Monday, June 30, 2014

please don't kill my children

At about 7:30, my younger son passed through the porch where I was sitting in the early-morning sunshine. The promise seemed to be for a warm day with low humidity.

"I'm outta here," my son said by way of farewell on his way to a landscaping job.
"Good day. You got enough water?"
"I'll pick up a gallon on the way."
"There's all that water out in the kitchen."
"It's easier just to get a gallon and use that."
"Good day."
"See you, pop. Love you."
And he was gone.

Last night I watched two segments of "Moyers & Company" on the computer [1, 2]. They were about the manipulation and lies that pervade U.S. governance. Put together, they left me feeling wildly depressed -- a sense of tsunami-like sorrow and raging that expressed itself very simply this morning:

I don't want them to kill my children.
Or their children either.
And there is not fuck-all I can do about it.
Sympathy and explanation are the last thing I want: Pious circle-jerks just won't cut it. The sensation after watching the Moyers segments was miasmic and huge and all the heart-wrenching screams in the world will not resolve anything: There will be a war and I don't want them to kill my children.

In the wake of the demolitions of Sept. 11, 2001, neo-conservatives gained a foothold, not least with the "Bush Doctrine" -- a wide-ranging initiative that included permission to engage in pre-emptive or preventive war: Briefly stated, it allowed for the attacking of people who had not yet attacked us ... but might. The invasion of Afghanistan was premised in this way. Liberals yowled, but when Barack Obama became president, he left the principle in place. We now are free to invade and infringe as the mood takes us.

Simultaneously, the neo-conservative world view gained a further foothold: America was the beacon of democracy and freedom and had a god-given duty to spread that doctrine to others. It didn't much matter if the theory didn't pan out in fact. If it didn't pan out, that just meant that the forcefulness of the effort was not yet forceful enough and more military pressure should be brought to bear. Endless force, endless war and the beacon of democracy and freedom no where giving evidence that it had actually taken hold. The evidence did not support the theory, now or in the past.

But policy wonks are deaf to anguish.

If America was the beacon of democracy and freedom, how was it that this greatest country would not give money to ease the suffering of so many thousands of refugees in Syria and elsewhere -- refugees who might benefit from this grand theory of democracy and freedom. Why was food, medical and sheltering assistance a matter of bickering over every nickel and dime while the application of military force was never subjected to a similar nickel-and-diming? Why, among myriad other examples, were displaced Iraqis scrambling for food on the first day of Ramadan?

Back at home the same grand visions that lack concrete evidence are also in play. In a time of economic contraction, bankers and businessmen still avail themselves of the "trickle-down" theory of economics. There is no concrete evidence that I know of that supports this theory and yet it is trotted out time after time when the suggestion is made that spreading the wealth makes better sense.

I really don't want you or them to kill my children and yet as the noose grows tighter around the victim's neck, I simply cannot see another course. And there is not fuck-all I can do about it. My son or sons or daughters or whoever will probably end up in some non-descript doorway or bedroom, bleeding from wounds while some balaclava'ed soldier or police officer advances to deliver "just one more to make sure." And in the midst of the coming war, the policy wonks may scratch their heads, wondering how in the world these ragamuffins got so angry and desperate. "We offered them freedom and liberty and this is how they repay us?!"

Why is it that those who have a grand vision (Japan invades China in 1937, the "domino theory" underpinning the Vietnam War ... and on and on) cannot simply enjoy and exercise their grand vision without imperiling others? If Christians have the one true God ... isn't that enough and aren't they lucky? Ditto the Jews, the Muslims. Does my child have to die in order to exercise his own sense of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? How different is it to have neo-conservatives waving a purified banner and the Sunni extremists who unilaterally announced the formation of an Islamic State -- one governed by sharia law and disregarding all borders and political alignments? Another my-way-or-the-highway-and-it's-for-your-own-good.

I don't see much difference between the neo-conservatives and the ones they choose to call "terrorists" whether at home or abroad. And even if there are differences, the effect is pretty much the same ... the dispossessing of the many, the bloody anguish in some non-descript doorway in Baghdad or Tikrit or Detroit, the reins of power powerfully held by those whose evidence for success seems to be endlessly lacking.

The failures that others can point out better than I simply cannot keep pace with the actions of those who set the course for failure. Post-facto research cannot keep up. When the National Security Agency's overreach wiretapping policies are revealed, there is a dust-storm of concern followed by a tuck here and a tuck there ... but the premise has been established and warrantless wire tapping continues as if, well, it's OK ... just not quite so much, please. Failures may be pointed out by good researchers, there may be gasps from the crowd, but the premise remains in place. Militarized police forces that look so kool and only occasionally break into the wrong house ... we need 'em because the bad guys, like the terrorists, are lurking

Please don't kill my children. Please. I am tired of being terrorized by those who claim to be defending me from terrorists. I am to the point where I would rather be blown to bits by a terrorist than to be lied to by yet another policy-wonk terrorist.

Please don't kill my children with your liberty and freedom and endless wars.

I say please. I like wishing my son well on his landscaping adventures ... like it enough so that, I suspect like a lot of others, I see fewer and fewer ways to escape the coming war.

But it's coming and I am left incoherent with sorrow and anger.

I wish I could vomit it out and put a period on the sentence ... just another rant.

But I can't.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

a more militant military protested

A man set himself on fire in central Tokyo (the BBC doesn't say when... today, I think) to protest a move by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to loosen restrictions on Japan's use of military force. Severe restrictions were written into the American-imposed Japanese constitution in the wake of World War II.
Under Article 9 of its post-war pacifist constitution, Japan is blocked from the use of force to resolve conflicts except in the case of self-defence.
But Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he wants a new interpretation of the constitution to be agreed on.
Japan has a well-trained military.

"Terrorism," while not mentioned in the story, is the go-to excuse for military action by any number of nations these days.

And, interestingly, the story says
Correspondents say the move will likely please the US, with whom Japan has a long-standing security treaty.
The man sat cross-legged, haranguing whomever would listen through a bullhorn. After an hour or so of criticizing Abe's proposal, suddenly, he was in flames.

"I'll have a slice of...."

Once upon a time, along the Formica counter tops of one greasy spoon or another, there would be a  glass-like pie-display rack -- something to show off the apple and pumpkin and rhubarb and peach and lemon meringue possibilities.

Bit by bit as the day progressed, slices would be removed according to the customer's taste and the once-whole pies would begin to look like hockey-players who had lost a tooth or two while scrambling for the puck.

That's sort of the way the house feels these days. "The kids" (all in their 20's) who reclaimed their place in a realm where they grew up have filled the house in recent months. The place was chock-a-block with computer paraphernalia, shoes, exercise equipment, comings and goings, and brimming baskets waiting to get down to the washing machine or be taken upstairs for unloading.

Yesterday, my daughter Olivia and her husband Rich, once more disconnected the umbilical cord in a move to Connecticut, where Rich got a new engineering job. There was the rush to pack, the harried looks of people who didn't want to forget anything, and the removal, bit by bit, of slices of the current pie.

Simultaneously, my two sons went upstairs to reconfigure their sleeping arrangements. Who would sleep where Rich and Olivia once slept and where should personal effects be moved to? It was a domino effect of movement and mind and gadgetry.

Lingering in the midst of this dust storm was the fact that I put off a visit from Barney Marsh, a fellow I had been in the army with in the early 1960's. For all I know, we are the only two remaining from "Violet Section," a group that listened to and translated East German phone calls ... and partied in Berlin. With some time off from his job teaching economics at the University of Hawaii, Barney is touring the U.S. with his wife and wanted to stop by, but my physical condition made that seem more burden than pleasure and so I put my old friend off. It may be the last chance I ever have to see him but ... well, last times come and go, even with old friends.

And now things are quiet-ish ... fresh pies waiting for a discerning wish ... hockey players in the making.

transported by discipline

The only reason I can think of to take up a discipline that will transport you to the same time and place and problems is that without such a discipline you will be ignorant, lonely and unhappy.

It's Sunday here -- another totally useless piece of information that may come in handy.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

will the very rich escape?

Passed along in email:

Nick Hanauer, a very rich man, suggests that the very rich secretly believe that when the economic revolution arrives, they will be able to beat it out of town in their Gulfstreams.

Hanauer counters, "No you won't." And the sooner the very rich like him recognize that income inequality is more than just some mewling "it's not fair," the better off they -- and coincidentally everyone else -- will be economically.

His article is longer than a Tweet and probably somewhat facile, but I think he makes a good point.

Facebook runs psychological experiment

Mass manipulation via the 'social' network Facebook: Oh goody! Maybe NSA, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA and other protective agencies have found a new disciple. I'm not quite sure why "terrorism" is an acceptable and widely-popular word when "oligarchy" has an increasingly-apparent claim to ascendancy.
Scientists at Facebook have published a paper showing that they manipulated the content seen by more than 600,000 users in an attempt to determine whether this would affect their emotional state. The paper, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” was published in The Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences.

spiritual expiration date

Frank and I were emailing back and forth yesterday, remembering times/places/people/events we had known in Zen Buddhist practice. And in the middle of it, it just came into my head:
I sometimes think there should be a time limit placed on institutionalized Zen practice ... OK, you can practice for, say, 20 years, but after that, you are no longer welcome.
Frank replied:
Should one stop practicing or move on to another place?
I said briefly that I thought practice might be OK, but certainly you would not be welcome in any other center or place of practice.

It was all a bit of whimsey, but it seemed to continue running around in my mind like some frisky dog let into the backyard. Nothing saying you can't imagine a little....

Imagine: Built into the bedrock of institutional Zen, there would be an expiration date -- something along the lines of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and ... an expiration date. After (say) 20 years, you either get it or you don't: Either way, you are better off and it's time to realign the energies. What good is anything if you can't give it away?

Frank and I were both well aware of the earnest tones with which anyone might describe Zen practice as "a lifelong endeavor." Both of us had, to one extent or another, expended considerable energy. Zen was not just some namby-pamby belief system -- it was pedal-to-the-metal experience and we had both done what we could to actualize an experience that brooked no doubt. From an outsider's point of view, we had worked hard, Frank more diligently than I, probably.

But now, with the new and improved Zen manual, it was time to move along. Our warranty had expired and we had both passed the "sell by" date. Naturally, like a loaf of bread, it still looked like a loaf of bread that held out the promise of nourishment. But looks can be deceiving and bread becomes stale, even as Zen enthusiasts balk and blither and say this is a practice that never grows stale... or if it is stale, it's all your fault.

An expiration date.

Just stop it!

No one who graduates from high school or college continues going to high school or college. Whatever usefulness or good the experience held is now planted and percolating within. First, the student needs the practice; then the practice needs the student; and finally it is time to cope with all this somehow overbearing and unwarranted neediness.

It's all just whimsey of course. But I note with some interest the Zen Buddhist acquaintances who have decided on a life of monk- or nun-dom ... how, with enough time, they wrestle with the problem of the expiration date they somehow know has come but is not yet entirely gone. In less polite moments, you can almost hear them begging: "How do I get rid of all this crap?" The crap that isn't crap and yet is.

The Four Noble Truths.
The Eightfold Path.
The expiration date.

Of course, the wide open spaces may seem incalculably daunting, but so did Zen Buddhism when it was first encountered.

Imagine: Stamp collecting, mountain climbing, picture painting, getting out to the race track, becoming an aficionado of shoes, singing at breakfast ... lordy! Zen takes care of itself and you are fine without Zen.

Just whimsey.

Just a dog frisking in the backyard.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Captain America's 4th of July

Passed along in email:

fun with pollution

Passed along in email:
In small towns across America, manly men are customizing their jacked-up diesel trucks to intentionally emit giant plumes of toxic smoke every time they rev their engines. They call it “rollin’ coal,” and it’s something they do for fun.

US-terror advances

Passed along in email today was this Washington Post piece about the secrecy gaining ground within certain U.S. police agencies.

Massachusetts SWAT teams claim they’re private corporations, immune from open records laws

Drip, drip, drip ... no one event carrying with it an on-going distaste, yet slowly filling the bucket with more and more of what I can't help but think of as dictatorship and terrorism.

When I was in the army, in the early 1960's, I was a chairbound, pencil-pushing spy. Our job was to listen to the political phone calls made within what was then East Germany, a Russian client state. Most of it was dull as dishwater, though occasionally the secret police or social reform might grab the spotlight.

In East Germany, like much of the U.S.S.R., there were collective farms. Many farmers would till one large area instead of individual farmers tending their own plots. The idea was to create more food more efficiently for the country as a whole.

Each day, in spring, the farmers would head to the field, often bearing bushel baskets with, say, beets to be planted. Each man had a quota of how many bushels he should plant in a day. One beet plant per hole was what was needed.

But, in order to meet their quota, in order to meet efficiency requirements, the farmers took to dumping three or four or even five seedlings to a hole. In this way they met their quotas easily. The drawback was that the beets wouldn't grow -- they were too crowded for the available nourishment. And as a result, instead of being better fed, the country was plagued by food shortages.

I wonder if there is a point at which dictatorship based on a grand plan and fired by the fear of the governed comes to a point at which everyone is so hungry that even the dictator-terrorists can no longer hold on to the grandeur once posited for themselves.

Secrecy, power, manipulation, and a wafting sense of fear. It works, but calling it "America" seems a stretch. No doubt they will protect us from "them." But who will protect us from the protective them?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

U.S.A.-vs-Germany football match

Americans, working and otherwise, are dusting off their excuses this morning in order to find the time to watch the U.S.A.-vs-Germany football/soccer match at the World Cup events in Brazil.

I imagine the best excuses would also deserve a prize of some sort (my iguana came down with the flu?), but I doubt if anyone will collect and collate them.

The American odds of winning seem to hover around the 66/1 longshot level, but that doesn't mean fans will want to miss the event.

I too am ready to oooh and ahhh starting at 11 a.m.

I have no excuse.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

U.S. "terrorism" on the prowl

(Reuters) - The U.S. government's no-fly list banning people accused of links to terrorism from commercial flights violates their constitutional rights because it gives them no meaningful way to contest that decision, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Anna Brown, ruling on a lawsuit filed in federal court in Oregon by 13 Muslim Americans who were branded with the no-fly status, ordered the government to come up with new procedures that allow people on the no-fly list to challenge that designation....
The decision hands a major victory to the 13 plaintiffs - four of them veterans of the U.S. military - who deny they have links to terrorism and say they only learned of their no-fly status when they arrived at an airport and were blocked from boarding a flight.
I'm not sure what country the people who sanctified such no-fly lists live in, but the United States I grew up in guaranteed the rights of speech, thought and association. Any revising or withdrawal of those rights strikes me as being rightly branded "dictatorship" or (if anyone bothered to define the term) "terrorism."

healthy atheist hospitalized anyway

Ah, the rigors of belief ....
A Nigerian man has been sent to a mental institute in Kano state after he declared that he did not believe in God, according to a humanist charity.
Mubarak Bala, 29, is said to have been forcibly medicated by his Muslim relatives, despite being given a clean bill of health by a doctor.

moon, croon, June, spoon

Again the thought comes calling....

Moon, croon, June, spoon ... how much of what passes for spiritual life is little more than an effort to defend, advance, protect, elevate, improve or expand the reach of a noble endeavor? Call it the Wowsers Factor, though those who indulge might be put off their feed by the term.

It's all so important and you can see it written on the faces of the earnest duets who knock on the door on one Saturday or another ... the good news. But Bible-thumpers are far from alone ... others are just more subtle and wily and paradoxical and ... moon, croon, June, spoon.

But I have to admit that I pray from time to time that those willing to go the distance with their noble endeavor will slow down a bit and consider the possibility that this noble endeavor may be conversational and plain and that its soaring peaks can soar ... but this is not nose-bleed territory nor is its point to aid in the advance any cause.

Conversational as in:

"Have you seen my glasses?"
"They're on the hall table."


"Where's the TV remote?"
"Between the cushions."

I always liked these words, attributed to the Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen:
To study Buddhism is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things is to be free from attachment to the body and mind of one's self and of others.
OK, it's Buddhist and not everyone is a Buddhist. Noble endeavors come in all shapes and sizes and the important part is only whether anyone is willing to go the distance... and find the plain-Jane conversation that noble endeavors sometimes camouflage.

So how about it? Is it conceivable that Dogen was simply making an observation about the nature of anyone's life ... or anyway as he saw it? Suppose it was just a passing remark that might or might not help anyone to locate their glasses. Nothing fancy. Just a point of view. No noble endeavor necessary. Just a willingness to go the distance maybe. Maybe or maybe not, but in either case, nothing weird or wild or "Zen" or improved.

These are questions individuals may ask themselves when the Wowsers Factor gets a bit stale. Who is this "God" on whom so much praise is lavished? I mean really ... when no one else is around to applaud or improve. What is compassion really ... when there is no more "compassion?" And what about this "self" when the lecture tour ends?

When someone says your glasses are on the hall table, there is no thunder and lightning. You just go and look because some old man like Dogen made a suggestion... a friend who may be right or may be wrong, but it's the glasses that are important.

And God knows any of us might be lost without the TV remote.

PS. I have no way of knowing whether it is true or not, but somehow Dogen's last line gets rewritten in my head: "To be enlightened by all things is to forsake the barriers of birth and death" ... "forsake" being the operative word.


If you knew everything, how would you know it?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

political shifts

Once upon a time, politicians promised "a chicken in every pot."

Nowadays they promise "a wolf kept from every door."

The only problem with this latter scenario is that after a while the wolf starts to look like pretty good company.

photos without guns

Dancers wait during a visit by American actor Forest Whitaker (not seen) inside the UN House IDP Camp in Juba, South Sudan June 23, 2014.
REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Residents, covered with dried banana leaves and mud, walk along a road as they participate in a religious ritual known locally as "Taong Putik" (Mud People), while celebrating the Catholic feast day of Saint John the Baptist in the village of Bibiclat, Nueva Ecija, north of Manila, Philippines June 24, 2014. According to Saint John the Baptist parish church, hundreds of devotees participated in this year's feast day, which has been observed in the village since 1945, to seek blessings and bountiful harvests.
REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A couple embraces during a party held on the night of the San Juan bonfire on the beach of Playa de Poniente in Gijon early June 24, 2014. Fires formed by burning unwanted furniture, old school books, wood and effigies of malign spirits are seen across Spain as people celebrate the night of San Juan, a purification ceremony coinciding with the summer solstice.
REUTERS/Eloy Alonso

impoverishing the impoverished

... Companies like JCS often sign contracts in cities and counties strapped for cash. For the county, the deal seems like a sweet one: The company will collect outstanding court debts for free and make all their profits from charging probationers fees. But the problem is that many of these people were put on probation because they were too poor to pay their fine in the first place and for them, the additional fees are huge. People find themselves scrambling for money they don't have and forgoing basic necessities to avoid being thrown behind bars for missing a payment. The impact on communities, especially low-income communities of color, is devastating.

Sadly, the for-profit probation business is booming. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are sentenced to probation, often for misdemeanors including unpaid parking tickets. Instead of being able to just pay those fines and move on with their lives, many get sucked into spiraling debt traps they cannot escape.

take back some dirt

Having taken a pain pill last night, my mind is muddy and muddied this morning, leading to the regurgitation (again) of something that I wrote elsewhere on the topic of 'special' spiritual events. It's just that I don't have anything fresh:

Once upon a time I was a pretty dedicated Zen student. I was going to the zendo 40 hours a week more or less, doing retreats and was more or less hip-deep in the Big Zen Muddy. Looking back, I think of it as my Marine Corps phase.

One day, a very powerful understanding came calling. It left me, literally, laughing and crying by turns. When I told the fellow whom I designated as a Zen teacher at the time, he said tersely, "Forget about it!" At the time, I felt as if I had been bitch-slapped. How the hell was I supposed to forget about something so compelling? This was really, really, really important! This was really, really, really special! Forget about it? Well forget about that!

My mother's advice was more tempered and on target: "The ego is scared," she said. "Take back some dirt. Watch TV or something." She too said to forget about it, but without the uppity, dig-my-Zen quality. And a bit at a time, of course, that's what I did -- watched TV, went to work, went to the zendo and ... took some dirt back. And bit by bit the sense that the experience was special and important (because, of course, I was special and important) receded ... or perhaps integrated itself into whatever 'dirt' happened to be on tap on that day.

Yup -- it blew my socks off. Yup, it encouraged me. Yup, I wondered where I could get some more of that. And of course the harder I tried to recreate it, the further it receded... until one day, perhaps another bright light emerged ... the same, but different.

I imagine every practicing student has similar experiences, little and large. Is one more "profound" than the next or more "precious?" Well, in the old days of etiquette, there used to be a saying: "Comparisons are odious." And this is probably all the more true in realms that are often called "incomparable." Comparing enlightenment, comparing compassion, comparing actualization ... ick!

Maybe it's just as well to enjoy what is enjoyable. Isn't that enough?

Monday, June 23, 2014

a world of doubt

Just because the god I worship has no doubts does not mean I have no doubts about the god I worship.

Maybe this is important.

The god I worship/posit/yearn for, no matter what the realm, is wreathed in a sense of certainty. Why else would I worship him/her/it in the first place? Spiritual institutions find a good footing in this arena and even go so far, on occasion, as to criminialize those who doubt what lacks all doubt.

But this is overreach in my opinion. To hope for, pray for or concoct a god that lacks doubt is one thing. To suggest that because god lacks doubt means I must therefore have no doubts about god is a little like saying

All tables have four legs.
My dog has four legs.
My dog is therefore a table.

God, as proposed, has no doubts.

I am a different kettle of fish. And not just a different kettle of fish, but also a kettle of fish with a quite positive attribute: Doubt.

Maybe this is important.

Criminalizing or dismissing doubt is to reinforce the footing that doubt already has. "You shouldn't doubt our god" is a pauper's plea.

Better, I think, is to acknowledge and investigate every doubt ... right down to the ground. How else could anyone be shed of doubt? Doubt ... doubt the doubts ... right down to the ground.

Anything less would leave people in a world of doubt.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Christianity-Buddhism prattle

On a Buddhist bulletin board, I posted the following rambling response to a relative new-comer who was betwixt-and-between about Buddhism and Christianity. If nothing else, it may offer grist for those wanting to give me a kick in the ass.

Eugene -- All best wishes in your travels. It may lighten whatever your load may be to know that, whatever the spiritual persuasion, you will make mistakes. After 40+ years of Zen Buddhism, I still think of Buddhism as Mistakes R Us. Without making mistakes, no one ever learns anything.

With respect -- and no disrespect towards others -- I would like to say a little about why I distrust Christianity. This is just my life and my view ... I'm not trying to convince anyone else or to disparage what they may feel.

Christianity, the predominant religion of the United States, is based in caritas, a word sometimes too-loosely translated as "charity." Judaism, another thread in American spiritual life, is based in "the law." These are very different foundations and for that reason the term "Judeo-Christian" is more a public-relations nod to an Abrahamic god and a desire to be politically correct than it is a reference to a living reality.

Christianity is quite comforting (when it's not busy telling everyone how they are going to get left behind when the shit hits the fan). Someone/something loves you in the deepest possible way. I don't know anyone who wouldn't respond to such a premise. And to love what loves you is deeply fulfilling.
But things, of course, are not always smooth sailing and at such times, it is necessary to call on a reservoir of belief. Even when the going gets tough, still I believe in God and that belief keeps me going in some sense.

There is no spiritual practice that begins without belief and hope. Belief, because you're not entirely sure, and hope for pretty much the same reason. Perhaps it is like learning to ride a bicycle: At first, you hope and believe you too can ride because you see your friends zooming here and zooming there. Then you give it a try and, sure enough, the bumps and bruises mount up. But still, hope and belief propel the effort. And then, one day, whaddya know, you can do it -- you can ride and zoom and skid all on your own.

Though no one likes a metaphor that is too plain-Jane, still I think bike riding is a perfect match for spiritual endeavor. You hope and believe and practice and then, with luck, the dime drops.
But notice that once you have learned to ride a bike, belief and hope are no longer a necessity. Doubt has been erased. You know you can ride and ... you just ride. You don't get on your bike each day saying, "I hope I can do this. I believe I can do this." You just do this. Were you to believe you could do it, that would be secondary and vaguely foolish: Why believe something you already know?

And it is here that I am inclined to part ways with Christianity as it is generally provided. There is little or no encouragement in Christianity to actually ride the bike ... or, if the words appeal to you, to actually know who or what God is. Instead there is simply more and more encouragement to believe and hope what you allegedly don't and can't know. To my way of thinking, this is a profound unkindness.

Hope and belief are necessary components of spiritual beginnings. They are limited, but they are useful. There is no skipping over them and there is no looking down your nose at them. But it is important to listen to that small voice that may whisper when no one else is around -- when you are alone as perhaps at 3 a.m. looking at the bedroom ceiling -- "who precisely is this God who loves me and whom I love?" When no one else's answers truly answer, what will your answer be? If, in this realm, you rely on someone else's words, then you consign yourself to a life of doubt, no matter how sweet the music.

So-called meditation in Buddhism is a direct way. Not a direct way of hoping or believing, but a direct way of knowing. Meditation takes courage and patience and doubt. There may be strange events along the way, but in general, there is no one single shazzam lightning bolt. There is just practice and bumps and bruises and eventually just riding ... an exercise that may be wonderful but is no longer especially wondrous. Meditation is not the only way to reach your own best understanding and realization, but it is one good way.

Hell, I don't know -- maybe eating a chocolate bar works better. If that's what you think, then give it a whirl. The worst that could happen is just another bump or bruise.

Best wishes... and sorry for so much prattle.

World Cup

The World Cup football/soccer competition is underway in Brazil ... and I find myself addicted.

"ideologies are dying"

I heard it said the other day and it has been rattling around in my mind -- "Ideologies are dying."

For gum-chewing conversational purposes, such a broad-brush assertion feels pretty much right to me. Religion, politics, education, business, family life -- the spires and minarets seem to be losing the adhesiveness that ideological mortar once provided.

Maybe it's so or maybe I am just old. Whatever the case, the assertion rattles around like a pinball racking up brightly-lit points in its travels: KA-CHING! KA-CHING!

An Internet dictionary definition of "ideology" is short and sweet:
-- an orientation that characterizes the thinking of a group or nation
That sounds about right to me. Ideologies within and without are collections of thought that reach out for some achievement. When many people/ideas get together, a great deal of collective and personal good can be created. When many people/ideas get together, a great deal of collective and personal evil can be created. Each person/thought supports and gives compelling reason to the next and the next time anyone looks up from his work, the Panama Canal is complete, the church or factory is up and running, or the latest world war has broken out.

Based on the good results, much can be said for ideology. Based on the bad results ideology can be sent to bed without any supper. Those who have poured blood, sweat and tears into an ideology may be endlessly loath to revise or let go. Those who have discovered the flaws and frailties of ideology may be teenage-quick to dismiss ideology out of hand ... going so far, sometimes, as to say things like "no ideology is best" -- another ideology if ever there was one.

Are ideologies actually dying? Or are they rather just looking around for a new and improved home? Is there are man or woman without an ideology of some sort -- an agenda that will see him or her through the dark night and into the bright of day? I doubt it.

What I suspect is that "ideologies are dying" just means a slow and intractable movement towards an understanding that ideologies have their uses and have their flaws but that in all cases, ideologies are tentative. Blood, sweat and tears, sincere assertions raining down from heaven, life-giving delight coursing through the veins, accomplishments beyond number ... all of this may be very compelling, but cannot escape the tentative nature of ideology.

"Ideologies are dying" is more a personal annoyance with the responsibility that comes with the realization that ideology is tentative. It's your life and your choice and your responsibility. Ideology may be a very good thing and a very bad thing and ... well, whose responsibility is that?

"Tentative" does not mean "useless." It just means "tentative."

Saturday, June 21, 2014

God's plan to kill the kids

Passed along in email -- old but still interesting:

TULSA, Okla. – Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and other Republican lawmakers have called for the elimination of a plan that would tax businesses within the state in order to pay for tornado shelters to be placed in schools to protect children. They say the tax is an unnecessary burden on Oklahoma businesses, and that creating shelters specifically to protect children is an attempt to thwart God’s will.

talking with tornadoes

(Reuters) - Just over a year ago, tribal elder Gordon Yellowman watched on the TV news as a mile-wide tornado roared toward the homes of his Cheyenne-Arapaho people in Oklahoma.
Sirens blared, warnings were issued and many people rushed to shelters as the weather radar warned the funnel cloud brewing would be massive and deadly.
But Yellowman and a small group of the elders huddled to perform an ancient ritual that would turn the tornado away.
"We spoke to it in our language," he said.

Presbyterians dump Israel-invested stock

DETROIT (AP) - The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Friday became the most prominent religious group in the United States to endorse divestment as a protest against Israeli policies toward Palestinians, voting to sell church stock in three companies whose products Israel uses in the occupied territories.
The General Assembly voted by a razor-thin margin - 310-303 - to sell stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. Two years ago, the General Assembly rejected a similar divestment proposal by two votes.
The American Jewish Committee, a policy and advocacy group based in New York, said the vote was "driven by hatred of Israel." But Heath Rada, moderator for the church meeting, said immediately after the vote that "in no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish brothers and sisters."
I have yet to read one of these stories and find that Israel was willing to discuss and defend its actual policies towards Palestinians. "You hate us" seems to be the best they can muster. Is that an honest argument or is it more an admission that something is indeed awry?

rousing the 'masses'

A neo-conservative delight?
This morning a small, brown sparrow, perhaps seven inches from crown to tail, hopped across a patch of sunlight bearing a single 10-inch strand of dried grass in its beak. Then s/he took off, headed, as I imagined it, for a nest in the distance -- some home that required shoring up ... a place of safety and nurture and rest and ... home.

It was just a bird doing what birds do and yet I wondered idly what reason there was to overlook such straightforward wisdom. No harm, no elevation, no goodness. Nothing extra. It was just a bird, for heaven's sake!

Yesterday I watched all of a three-part BBC series entitled "The Power of Nightmares." No doubt I did it an intellectual injustice by watching it all in a single day. There was so much to ingest that to suggest I digested it properly is too much. Nevertheless, there are bits and pieces that linger today ... and I think about them in ways that might bore others. And so I am going to chew that half-assed cud.

Roughly speaking, "The Power of Nightmares" retailed and detailed the rise of radical Islamism in the Middle East and the rise of neo-conservative thinking in Washington. The time frame ran from the 1950's to the present.

In the Middle East, radical Islamism arose when certain men had a vision. It was a vision of a population and hence culture that had been corrupted by the individualistic and acquisitive excesses of a western world. The vision suggested that there was a need to return to a more pure and godly way of life -- a way delineated in the Qu'ran and set forth by these men of vision. These men saw the 'truth' and the only obstacle they faced was getting the rest of society to see things their way.

One of the ways they imagined the 'masses' might be made to understand was through violence. So, at first they set out to kill the leaders of movements that disagreed with their own: Maybe that would jolt the masses into recognizing a higher truth. When that didn't work, they killed those who believed in the message of those whose vision diverged from the higher-truth visionaries. And when that failed to convince the confused and sinful masses, they began killing whomever was handy, including their own not-quite-pure-enough membership.

The 'masses,' seemed intractable: Rather than seeing the need for a higher, purer and more centralized authority guided by the Qu'ran, what they saw was bloodshed and, far from imagining a more peaceful world, all they could imagine is that they or their families might be next on the bloodletters' hit list.

Meanwhile, during the same time frame, a band of neo-conservatives was assembling its own vision of a more fruitful and peaceful world. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others favored a world in which American-sanctioned democracy would flourish and everyone would be better off. They pursued this agenda, sometimes by force and often by lies, as a counterpoint to a namby-pamby relativism they saw engulfing the liberal constructs of the era. The masses needed leadership and America -- and they -- were equipped to provide it.

Never mind if the facts suggested the Soviet Union was crumbling under its own weight: It was the virtue and manipulation of America that brought the soviets to their knees. Virtue triumphed and, from the neo-conservative point of view, America was the one with that virtue. And that virtue deserved to be expanded. There were dangers everywhere and they deserved to be ironed out... as for example in Iraq. And never mind that what would become the monolithic evil of "Al Qaida" was a courtroom ploy manufactured out of whole cloth. And never mind ... well, never mind so much fabrication in aid of a more righteous vision.

Still, the neo-conservative agenda, like the pure land of the Qu'ran, failed to gain an overarching support. There was too much blood and too little documented benefit. And yet, like the Islamists who upped the bloody game they seemed incapable of revising, the neo-cons pressed forward with a dismal view of a brighter tomorrow. They too became what they abhorred in order to raise up what they adored ... liars, bloodletters, and throne-sitters who envisioned what everyone else (the masses) failed to envision.

And where a little shock might have some effect, perhaps a larger shock might have more.

As I say, I watched the BBC series in a gulp and probably missed a lot. Nevertheless I could not help but think that the demolition of the World Trade Towers (et al) on Sept. 11, 2001, could be seen as representing a bolstering of the intersecting ideals of both the neo-cons and the radical Islamists.

The series does not suggest that the two groups colluded. But the serendipity of intersecting desires is hard to overlook. How useful to the purists of Islam to see the direct attack on a corrupting influence. And how useful to the neo-cons to demonstrate the results of a namby-pamby relativism run amok ... see what happens when America does not take the helm and rule with a firm-but-'democratic' hand?

The two groups may not have colluded, but I can imagine the neo-cons kicking themselves if they didn't envision and implement the demolition for their own purposes. What a great idea!

And it was a great idea. However wobbly the reasoning, it led to an invasion of Afghanistan. It led to the creation and expansion of the Department of Homeland Security, an agency charged with keeping an eye on the unruly and relativistic masses. And then, to cap things off, fear ascended as the new basis on which to assert power: It wasn't quite as enticing as "a chicken in every pot," but, from where the purists and visionaries sit, it would have to do as they reconfigured a world that was corrupt and crumbling.

I'm not a fan of wack-job conspiracy theories. But I am also not a fan of ignoring accumulated evidence which points in directions other than what is popularly acclaimed. The BBC series offers a good set of such pointers.

Meanwhile, the sparrow has no doubt made it home, shored up its dwelling and is off on some other straightforward task.

Nothing relativistic in that.

Friday, June 20, 2014

"The Power of Nightmares"

For those with a bit of seriousness and a bit of patience, I just watched the first segment of a three-part BBC series entitled "The Power of Nightmares." It depicts the rise and institutionalization of a fear-based lifestyle both in the U.S. and in the Middle East and was passed along in email.

Be forewarned: It is carefully-wrought and parses the lies-become-truth insistence of both those with a wider vision of 'goodness' and a wider vision of 'evil.'

It is not for the mentally squeamish ... of whom I am one: I only managed to watch one segment. "Dispiriting" is to understate my reaction by quite a lot.

 PS. OK, I surrendered and watched the other two parts. Well worth it.

a few quotes

A few quotes from former President Dwight Eisenhower:

-- Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of "emergency" is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

--  I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.

-- Now I think, speaking roughly, by leadership we mean the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it.

--  Oh, goddammit, we forgot the silent prayer.

a little dancing

Passed along in email:

ending the love affair

Imbued with a capacity for cruelty and evil, people are likewise capable of amazing generosity and goodness.

Imbued with a capacity for generosity and goodness, people are likewise capable of astounding cruelty and evil.

This being the case, I see little recourse other than to end the love affair with "amazing" and "astounding" ...

And get to work.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tomas Young's letter to Bush, Cheney

Though it is over a year old, this last letter by a paralyzed Iraq war vet to former president George Bush and former vice-president Dick Cheney arrived here for the first time today. And as the United States gears up for yet another military involvement in that part of the world, I think it is as pointed and poignant a plea as I ever read. Here is Tomas Young's 2013 letter in toto:

To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
From: Tomas Young

I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. 

You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.
I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.
—Tomas Young

PS.  And for those with the stomach and patience, this video retrospective of the rise and institutionalization of a fear-based lifestyle, both in the U.S. and abroad, was passed along in email as well. Be warned, it is carefully wrought and depicts the lies-become-truth insistence of both those with a wider vision of 'goodness' and a wider vision of 'evil.' It's a three-part video and I have to admit I only watched one: It's really very good ... and it's also like willfully contracting a case of Malaria.

the corporate bullshit generator

Passed along in email:

For anyone who feels that their contributions to those endlessly earnest meetings have run out of appropriate steam, here is the life-saver you have been waiting for.

Wow your friends!

Crush your enemies!

Works in any setting where the topic is serious and the people are ... well, you know.

Useful for Tea Party regulars and communist wannabes, atheists and spiritual sales personnel, academics and survivalists!

Get yours today!

Scroll down: You can create your own out of an extensive list of words or you can ask for that a phrase be generated for you.

Is life sweet or what?!

a Samurai silly

Passed along in email:


Once upon a time, a powerful Emperor of the Rising Sun advertised for a new Chief Samurai.

After a year, only three applied for the job:  a Japanese, a Chinese, and a Jewish Samurai.

"Demonstrate your skills!" commanded the Emperor.
The Japanese Samurai stepped forward, opened a tiny box, and released a fly.  He drew his samurai sword & *Swish! * The fly fell to the floor, neatly divided in two!

"What a feat!" said the Emperor? "Number Two Samurai, show me what you do."

 The Chinese Samurai smiled confidently, stepped forward and opened a tiny box, releasing a fly. He drew his samurai sword & * Swish! * Swish!

 The fly fell to the floor neatly quartered. 
 "That is skill!" nodded the Emperor.  "How are you going to top that, Number three Samurai?"

 The Jewish Samurai, Obi-wan Cohen, stepped forward, opened a tiny box releasing one fly, drew his samurai sword and  *Swoooooosh! * Flourished his sword so mightily that a gust of wind blew through the room.  But the fly was still buzzing around!

In disappointment, the Emperor said,"What kind of skill is that?  The fly isn't even dead."

"DEAD?"  Replied the Jewish Samurai.  "Dead is easy". "But circumcised?"

beneath the skies

Tibetans throw praying papers on horseback as they gather for a traditional praying festival called "Wei Sang", in Hongyuan county of Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province June 18, 2014. The festival is usually held in every May or June, when Tibetans burn tree branches to create smoke and throw praying papers to wish for good fortunes and a better pasture season.
REUTERS/China Daily
A giant statue of actress Marilyn Monroe is seen at the dump site of a garbage collecting company in Guigang, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China June 18, 2014. The eight-meter-tall stainless steel statue, which weighs about eight tonnes, was made by several Chinese artists for over two years, based on the famous scene from her movie "The Seven Year Itch". The statue was transported to the garbage collecting company early this week for unknown reasons after being shown outside a business center in the city for only 6 months, local media reported.
REUTERS/China Daily

public persona, private life

At about 6:15, what I took to be a young woman walked down the sidewalk across the street. I could see her from my perch on the porch, walking with the attentive slowness of a drug addict, a meditator or a crazy person. What caught my attention was her turquoise cap which sang cheerfully in the thick silence of the coming day.

Her progress led her from north to south. She stopped here and there to touch the bushes that separated one house from another. Pause, touch, move on; pause, touch, move on.

As she passed my position, I glanced once more at her receding figure. She looked anorexic/ballet dancer thin in her uninteresting-plaid jacket and the tight jeans that accentuated her thinness. Once she had gotten past, I could see her from the rear -- the rear where the replica Monarch butterfly wings -- 18-24 inches in length -- were strapped between her shoulder blades.

Slowly, slowly, slowly she passed from view.

I weighed calling the cops, not because she seemed a danger to anyone else but rather because I was not sure that whatever planet she was on was entirely friendly to her own life and limb. In the end, I did not call.

Why is it -- if it is -- that people's private lives are so much more interesting than their public personas? Hours and hours and hours of effort and shaping go into what is acceptable or socially adroit or offers an entree into this group or that ... and all the while there is a private panorama kept carefully hidden at the back of some mental sock drawer. It's not necessarily violent or mean, though it may be that, but it's there, like unused butterfly wings -- a contradiction, perhaps, of all that is socially or personally acceptable ... wearing a turquoise hat in the darkness.

Maybe the question that I like to ask secretly of others is this: Of what privacy is your public display an example? I suppose I might equally ask it of myself, but it's safer to ask it of others. Who knows what the hell is at the back of my sock drawer?

Maybe one day the woman in the turquoise hat will take her wings off and fly.

Maybe I will.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

buy an iPad, poison a Chinaman

Passed along in email:

dog-eaters feast early

BEIJING (AP) — Residents in a southern Chinese city that has come under fire for an annual summer solstice festival in which thousands of dogs are slaughtered for food have held their feasts early to avoid attention....
The public uproar reflects the increasing affluence of ordinary Chinese, who keep pets, travel overseas and are changing attitudes toward traditions they may not have questioned before.

Australians for coal

Passed along in email:

where the prayers end, the peace begins

In the book "Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui [1089-1163]," Ta Hui writes approximately (haven't got what it takes to look it up) to one of his students: "I have always taken a great vow that I would rather suffer the fires of hell for all eternity than to portray Zen as a human emotion."

The sentiment, to the extent anyone might be willing to examine it, runs counter to quite a lot of what passes for Buddhism in today's world of spiritual endeavor. Implicitly and explicitly, human emotion plays a pretty strong role, however camouflaged it may be. To my mind, it's no big deal, but it is worth noting that Ta Hui was right.

Another way of saying, "I have always taken a great vow that I would rather suffer the fires of hell for all eternity than to portray Zen as a human emotion" is this:

Where the prayers end, the peace begins.

One of the steps in spiritual endeavor, I think, is to notice what the problem is -- to get a bead on the attachments and delusions and whatever all else seems to stand in the way of some smooth sailing. And once having gotten a bead, there is also a natural tendency to want to take the newly-acquired spiritual discipline and stamp out or cut off these wily interlopers.

No one who took up a spiritual discipline did so because s/he was so damned happy and with this in mind it is natural to think that if the wiles of ego and attachment and delusion are cut off, something more like happiness will result.

With the recently-acquired and well-imagined weapons of "compassion" and "clarity" (lotsa different names here), the effort is put in motion. Anyone who has tried this over an extended period of time knows that it amounts to a game of Whac-a-Mole ... delusions are endless and wily and sly and the game goes on and on and on and the sub-rosa search for an emotionally-satisfying happiness recedes with each new success.

As I say, I don't think it's a big deal, but I do think it may be instructive.

There is a difference between fighting the emissaries of darkness and noticing them. Fighting always elevates and gives substance to the enemy. Fighting unkindness and selfishness and whatever all else means, first, giving substance and power to what is opposed, and second, deciding to battle it. Welcome to Whac-A-Mole.

But just because the battle cannot be won does not mean there are no enemies. It just means that defeating them may require a more effective strategy. Soo ...

Where taking up sword and shield against the foe tends to prolong the war, noticing and keeping an eye on what is inimical is different. To watch anything is to give it the opportunity to disappear and watching the gnawing capacities of human life is no different. Just watch. Just notice. No improvements. No prayers. Just watch ... and see what happens.

Spiritual discipline is largely the discipline of patience and outflanking the Whac-A-Mole approach requires patience -- patience and a certain determination not to be swept up in the swirling seas of emotional satisfaction.

What happens when you just watch? Seriously, what happens? Does it mean you turn into an emotional zombie? I don't think so, but watch and find out. Does it mean you get your picture on some holy Hallmark calendar, halo carefully adjusted? I doubt it, but watch and find out. Does it mean you have to give up the joys of playing Whac-A-Mole? I doubt it, but watch and find out. Does it mean others will bless your name and kiss your feet or ass? I doubt it, but watch and find out.

Just watching makes up in effectiveness for what it lacks in soap-opera drama.

Or anyway that's my guess.

June column

The VA’s standing around army of patients

Nationwide, there is a great deal of hand-wringing about the delayed or denied services offered to American veterans. The VA hospital in Leeds is one such medical provider.
A recent chart in the Daily Hampshire Gazette showed there were an average 72 days of wait time to see a primary care doctor in Leeds; a 67-day wait to see a specialist; and a 28-day wait for mental-health care. Staff turnover, recruiting difficulties and increased patient load were cited as some of the reasons for malfunction.

A Merritt Hawkins 2014 study found that American civilians wait an average of 18.5 days for a doctor’s appointment. In Boston, the average wait for a family physician was 66 days, while the average wait for various specialists was 45.4 days.

When I compare the VA statistics with my own medical care, I am appalled. Over the years living in Northampton, I have been treated by excellent, adequate and lackadaisical physicians. Through it all, I have been fortunate to have some insurance coverage. But the need for my care was rarely more compelling than the need for care that a veteran might experience. As an American, I am mortified by my good fortune.

And I’m more embarrassed still that my country’s delivery and outcomes in medical care of its civilian population lags behind a longish list of other countries that spend far less and provide a professionalism any American might envy.

In 2012, Forbes magazine reported that med school students graduated with an average of $140,000 in debt. Primary care doctors, while shouldering the lion’s share of American medical treatment, are the least well-paid at $189,000 on average. Primary care physicians at the VA average about $177,500.
In addition to the financial burden, primary care physicians miss out on the prestige that comes with specialization. An orthopedic surgeon’s $519,000 or a cardiologist’s $512, 000 or urologist’s $461,000 average base salary comes with ... what shall we call it ... a prestigious set of brass buttons, perhaps.

And so, at a minimum, income plays role in why primary care doctors might steer clear of the VA.
But I imagine there is another factor as well.

War is not appendicitis.

Appendicitis is a dysfunction of the body — one that a physician might successfully treat. Like anyone else, a doctor would like to think that his or her healing skills might generate success after the body malfunctions.

When Mr. or Mrs. Jones gets better, it makes that $140,000 in debt worthwhile.
War and its wounds are not inflicted by nature. And the frustration of treating what is clearly a man-made choice — a choice that might equally have been left unchosen — can be both compelling and draining.

The wacky world depicted on television’s long-running series M*A*S*H was pretty funny by way of Korean War zaniness, but not funny at all by way of the grueling, grinding substance of operating on one wounded teenager or 20-something after another. Even on a comedy show, futility took its toll.

War, of course, has its excuses, some of them quite compelling. But few of them are compelling enough to buy into the ballooning pretext of government-approved violence — the undocumented claims of “terrorism” or the “terrorists” who “might” attack us. And so, perhaps, futility and insanity create a one-two punch and an unremitting downer.

But as a means of focusing a more serious attention on war, military involvements and the medical shortages at the VA, here is a small and ridiculous proposal.

Each time a politician votes for military venture or war or any action likely to promote an uptick in the need for body bags and prosthetic limbs and suicides and wrecked families, a $100 co-pay per doctor visit will be added to that politician’s medical insurance. Two such votes will cost $200, etc.
This add-on will likewise apply to all staffers employed by the politician.

And the president and his staff would not be exempt.

The resulting income, while not enormous by comparison to the need, may allow the VA that is left to cope with the fallout of such votes to sweeten the medical pot at its facilities.

Of course, it’s a ridiculous proposal. When was the last time you saw anyone who gave the orders shouldering a straightforward responsibility for the unpleasant consequences?

Of course it’s a ridiculous proposal.

But is it really any more ridiculous than the treatment being received by our veterans?

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday. He can be reached at

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

unlikely results

... And, in what may be thought of as the Pissing-Into-The-Wind Department:

-- Pope Francis has encouraged the super-rich and bankers to get some ethics.

-- "We Will Harass Men" is gaining a Twitter foothold in Egypt, a country, like many others in its neighborhood, that can treat women as chattel and worse. I particularly liked the suggestion that men were immoral for not wearing a veil.

missed your destination

Sometimes I think life's one, only-half-kidding instruction is this:



Monday, June 16, 2014


In the silence of the coming night,
There are fireflies to trumpet
And delight.
How noisy and magical!

university job opening draws swarm

The University of Alberta is seeking a new president. The job pays a minimum of $400,000 per year. With this in mind, a quasi-tongue-in-cheek group of four professors offered their collective services to fill the position. They noted that even if they split the president's salary four ways, each of them expected to receive a pay raise in academic times given to ballyhooing "austerity."

When I was growing up, this used to be called a "rat-fuck" -- a practical joke of considerable proportions. And yet, in this case, the professors are only partly giggling. The other part really wants to point out the bloat rampant in the upper levels of academia.

Here is both the application by the four professors and the university's solicitation for applicants.

Since the feisty four made their initial application, another 52 academics have joined the fray.

treasuring the enemy

Personally or socially, I wonder what things might be like if the habit were laid to rest, even if only for a little while -- treasuring our enemies.

Last night, I got around to watching the 2012 movie, "Zero Dark Thirty," the alleged tale of the search for and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden, one-time front man for Al Qaida, an organization the United States has loved to hate. I watched it based pretty much based on the fact that I had enjoyed director Kathryn Bigelow's earlier gritty tale, "The Hurt Locker."

But whereas "The Hurt Locker" (2008) told a very focused and nuanced tale of bomb disposal teams after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, "Zero Dark Thirty" seemed to be all over the lot as it adduced the bits and pieces of effort and intelligence that led up to the storming of a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was holed up. The movie's ending seemed to ask the question, "OK, you killed him. So what?"

But there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing before the actual attack: Aside from anything else, it was interesting to see the differences in attire: On the one side were nut-brown Middle-Eastern men with facial hair and sometimes robes; on the other were mostly-pink CIA and other U.S. operatives whom it was hard not to think of as paupers in Armani suits. Each was harming the other in a variety of grisly and often fatal ways.

Overwhelming a stated enemy is no small matter, especially when torture and death are involved, and "Zero Dark Thirty" relied on its viewers to concede the point -- an enemy is an enemy and enemies are a serious business. But I think it is a short step from such seriousness to a recognition (with luck) that if he is an enemy long enough, he becomes a treasured and reliable friend, a part of the raison d'ĂȘtre scenery.

Who would I be without my friends? Who would I be without my enemies?

In the practice of Buddhism, conversation sometimes parks its car in the "enlightenment" garage. There are hundreds of ways of referring to this ineffable realm, but all of them, when put to the test, assert in little letters and large that "enlightenment" is a good thing, something worth aspiring to and even, in some cases, something to "attain." As I say, this is all for conversational purposes, purposes of the practicing Buddhist's mind. Enlightenment is, in one sense, a good and loving and healing friend.

A couple of questions cross my conversational mind when it comes to "enlightenment," as it is referred to conversationally. 

1. There are those who claim to be seeking enlightenment and to assert that they are not yet enlightened. But how could anyone know they were not enlightened if they didn't know it from an enlightened point of view? And if they were already in possession of an enlightened point of view, why on earth would they be seeking what they already had?

2. Anyone who has lowered himself into the pool of Buddhist practice knows the feeling of being confronted by a host of difficulties. Attachment, delusion, ego, greed, anger, folly ... in little and in large and in a very intimate life, there are difficulties to confront. And the deeper the practice, the sharper the barbs can feel. How is anyone to end "suffering" when there is so much fertile soil? It seems endless and daunting and ... oh, hey! wait a minute -- isn't that what enlightenment is supposed to wipe off the map?! Isn't that what makes enlightenment special and desirable and fulfilling? Isn't freedom from such enemies -- or, more politely put, seeing into the nature of such difficulties -- the point of all this hard, hard work?

The trouble is that anything that is special presupposes something that is not special -- something that might be downright inimical. Being enlightened is one thing, being deluded is another. But the question has to be asked: If the enlightenment anyone seeks differentiates what is special and what is not, what is friend and what is foe, what sort of enlightenment could that possibly be? Hell, with that sort of enlightenment, you might as well open a church and pass the collection plate.

Treasuring enlightenment; treasuring delusion -- the two locked together in some intimate concoction that passes for practice. Yup -- I know my friends. Yup -- I know my enemies. Yup -- they inspire and encourage me to practice hard-harder-hardest. And into the bargain, I may get some Armani robes. The old-timers were right -- Buddhism really is a special practice, even when I grovel and play the humble and compassionate game. I love to love what I love. I love to hate what I hate. I know my friends and I know my foes. And to ice the cake, I can say, conversationally, that neither love nor hate enters, that I am beyond friends and enemies.

OK, treasuring friends. OK, treasuring enemies. If that's what it takes at the moment, then give it a whirl. Enlightenment good; delusion bad. OK, give it a whirl, whether within or without.

But practice anyway. Practice until the treasuring aspect dissolves. Treasuring friends. Treasuring enemies. Treasuring me. 

Practice and dissolve.

Practice and dissolve.

If all of it were in any way special, how could it possibly be special or worth the effort?

Yes, I know -- the robes are kool. But come on!