other countries, though not so many as Barney. My interests were always inclined towards the people and habits of the land. Museums and other other cultural edifices did not interest me so much as things like how people thought or where, for God's sake, were the fire hydrants in Moscow? To see and say I'd seen the leaning tower of Pisa or the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty didn't really bang my chimes whereas climbing each did. I was no culture vulture ... though I suppose, if I visited a birthplace of a truly great culture today -- someplace like Baghdad -- I might make an exception and absorb some of the 'important' facts.

Travel widens the eye, I suppose. It is good to know someone sees what I see with a largely different eye. My view is not The View ... it's good to know, useful and perhaps humbling in sensible ways.

Travel is a mostly a rich man's sport, a luxury item, assuming anyone is not forced by circumstances to flee or hide. I feel lucky to have traveled a little, but I wonder this morning if travel, like wealth, doesn't reach a point of diminishing returns. I don't know, but I wonder.

A wider eye. Is there anything that cannot provide it, assuming there is a willingness to investigate a little? Probably not, but it's nice to have a little surprise, a little nudge towards widening the eye ... some new land, new language, new sights and sounds and smells. Old stuff is ... well, it's old and harder to investigate. Ignorance is not bliss, but is wisdom much better?

I'm not sure what I am thinking about this morning. Travel -- its wonders and informative quality and luxury quotient. Travel that requires a passport and the travels of the mind, which do not.

Oh well ... I was thinking about travel, but what, exactly, I was thinking, I am not sure.

I think I'll think about something else. Is there a travel brochure where I'm headed?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

pitter-patter thoughts

Like raindrops on a shed roof ...

-- Even if, by some chance, I could help you, you would not thank me for it.

-- Setting aside the intellectual insistence on playing with perfectly good food, still I think it is one of the best reminders:

It can't be helped.

charming the gods

In rural India, snake charming is not everything it used to be. Laws banning the use of wild animals have driven the charmers -- who worship the snakes as gods -- out of the cities. They also complain that those seeking the good fortune that the snakes can bestow are often "stingy."

"Mention it. Don't insist."

On a TV channel around here, it's "mob week" -- a lot of movies involving organized and disorganized crime of one kind or another. Most of them are oldies-but-goodies, though I did see one the other day that I had never seen, something called "Hoodlum," which was a change-from-potatoes in the sense that most of the actors were black ... and every bit as venal and violent and self-centered as any of their white-bread counterparts. The fact that it was set in the 1930's added a dash of delicious.

And of course the TV tsunami included "The Godfather" in all of its sequeled glory. It was a line from the first of those movies that floated up in my mind this morning ... slipping up quietly along the byway of the question, "Does anything that's true require emphasis?"

In spiritual study and practice, many things are addressed as a (best-case scenario) means of easing a participant's heart and mind. Among the warning flags raised in some spiritual adventures is the matter of name and form ... two aspects of existence that can embroil and flummox an inattentive aspirant. Name and form are not naughty or wicked or sinful, but they are tentative and hence deserve attention: No point in being any stupider than I have to be. The Zen Buddhist teacher Rinzai pointed this out, for example, when he said to his students, "Grasp and use, but never name."

In "The Godfather" movie, there is a scene in which the godfather (Marlon Brando) and his consigliere (Robert Duvall) are riding in the back of a limousine. Duvall asks whether, in upcoming negotiations with another crime lord, he should demand that those tasked with a planned criminal maneuver should all have clean police records. And the godfather replies, "Mention it. Don't insist."

Mention it.

Don't insist.

Can anyone really convince anyone else of the truth of anything? The truth of name and form, for example, is not a matter of converting benighted souls. The truth is the truth irrespective of who says what or who knows what. Asserting the truth and suggesting that anyone else has things all wrong is largely an ego trip ... though it is sometimes camouflaged as "compassion."

If God is true, the necessity of insisting strikes me as betokening more doubt than certainty.

If name and form are tentative, are they any more or less tentative because someone insists?

If the sky is blue, will a four-hour discourse improve or revise that?

"Mention it. Don't insist."

The dime drops or the dime doesn't ... same difference when it comes to the truth.

And by extension, I wonder (perhaps too insistently) if insistence, whether within or without, isn't a pretty good tip-off that doubt is in control and the truth is on vacation

Perhaps the distance from the objective can be measured by the insistence placed upon it.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

a small victory for unions

I grew up on union-organizing songs -- stuff like Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers -- in a time not that far removed from the bloody battles in which men and women (often derided as "communists") fought with business-controlled police forces to establish a higher wage, a regulated work week and other, improved employment conditions -- conditions we take for granted these days. (Here's Seeger doing "Union Maid" and "Talking Union.")

Time passed and unions like the United Auto Workers gained enormous and carelessly wielded power (union workers made up to 30% more than non-union) until in 2010 the percentage of union workers had dwindled to 11.4% in the U.S., "as compared to 18.4% in Germany, 27.5% in Canada, and 70% in Finland." Employers and Republicans had effectively stemmed the union tide. Now, Walmart-like wages and working conditions are more the norm and less the exception.

But last week, in what has been described as a victory for employees and the National Labor Relations Board, a court ruled that employees had the right to set up "micro unions," smaller units of workers who might not represent all the workers in their place of employment.
Several labor experts called the ruling a big win for the NLRB and for unions. Now that the board has three Democratic members and two Republicans, many employers expect it to issue similar rulings, which they argue could give unions an unfair advantage by allowing them to create “micro units” of workers it would be easier to organize.
Once, it was union organizers who cried, "unfair." Now, in a small way, it is employers' turn.

It's nice to see even a small victory, although, as someone who had personal experience with the NLRB, I would not advise anyone to think that that organization is on the side of the working stiff.

underwater hockey ... no kidding

It's a serious enough sport so that the Underwater Hockey World Championship is planned.

It's a sport where men and women can both be on the same team.

And it's a sport where age can matter, but not that much: The water is a great equalizer.

Who knew? I certainly didn't.

the allure of the temple

If what you seek is agreement and relief, the temple is not the place to go.
If what you seek is wonder and bliss, the temple is not the place to go.
If what you seek is explanation and meaning, the temple is not the place to go.
If what you seek is courage and love, the temple is not the place to go.
If what you seek is kinship and kindness, the temple is not the place to go.
If what you seek is an end or beginning of seeking, the temple is not the place to go.

For all of these reasons and more like them -- seriously, the temple is not the place to go.

Go anyway.

just a nice photo

Yelena Babkini (L) and her husband Boris kiss as they ride through Gorky Park on bicycles after having been married earlier in the day in Moscow, August 15, 2013.
REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

it ain't just the Vatican

Archbishop John Sentamu
The Church of England plans to review cases of deceased clergy who served in the Diocese of York from before 1950 to the present as a means of addressing the sexual abuse suffered by once-young parishioners.
The protocol for the Church of England's National Review of Past Cases of Child Abuse, which took place in 2008/9, did not include the files of deceased clergy, "but it is now recognised that it is important to review these files as well.
The Archbishop of York said: "The damage done by the sexual abuse of children is immense and the passage of time does not in itself bring healing.
"Where young people are shown to have been betrayed by individuals in a position of trust and by the institution's failure to protect them, it is for the church to acknowledge the hurt which has been done, to offer a full apology, and to prove, so far as is possible, that policies and practices are improved such that the same systemic failure could never be repeated."
 The fact that it ain't just the Vatican with this sort of problem is hardly consoling.

where the walls close in

Back-lit in the brisk and brilliant dawn, the Japanese maple across the street puts on a shadow-show as squirrels leap and skim through the leafy branches. They are swift and sure and seem, somehow, to be like silvery fish darting in the shallows, turning left, then right, then up, then down with an almost panicked will to live ... though what danger there might be is not quite clear. The scene is filled with some imperative that cannot not be denied or captured ... leaping, running, pausing and leaping anew.

Yesterday, my younger son sat on the couch and told me he was planning to go to a rock 'n' roll concert in the evening. My wife is visiting family in New Jersey, so my son and I are alone. I asked him if he liked rock 'n' roll and he said not much, but his friend wanted to go to the concert and besides, his mother had already bought him the ticket. I said he looked tired and he agreed he was.  If he could have gotten out from under the concert date, he probably would have, but it was too late now -- he was committed.

He perked up a bit when the two of us went to the liquor store and I bought him a bottle of rum with which he and his friend might get some small buzz before his friend's mother drove them to the concert venue and later brought them home. Being naughty -- getting booze when the law says you shouldn't -- is always a pick-me-up. But it was short-lived and whatever was eating him or defeating him slipped in his back door once more.

My suspicions were these: Since late last week, my son's car has been in the repair bay of a local garage. There was a rattling that sounded serious and it turned out to be ... or seemed to be ... first the clutch and then the transmission, both big-ticket items. As one day turned into another and my son was without the transportation he was accustomed to, and as the necessary financial outlay became apparent, it began to wear on him. "I'm sick of taking care of this car," he said.

He wriggled and squirmed, imagining he could dump the car and get another one ... but buying another car was not within his budget ... buying someone else's problems hardly achieved what he wanted to achieve ... a return to a time when he could assume and ignore a smoothly-functioning portion of his life. And, leaving aside the spoiled quotient of having a car in the first place, who hasn't felt that way: I've done everything right, I've worked hard, I've played by the rules, and despite all that, life flips me the bird and the walls seem to close in around me, pressing, inescapable and ... WHY ME?! IT'S SO UNFAIR!

The sensation of endless, ceaseless nagging -- of trying to find a solution or answer or resolution or relief -- is ... well, it's literally, physically exhausting. Which is what I imagined accounted for my son's wan and worn face. Of course it's always easier to assess and bring judgment on someone else's sense of being trapped -- "a kid with a car? Get a life! Let me tell you about my problems!" -- but that doesn't change the fact that growing up or even being grown-up is laced with this sort of experience ... in love, at work, on the athletic field ... anywhere and everywhere, the potential exists and occasionally exerts itself ... when bad things happen to good people, that sort of thing.

My son's imagined desperate exhaustion resonated with me not just because I am older and have felt that lash before but because lately it is the same for me -- squirming, wriggling, thinking and hoping as the realities of living on a fixed income in the face of mounting bills makes it plain that a slow devolution into a new poverty drip-drip-drips into this existence. I too get exhausted. I too wish there were an Answer and relief and solution and a life that ran smoothly would reassert itself so that then ... then I could ignore it and be at peace.


As my son and I drove back from the liquor store -- seemingly out of nowhere -- he asked, "What do you think would have happened if Hitler didn't attack Russia?" We batted it around a little and agreed it was conceivable that Hitler might have won World War II. War is about money and if Hitler hadn't been so greedy as to attack Russia, other nations might have fallen into line ... let's all make some money together within some new configuration of world power.

But I also think my son's question might have come from a desire for certainty and a peace of sorts. Leaving aside some glaringly obscene inhumanities, Hitler was a guy with answers, with certainty, with vision, with a well-mortared assurance. Hitler was not a guy who would be nagged and badgered by a clutch and a transmission as a 19-year-old might.

I guess everyone has go get over it -- the willingness to see in others a peace they have yet to achieve for themselves. Whether on TV or in religion or in war or in some perfectly-aligned married couple ... well, imagine that! -- here is a situation that has crossed its T's and dotted its I's and ... hope springs eternal ... maybe I could attain that as well. Maybe, by magic perhaps, the transmission and the clutch and the fixed income could be  erased from this nagging, defeating, exhausting blackboard.

Womb, gloom, tomb -- I see no reason why anyone needs to become a hang-dog pessimist in all of this. Likewise I see no reason to become a frock-and-pinafore optimist. It's just a learning curve and I think people learn or refuse to learn as they see fit. Answers are just questions phrased in a new and sparkling light.

In the Japanese maple across the street, the squirrels leap and skitter and change direction on a dime as the dawn rises up. They are twinkly as silver fish in the shallows.

Not even Hitler could say more than that.

When you are the fire, how could anyone leap out of the flames?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Facebook caveat

Using Facebook can reduce young adults' sense of well-being and satisfaction with life, a study has found.
Checking Facebook made people feel worse about both issues, and the more they browsed, the worse they felt, the University of Michigan research said.

nothing-fancy muditā

As part of the check list anyone might fashion in pursuit of spiritual realization, what Buddhists sometimes refer to as "muditā" strikes me as a good one. Muditā, according to Wikipedia, means joy,
... especially sympathetic or vicarious joy, the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people's well-being rather than begrudging it.
Sometimes muditā -- at least for Buddhists -- is referred to as a virtue and as something to be cultivated. It's not clear to me how joy could be a virtue or could be cultivated like a strawberry patch:
It seems to me that when joy springs up, it does not lend itself to anything as halting as a "virtue" and it doesn't seem to be premised on any sort of Miracle Gro cultivation. When joy comes, it is full-blown and whole and yummy ... end of story. But, oh well, maybe the Buddhists have some intricate meaning I have missed entirely. Certainly muditā can inspire long and heart-felt encomiums.

Muditā lays no claims and does not expect any kickbacks. I do not feel joy at my children's accomplishments as a means of elevating myself. Or perhaps I do, but it certainly isn't front and center. Instead, there is just some laughing woo-hoo ... you're alive, I'm alive ... how about them apples?!

As a part of a spiritual checklist, the aspect of muditā that occurred to me today was in connection with the golden boys and girls ... Gautama (the Buddha), Jesus, Mohammad, your teacher or mine ... you know, the ones anyone might choose as their spiritual exemplars.

The initial approach to such people is, when examined, pretty piggy: So-and-so is a bright light, I am a dim bulb, and I yearn to be a bright light myself. Maybe it's OK for starters -- my heeeeero! -- but with practice this approach is pretty thin. Not wrong or naughty, just thin. When I bite into a good piece of chocolate or hear a consuming piece of music or slide top-speed down a tall slide, it's ... it's ... it's joy without a name. I didn't 'cultivate' it and I certainly wouldn't slow down for anything as constraining as a 'virtue.' It's just full-blown, full-grown joy... no extras need apply.

And this feeling -- a feeling I cannot imagine others have not felt as well -- is important as a yardstick in spiritual endeavor. As practice progresses through the days and weeks and years, joy seems to spread out, not as a virtue or a discipline but ... just because. Increasingly, circumstances seem to have the ability to trigger this whatever-the-hell-it-is called joy.

And this is useful when it comes to the golden boys and girls. Is there some reason why I cannot simply take some pleasure, some joy, in the fact that they have achieved what I imagine they have achieved? Just enjoy it. As a friend might be pleased in a friend's pleasure and accomplishment, why should I not be happy for Gautama or Jesus or Mohammad or your teacher or mine? Would I begrudge it by asserting how much I might want to be "like that?" Wouldn't it be a better yardstick to see that yearning to be someone or something else as far from anything that might be called joy or muditā.

Gautama is Gautama, Jesus is Jesus, Mohammad is Mohammad, your teacher or mine is your teacher or mine ... and you or I are just you or I ... part and parcel of the muditā picture, one pretty tasty bit of chocolate. To "take joy" is to "be joy" ... but joy has no name and takes no requests. A bigger, better joy or a more virtuous joy is a diminution of joy ... and joy can neither be diminished nor does it respond to Miracle Gro encomiums. Joy is joy.

Joy is joy and people know all about joy. Playing the gloomy gus or the ever-improving spiritual aspirant ... it's good to notice these things, I think. It's useful to watch and watch and watch some more. Am I a greedy gus, praising one golden boy or another? Sure. But as I know chocolate or music or a sweet slide down a slide, muditā has its own ways ....

Which is to say, your way.

Or Gautama's or Jesus' or Mohammad's or ... well, how about them apples?