Wednesday, September 11, 2013


-- Yesterday, my neighbor Joe crossed the street with his typical, bright, good-to-see-you smile stuck on his face. Was he back in the academic groove, I asked before he had reached the curb in front of my house? Joe is in his 60's and is taking college courses that will allow him, with a certificate, to counsel elderly people, an activity he already does as part of his church's outreach programs.

Brightly and ruefully, Joe described the course load he was taking this semester. Five courses -- three by day, one by night and one online. He had to read something like 50 pages a day of academic wisdom -- the viscous stuff that is full of things like semicolons. "I'm reading 50 pages a day!" he said emphatically and with a Jesus-H-Christ look on his face. And the teachers were frequently young and full of sincere pronouncements that lacked evidential support: Sincerity was enough for them ... they were right because they were sincere ... and Joe was not amused. "Am I going to have trouble with you?" one teacher asked him. And the answer that hung in the air without being spoken was, probably yes: People who have been around the block are less likely to sit still for 'important,' sincere, unsubstantiated, bushy-tailed generalizations.

Joe gave me all of this information and the conversation meandered here and there until, almost as an aside, he said, " ... and I found out I have leukemia." He was OK with it, he said -- found out about a month ago and the doctors were trying to determine if the disease were fast-moving or slow-going. Three important people in his life had died in recent times, so, in some sense, Joe said he felt "prepared." Well, sometimes it's true and sometimes its not, I suggested. Sometimes my death is as easy as a lima bean and sometimes it is heavy as smog. I didn't get to ask the questions that presented themselves in my mind because at that point in our conversation, Pat, Joe's wife, yelled out the door: She wanted something done and whatever she wanted done was more important than a couple of old farts gabbing in the street.

-- Later in the night, I was flipping idly around the TV channels and came upon "Frontline," my favorite news program. "Frontline" doesn't always address subjects that interest me, but whatever the topic is, it is generally addressed with some seriousness and some willingness to do the research. I hated finding "Frontline" because I knew that once I started watching, I would be up past my bedtime. Last night was no exception. The program had been dislodged, in part, by President Barack Obama's address to the nation: For the moment, the U.S. would not attack Syria. The rescheduling of "Frontline" meant I would get to bed even later than usual... and the Syrian refugees would continue to pile up and suffer still more.

Last night's "Frontline" was an encore presentation entitled, "The Suicide Plan." 

In one sense, the show was exactly what anyone might expect -- a detailing of organizations that gave those wishing to die concrete information and mental support. Since doctors and society at large withheld the medications that might make the process easier (sedatives like Nembutal), these organizations had come to the conclusion that helium, which anyone might purchase at a party store, was most humane... a plastic bag over the head; helium introduced; sleep; death. There was something grotesque and unkind about a social outlook that required the acquisition of such gizmos and gadgets. One man who was interviewed described the whole arena as "the next civil rights issue."

Watching the program, several small thoughts rose up: A. getting old or becoming painfully infirm is filled with one loss after another, a sense of losing whatever was controlled in the past. Physically and mentally, there is loss. This life does not fall into that category. It is empirically your business or mine. Spiritual or ethical caterwauling is for others to indulge in. Many if not most of the people contemplating suicide have made enough mistakes in life to know that making a mistake -- if suicide turns out to be one -- is not the end of the world. B. "rights" are social functions and, although a person wishing to commit suicide may recognize the social implications of his or her act (everyone saddles others with their actions), still the choice to commit suicide has nothing to do with rights: Clearly this is something anyone might do and whether they do it or not is entirely their business. C. there is something profoundly whopper-jawed about a social convention that finds some stigma or discomfort in the topic of death, whether willful or otherwise. Sure, there can be a great fear of what is called the unknown, but the overwhelming preponderance of empirical evidence suggests that what is born dies. In what way does it make sense to stigmatize or shy from the blueness of the sky? Oh well, one thing's for sure: We'll never talk the topic to death.

--  Associatively, I was in email contact with a chum and Zen monk, Brian Victoria yesterday. Brian had sent along something he had written and wanted feedback on. I gave it. Brian rewrote the piece and suggested I read the rewrite. I declined as politely as I could: Brian's meticulous academic research and clear writing only reach so far relative to my energy levels. I care about the miscues and misrepresentations of Zen Buddhism but much of it is tilting at windmills that are very well entrenched and unlikely to be swayed. I appreciate that anyone might want to tilt at such windmills and think it's important, but such tilting ... well, I run out of steam.

Brian heard me out and then wrote: "Thus, as you suggest, I'll just 'keep on tilting' for a while yet! And although we don't yet know each other that well, Adam, I do get the feeling that I am dealing, somewhere deep down, with a fellow 'tilter,' no?"

I felt mildly pinioned by the remark. Yes, I was a 'tilter' -- no point in being diffident or coy. But in what way, I wasn't entirely sure. Still, without much thought, I wrote back to him something that strikes me as close enough for folk singing:
Brian -- At my age, I guess I have to lie down and spread my legs for the moniker "writer." Writers are creators of conflict and if this is so, I guess I qualify as a fellow tilter. If I had to verbalize it, I guess I would say my tilt is on behalf of that bare-naked yearning/longing/knowing within ... the one that goes begging without discipline and yet, simultaneously, knows that no discipline or format can ever hope to touch what is yearned for, longed for and known. It's a windmill of some proportions. :)

Or maybe, despite a world I find incredibly touching and worthy of care, I just like flapping my tongue.

Don't forget to send me part two, in which, I'm assuming, the dragons and windmills will be somewhat more flagrant.

As the Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki once said when asked how important zazen or seated meditation was:
It's important, but it's not that important.

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