Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Origami Holiday Tree"

Passed along in email, the "Origami Holiday Tree" at New York's Natural History Museum:

no one remembers; no one forgets

Thin as a piece of toilet paper, the local newspaper arrived today stuffed with New Year's Eve recollections. "Stories that Endure" read one headline. "Pictures of the Year," said another. An applause-o-meter for 2014 and a lot of news organizations do it ... telling me what I have forgotten and perhaps would like to remember. Also, of course, a lot of news staff are off, so cut-and-pasting what is already on hand is easier than gathering news.

But the recollections have a strange flavor. Yes, there were high moments and low, but to say that they "endure" is to overstate the fact that I would hardly need a reminder about a story or event I actually did remember. "Endure" is congratulatory, but it rings hollow as well.

No one remembers anything accurately. True, there are scars or touchstones to mark past events. There is something that is brought forward, but the fact that it is brought forward means it is not remembered accurately. It has become a story and as such is, in one sense, as flaccid as a dead fish.

World War II forgets World War I.
"We will never forget," say some Jews of the Holocaust.
"It's as if it were happening all over again," says the veteran haunted by memories of combat.
"It was the happiest day of my life," say others of all sorts of circumstances.
"We laughed and laughed...."

But at the same time that no one remembers accurately, they also do not forget. There are scars and blue ribbons to mark the accomplishments and failures. Somehow, I am the sum of my lifetime -- a lifetime I cannot remember and cannot forget. In the congratulatory or derogatory recollection, there is a truth that is exemplified in the falsehood of remembrance.

If an example is needed, I always think of the pregnant woman giving birth yet again: In the midst of the current anguish, what woman doesn't think, "I will never, EVER, do this again!" It's too much, too painful, too wracking.

Until it's time to give birth anew.

No one remembers pain or pleasure accurately. How boring life might be if they did. No one remembers. No one forgets.

I'm not sure what to make of all this outside the fact that I think it is worth noticing and getting used to. Stories that "endure" do not really endure ... but it may be useful or fun to think they do because, after all, they do, somehow, endure.

I remember....

I forget....


I guess I should remember that I forget, if that seems memorable.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

give "meaning" a rest

Stupidity is no excuse, but what would it be like to give all these "meanings" a rest?

I can't think of a single example in my own life of "finding meaning" that didn't involve thinking well of myself.

As Sarah Palin might say, "How's that finding-meaning thingie workin' for you?"

Not that it's bad or naughty or something, but what would it be like to just give it a rest?

bogus but true?

Passed along in email today was this 'restrained' complaint from what is allegedly an 86-year-old woman to her oh-so-caring bank.

Strange how it is the small indignities and thefts that are more enraging than the worldwide thefts and other banking depredations.

Snopes seems to feel the complaint and others much like it are apocryphal ... but that doesn't detract from the feels-good/ineffectual blowing off of steam.

Monday, December 29, 2014


I am a fan of helping those in need, not just because it's sometimes called virtuous but because I consider it human ... to help ... no thanks required ... though sometimes it's nice to hear others say "thanks..." and there are those who cannot do a 'good deed' without insisting on applause.

Socially, "volunteering" has a good rep. So many are in need that volunteering is given a critical bye, sort of like mom and apple pie and sports.

An Associated Press story remarks that younger people -- those who are too dumb or too overwhelmed to pay much attention to the current events of their world -- are better at volunteering than their parents. Or at least a poll finds them willing to say volunteering is important.
Among six civic activities in the AP-GfK poll, volunteering is the only one that adults under 30 rated as highly as older people did.
And, as I say, I am a fan in general.

But I cannot help but notice that those willing to volunteer often provide so-called policy makers with an excuse not to address issues of the public good. A teacher who is forced to bring paper and pencils to a grade-school class allows "town fathers" to sidestep the taxation policies that public education requires: No one can hate you and not re-elect you if you don't make the hard choices ... eg. taxation.

Volunteers likewise cushion decision-makers from food or drug policies and staffing. Let the churches or the Boy Scouts do it. And if anyone needs instruction in the ability to sidestep hard choices -- and let others pick up the slack -- a quick look at the legislative record of the U.S. Congress may provide some insight.

It is human and humane to help out. The 'virtue' of it is hardly the point. But I see no reason not to question the free-ride volunteers can create for those who might reasonably take responsibility for the public good.


Perfection has no meaning.

It is simply perfect.

Imperfection is a myth... a useful one on occasion, perhaps, but a myth nonetheless.

Sorta like perfection.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

open secret

I wonder to what extent old age is a bit like an unmarried status.

Married/partnered people (especially those with children) know a secret that single people simply cannot know or be reliably told. It is a secret, which, when discussed among those who are married becomes an instantaneous bore. It is important, but the importance cannot be verbally transmitted.

And the secret is this: Life is more interesting than you are.

Everything isn't all about you... sort of. This is a no-joke revelation that is incredibly expensive and entirely worth the price because it is simply true and the delusion that preceded the revelation is, well, just another delusion, no big deal. Also, discussing this secret, as for example here or anywhere else, is about as interesting as eating wet cardboard. It's just what happens, so ... how about them Yankees?!

Old age, when discussed among the aging or aged, is likewise what might be called an open, boring secret. Passing wisdom along is bullshit, though gossip is fun.

No elderly person could transmit to a younger one the slipping-away loss of "belongingness" that comes with the loss of muscle mass or health. Trying to do so boils down to whining and succeeding, as among peers, is once again a matter of eating wet cardboard.

Strange how secrets are not so secret at all and yet remain deeply secret.

weird animal tales

On the same day (today) that the United States and NATO ended their formal military roles in Afghanistan after 13 years (let's see ... unless I've got it wrong, that's Britain, Russia and now the U.S. who left Afghanistan without accomplishing much by way of "improvement"), Reuters is running a story about the most unusual animal behavior in 2014.

Animals and crime are easy news stories and you can see why the media might prefer not to dig in and dig deep when it comes to "animal" behavior like that of homo sapiens. Human beings defy a settled explication. Other animals don't talk back.

Truth to tell, it's something of a relief to read about animals other than human beings. Animal tales seem to take the dreary weight off the drumbeat of half-reported human news ... animals are so cute and so weird, and so 'comprehensible,' right?
(Reuters) - It was the year of the family pet behaving badly: A dog got sick from eating dozens of socks and a puppy took the rap for driving the family car into a pond. Angry cats held their owners hostage on at least two occasions.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

abuse of Buddhist power

Passed along in email was a copy of the latest Buddhadharma Quarterly cover article "Confronting Abuse of Power." Participants in the "forum" offered as framework for the topic were/are: Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat, Hozan Alan Senauke, Lama Palden Drolma and David Whitehorn.

No doubt someone will find it informative and be willing to pay the freight to read it. I won't -- not even for free.

Like a lot of such 'concerned' Buddhist articles, it's a bit like reading Israel's latest press release about one of their rocket attacks on Palestinians: One point of view is apparently enough when engaging the subject ... what the Palestinians say is irrelevant in the spotlight of righteous and rightful indignation: Not one victim of Buddhist power abuse seems worthy of being included in this concerned forum.

"We care," the title topic implies, but not enough to include anyone who was victimized. We'll be happy to take the additional sales that are likely to evolve from the topic. We'll be happy to be known as fair-minded and caring Buddhists ... but we will steer clear of the painful core: The victims may be lying after all and we wouldn't like to open ourselves to a lawsuit. We prefer to admit the situation exists and ask the talking heads for their viewpoints within the wondrous construct called Buddhism ... but we will refrain from anything like a gritty compassion.

It is a bit like putting a very pretty bandage on a very large shrapnel wound together with the warning, "let's not get the bandage dirty."

Strange to see -- or maybe not -- institutions and their minions doing what individuals do in tight situations ... excuse their lapses based on sincerity when sincerity that is complicit in some heavy bleeding hardly matters much. Honesty goes begging but ...

"We can only do our best," the snivelers assert.

No one says "bullshit!" because that's not a nice word.

But someone's bound to swallow it, I guess.

"The New Robber Barons"

Nothing surprising, but well-done, I thought ... and a good indicator of why, in the end, blood will flow:

Friday, December 26, 2014

spiritual blues

To the extent that that spiritual professionals -- those whose livelihoods rely on spiritual hues -- become lonely or secretly depressed or obnoxiously insistent, I wonder if the single most useful antidote would simply be this:

Stop imagining you could help.

30,000 diamonds

The sparkly chunk was pulled from Russia's huge Udachnaya diamond mine and donated to science (the diamonds' tiny size means they're worthless as gems). It was a lucky break for researchers, because the diamond-rich rock is a rare find in many ways, scientists reported Dec. 15 at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting.

dukkha and enlightenment

Elsewhere, someone wrote, "Dukkha (the uncertainty or unsatisfactoriness or sorrow that can invest or nag at anyone's life and is called "dukkha" by Buddhists) sucks."

Dukkha sucks.

And although I will stand four-square with the choir that echoes "Amen!" still the quite serious question comes to mind:

Which sucks worse -- dukkha or enlightenment?


And for fun.


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Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Terere Obande" African chorus

Part of the sound track of "The Interpreter," a pretty good whodunit/action flick/romance from 2005. The song is called "Terere Obande," I've liked it before and liked it again today after rewatching the movie. Posted for the music, not the (unrelated to the movie) pix accompanying it.

soma cocktail

The leaders of two of the most powerful countries on earth, Russia and the United States, have bestowed yet more unending blessings on their respective constituencies:

-- In Russia, President Vladimir Putin appears to have put his foot down and order that the price of vodka be held in check. It's hard economic times in Russia at the moment and Aldous Huxley was not just whistling Dixie when he reconfigured the drug "soma" in "Brave New World."

-- Meanwhile, the United States is planning to increase the potency of its favored soma, fear and terror, as it gears up to send more military "contractors" (they used to be called "mercenaries") to Iraq ... a venue the United States planned to withdraw from eight or ten months ago. Sending contractors boosts American industry (patriotism flowers) and frees people like former Vice President Dick Cheney to expound American exceptionalism without getting blood on his family doormat. If my children are not being killed and maimed, it can't be that bad, right?

I wonder if Americans will ever decide that death really is not the worst thing that could happen.

Not before Cheney and his 'patriotic' ilk have made a 'coincidental' fortune is my bet.


A misty-moisty Christmas morning.

No snow, but my Christian neighbor across the street, Joe, left his Christmas lights on through the night and into the day of his preferred brightness.

I followed suit and replugged mine in during this not-yet dawn.

It's nice to mark a moment of kindness from time to time.

Is it contrived or is it real? Does it really matter?

At the moment, I think it does not.

The light is nice.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Aside from the murder mystery itself which hovers someplace between soap opera and police procedural, I think what hooks me on the BBC TV serial "Broadchurch" is simply the faces of the actors ... that, and the fact that they seem able to act.

But I have always been a sucker for faces in their gross and minuscule realignments, their tales told in nanoseconds ... or rather, my imagining of tales told. American actors and actresses and plots so often flat-line into beauty or glamour or pyrotechnics ... I don't wonder at the ruined, truncated lives that peek out of Hollywood. I do wonder if the suicide rate is quite so high in England.

Anyway, I was sucked along by "Broadchurch" last night, watching two or three or four episodes in a row, as much as anything by the faces of those who depicted the tale of a dead 11-year-old boy and whodunnit. The setting is a seaside town inhabited by the kind of people on whom "Downton Abbey" makes its living. I can't watch "Downton Abbey" any more: The seduction is too obvious and the pretense too quietly galling.

For all that, the faces of "Broadchurch" have a British (or is it simply human?) insistence on keeping things under wraps ... until, as is life's wont, the wraps come off, whether by accident or because the well-tailored wraps invariably bind like a hangman's noose.

Occasionally, "Broadchurch" strays into a land of soap opera, injecting one more quirk of character or revelation because things have gotten a bit slow, but generally the faces carry it and the plot is conceivable if not always entirely credible. My mother once said that when she hit a roadblock in writing fiction, she would relight the momentum by "killing another character."

To call "Broadchurch" a tale of an "ordinary" town with "ordinary" inhabitants is to go to the heart of what the hell "ordinary" actually does or can mean. In one sense, everyone is ordinary as salt. On the other, salt has a magnetic savor. Are all people and events equally interesting or important? Only an idealistic teenager might say so. I choose my points of impact and importance and you pick yours.

For example, I pick faces. I hardly know what tale is told in those faces, but a face without mystery or glamor is a face worth seeing ... how does that work ... that ordinary-ness that bulges with an unfeigned originality that may or may not be feigned? ... or, likewise, be boring as wet cardboard outside another Hollywood mansion?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

pope ... cruisin' for a bruisin'

Francis issued a blistering indictment of the Vatican bureaucracy Monday, accusing the cardinals, bishops and priests who serve him of using their Vatican careers to grab power and wealth, of living "hypocritical" double lives and forgetting that they're supposed to be joyful men of God.
It may or may not be a mark of my ignorance, but it is hard not to think of the wondrous and intricate means of assassination the Vatican has been privy to during its long career.


Wikipedia, the much-used and somewhat fragile Internet repository of encyclopedic knowledge, takes a partial swing at "exceptionalism" as follows:
Exceptionalism can represent an error analogous to historicism in assuming that only peculiarities are relevant to analysis, while overlooking meaningful comparisons. "[W]hat is seemingly exceptional in one country may be found in other countries."[7] As indigenous peoples explore their respective cultural heritages, their seeking to be separately classified or newly-understood may be a form of exceptionalism.[8]In ideologically-driven debates, a group may assert exceptionalism, with or without the term, in order to exaggerate the appearance of difference, perhaps to create an atmosphere permissive of a wider latitude of action, and to avoid recognition of similarities that would reduce perceived justifications. If unwarranted, this represents an example of special pleading, a form of spurious argumentation that ignores relevant bases for meaningful comparison. [Italics added]
I guess what brought this to mind was a BBC story about a German who, alone among all other journalists, spent six days with Islamic State adherents in Mosul, Iraq, and then reported his assessments to the BBC. Among other things, Juergen Todenhoefer noted:
[He] said he found IS followers highly motivated and supportive of the group's brutality....
"They are so confident, so sure of themselves. At the beginning of this year, few people knew of IS. But now they have conquered an area the size of the UK. This is a one per cent movement with the power of a nuclear bomb or a tsunami."...
Fear, said Mr Todenhoefer, appeared to be an extremely powerful deterrent....
He said he reminded the fighters that most chapters of the Koran began with the words "Allah... most merciful".
"I asked: Where is the mercy? I never got the real answer."
Islamic State seems to be a pretty frightening entity, whether from within or without. Frightening and magnetic. It makes me think of other entities
that have laid forceful claim to an exceptionalism ... Japan invading China in 1937; Hitler invading Poland in 1939; the U.S. 'pacifying' the American Indians or the Philippines ... pick your exceptionalist poison.

But the wider, exceptionalist political scene, for all the huzzahs and lamentations it may cause, seems endless and irremediable outside of letting one bloodbath or another run its course.

Still the same is not always true for the individual who has the capacity to investigate and rein in in a personal life what public and political life simply cannot seem to refrain from. It is dangerous and difficult and sometimes unutterably lonely, but the exceptionalism all of us may enjoy laying claim to from time to time deserves a careful care. True, perhaps, that I am the finest thing since sliced bread, but how exceptional is sliced bread? And, while effective in one sense, how well/peacefully does a lifestyle based in fear work?

The willingness to take on the exceptionalism in a wider world is fine. But the willingness to take on the exceptionalism in the bathroom mirror is probably more concretely productive.

It's just the best course I can think of.

Monday, December 22, 2014

home health workers rescrewed

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A federal judge has struck down Labor Department regulations extending minimum wage and overtime pay to nearly 2 million home health care workers.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon says the rules conflict with federal law that has long exempted providers of in-home care for the elderly and disabled from complying with wage laws.
President Barack Obama announced the rules in 2011 as part of his effort to boost the economy and help workers without going through Congress. They were set to take effect next year.
But home care industry groups sued, arguing the higher wages would make it tougher for families to afford care for aging parents.
Worker advocacy groups that lobbied for higher pay say many home care workers live at or below the poverty level.

"Prelude" to what?

-- It appeared several days ago, but I saw it first today ... a story about the really, really, really, really, REALLY big ship, the "Prelude." For the moment, it seems to be the biggest.

-- The BBC is running a story entitled "Will Religion Ever Disappear?" ... a red herring question if ever I heard one. How could it disappear as long as there are those to say it will or won't?

-- In a context of inquiring-minds-want-to-know, there seems to be a deftly scientific parsing of the question, "Why Do We Fart More on Planes?"

... not for the faint of heart.

And, perhaps associatively,

Sunday, December 21, 2014

'freedom of the press'

An AP article about independent journalism in Russia points out:
During Putin's 15 years in office, the Russian television landscape has been sanitized to the point where news coverage on all channels is almost identical. State channels toe the Kremlin line and private channels, most of which are owned by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs or state-controlled conglomerates like Gazprom, are just as obedient.
The next time some talking head in the U.S. begins waxing poetic about "freedom of the press," I think it would be wise to note how much America emulates Russia and perhaps, in the end, Mr. Goebbels' Germany. Think twice if you think this is an extreme observation.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas wishes

No doubt I have forgotten a lot of people I might prefer to remember when sending out Christmas wishes. Chalk it up to a Swiss cheese mind. But for all that, I would like to send warm wishes to one and all.

wubba wubba morning

Christmas time and a time for giving, sort of.

Yesterday, I took a longer walk than usual. It was raw and cold and I was half-heartedly looking for Christmas trinkets to give. I didn't find any, but I was exhausted when I got home.

An email asked me to reiterate/reconfirm data I had provided for a list of local Buddhist organizations. I replied with a request to take my info off the list... a gift of sorts. There are plenty of good-hearted people and organizations holding out morsels of imagined perfection. It's not mean-spirited most of the time, but it is tiring. When did perfection ever accomplish anything ... anything other than leading to the question, "when did perfection ever accomplish anything?" ... a nice little gift.

My walk tired me and I lay down for a little. When I awoke, it was dark and I was convinced it was not late afternoon, but rather morning and time to get up. It took a while to straighten out that misperception.

Disconcerted habits. A gift of sorts. I suppose that habits are OK to the extent that they mitigate harm, but otherwise ... well maybe being unhabituated is the most useful track.

A bit of wubba-wubba this morning, but it is consoling to know that someone, somewhere is doing or thinking something important ... wubba wubba.

Friday, December 19, 2014

don't be me; learn from me

I guess everyone has his or her touchstones for learning. They are not the same from one to the next, necessarily, but the learning is enriched.

Once upon a time, for example, I used to read swaths of books about spiritual life -- first Hinduism and later Buddhism. The books formed a warming coal under my ass and inspired me to practice what I claimed to believe.

Nowadays, inspiration seems to come from anywhere -- including a recent episode of "NCIS" -- a police series on TV here in America. In the snippet that caught my attention, the central character is instructing one of his investigative team members. The younger man is uncertain and expresses his desire to be like his boss. The boss' tone of voice grows sharp as he metaphorically bitch-slaps the younger man: "Don't be me," he fairly snarls. "Learn from me."

How many would like to be Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed or whatever other expositor of an adopted faith? "What would Jesus do?" or "What would Buddha think?" or "What did Mohammed prescribe?" The idea behind such questions is often to be as much like the teacher as possible.

It's a phase, I think, but it is a phase worth outgrowing.

Every (wo)man is a church of one. Spiritual life demands that its adherents outgrow the understandable desire to be as good or strong or compassionate as what is imputed to the hero of the current scene.

But there is a difference between trying to be something else and learning from something else. Practice builds the muscles that allow the wishful thinking to disperse and the practical learning to take root.

Individuals are individuals ... how scrumptious is that?! They weave in and out of similar realms. They goof and find success in ways that may seem similar. But the preachments of similarity, like the preachments of difference, are just preachments.

Don't be me.

Learn from me.

And I will try to do the same.

freedom of imagination ... what imagination?

A variety of high-dudgeon critiques have been leveled against Sony for pulling "The Interview" from release before it was even released. The alleged send-up of a fictitious assassination of North Korean President Kim Jong-Un seems to have inspired Internet hackers to assault Sony's private files and out the company in various ways. At the moment, North Korea is getting blamed for the hacking.

Actors, directors and other imaginative types has spoken up loudly for the importance of freedom of expression and imagination. The lamentations can be heard right around the globe ... it's the principle that counts, right?

And yes it is.

But also, does anyone wonder at the uses to which the 'imaginative types' put freedom of expression into action? Insiders seem to feel that "The Interview" was a flop before it ever got out of the starting gate. It has now ascended to a laureled height -- not because it was shown, but because it was not. Can anyone name five recent movies that showed an imaginative bent that pushed the boundaries of freedom of expression?

OK -- the right to express stupid shit is part and parcel and the panorama of freedom of expression. But it is interesting that those who yowl most loudly have hardly proven their substance where the right to freedom of expression went unchallenged. Given the freedom they now claim to champion, what have these defenders of the faith produced? Money-makers, no doubt, but exemplars of freedom of expression? I doubt it.

The current situation reminds me of Mark Twain when he wrote to the Boston Public Library and thanked the institution for banning one of his books: The author was sure the ban would produce another 5,000 copies in sales.

In a certain sense, it is not the freedom that puts a burr under anyone's saddle. Rather it is the suggestion that someone might remove or truncate a freedom that is seldom if ever exercised. Without the assault on such an imagined freedom, there is a tendency to produce 'imaginative' products that have all the freedom of the Flat Earth Society, the creationist cartel, or the Department of Homeland Security.

I too will stand up for freedom of expression. But that doesn't mean I have to be convinced by what others depict that freedom as being. Whining isn't substance and bullshit is bullshit, no matter how free.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

blue sky and the maw of mediocrity

Skitter-skattering mind lays out a tray of hors oeuvres:

-- In spiritual life, there is always one more thing to forget. It may sound cruel or difficult or frightening, but I have a hunch it is pretty simple: There is just one more thing to forget.

-- The longing to be good and kind and understanding, especially when collected together with a similar longing in others, requires a bit of steel. Without personal responsibility, mediocrity and cruelty are bound to have their say and make a mockery of goodness, kindness, and understanding. This is no fucking joke.
A New Zealander and two Burmese men have gone on trial in Myanmar on charges of insulting Buddhism.
The trio, who run a bar in Yangon, are accused over a flyer promoting a drinks event depicting Buddha with headphones.
The image triggered an angry response online shortly after it appeared on the bar's Facebook page.
Burmese law makes it illegal to insult or damage any religion. Myanmar, also known as Burma, has also seen growing Buddhist nationalism.

In the United States and elsewhere,
(Reuters) - Sony Pictures has canceled the release of a comedy on the fictional assassination of North Korea's leader, in what appears to be an unprecedented victory for Pyongyang and its abilities to wage cyber-warfare.
Hackers who said they were incensed by the film attacked Sony Corp (6758.T) last month, leaking documents that drew global headlines and distributing unreleased films on the Internet.
No one gets to insult the great leader, Gautama (the Buddha)! No one gets to laugh at the celestial heights imagined for North Korean president Kim Jong-Un. The beneficence and decency of these men and what they represent to some is beyond reproach and deserves to be observed by all.

It is comforting to be part of a group that has its ducks lined up, its philosophies chiseled out, its deviations decried. And what is true socially is likewise true in the mind. The goodness is extolled and the potential for corruption is dismissed or worse. How many times has any Buddhist heard someone say they must "defend the Dharma?"

This hard-headed appreciation of what is loved is par for the course as far as I can see. With luck, the blood-letting of goodness will be minimized. But what interests me is the personal willingness to shoulder the responsibility that goes with what is praised. What is praised is often wide as the sky and yet treated as if it were narrow as the eye of a needle.

Who will take the responsibility for the very simple observation that people (and this assuredly includes me) fuck up. They may do so on behalf of goodness and they may do so on behalf of evil. Either way, they fuck up.

Without taking responsibility for the errors that arise, how is anyone to sift out the miraculousness of any personal or social goodness? Where the arms might spread wide, how fruitful is living within the confines of narrowed definitions and rules?

It may be tricky and it may be hard, but I simply cannot think of another more appropriate encouragement than that from Gautama: "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." This is not a call for mindless, mediocre self-centeredness. It points to what anyone can actually do anything about when it comes to the feeling that mediocrity is not enough.

Agreements with others are pleasant.

But when will a (wo)man see fit to agree with her- or himself?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

the Cheney-Taliban approach

Hurrah for former U.S. Vice-president Dick Cheney, who has parried suggestions that American torture of suspected 'terrorists' (even when innocent) was warranted.

In a bit of irony that is as toxic as it is apostate, this beacon of American exceptionalism has taken a stance that is almost perfectly aligned with the Pakistani Taliban Cheney might claim to abhor ... you know, the group that attacked a school on Tuesday and killed 148 people, most of them children.

Both Cheney and the Taliban, of course, proclaim a true vision which, when it is not shared, deserves to be reiterated through cruelty. It's the principle, dontcha know. If you can't or don't or won't share the Cheney/Taliban true-truth, you are not only stupid and unrealistic, you deserve to be punished. This confection of philosophy is wrapped up in patriotic bows and relies on creating a climate of fear among the populace. And it is in this arena that Cheney, if not the Taliban, is winning. People are willing to be afraid and blame someone else for their fears and torture them out of existence.

Cheney and the Taliban are winning. America loves a winner.


PS. One small example of the inexorable march towards a mediocre lifestyle may be seen in the unwillingness of movie theaters to show Sony's send-up of a plot to assassinate North Korean President Kim Jong- Un. Hackers broke into Sony's computer info and threatened to wreak havoc on the company if the movie were shown. Imagination is not appreciated by dictatorships like North Korea's, from which other countries (U.S., eg?) can learn ever so much..

the end of the Dalai Lama

In a wide-ranging interview with the BBC's Newsnight programme, the 79-year-old spiritual leader conceded that he may not have a successor....
"The Dalai Lama institution will cease one day. These man-made institutions will cease," the Dalai Lama told the BBC.
"There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won't come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama."
I wonder how many will hear such words and dismiss them as mere posturing and immodest modesty. I am inclined to take him at his word ... institutions, however good, have no real staying power. How many spiritual institutions would have the kindness to express such a truth? What good is spiritual life if the best anyone can do is "spiritual life?"

At the same time that I think he is speaking to a real truth, I can't deny that I would miss his playful, honest and no-doubt-manipulative spirit. A kind man is a wonderful thing.

Palestinian dissent ... Israeli/U.S. echoes?

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Two-thirds of Palestinians say they are afraid to criticize Mahmoud Abbas, according to a poll, and some of the Palestinian president's recent actions only seem to confirm claims that dissent comes at a price....
Critics say that after a decade in power, Abbas is overseeing a largely authoritarian system with shrinking room for dissent — a claim denied by Abbas supporters who say Palestinians enjoy more political freedoms than most in the Arab world.
I wonder if and whether a similarly-themed story could/would ever be written about Israel (or possibly the United States) and appear in the American press.

December newspaper column

A bit gaudy and conformist, but it's what I could muster for a monthly column.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014 
(Published in print: Wednesday, December 17, 2014)
The traditions, like the lights, eddy and swirl, but among them is a recollection that makes me wince almost 50 years after the fact.

In 1967, I signed on to a three-week tour of the Soviet Union. After reading something like 200 books about the Russian Revolution, the adventure had a certain logic. Russia, in 1967, was anathema to the United States, much as the Islamic State is today: Without an enemy, America would be somehow diminished, somehow less mighty and good. Enemies nourished a sense of self-esteem. Russia was the enemy du jour. I wanted to meet my much-maligned enemy.

Even before the tour group boarded our plane for the 17-hour flight, tour participants were treated to a class in Russian history and culture — a kind of quickie cheat sheet of do’s and don’t’s for first-time visitors. The factoid that stuck with me was the depiction of Russians as people who had a DNA-deep revulsion about giving any sort of gift that was not given in complete openness and love: The Russians, we were told, did not give gifts the way many Americans celebrated Christmas — giving because they ought to.

Eleven days of the tour were given over to sailing down the Volga River on the Prince Yuri Dolgoruki. The ship would dock periodically so that we might get off and sight-see some historical or cultural landmark. 

But one morning, I came on deck to find the ship tied up to a rickety dock surrounded by nothing but green grass leading off into nearby hills. This was, it seemed, to be a day of tourist respite — doing nothing but a bit of hiking and swimming.

I walked into the hills, inspected a small village composed of Lincoln-log houses, and was on my way back when I ran into five boys, aged about 10 to 12. They looked as playful and full of sass as any boys of that age. We approached each other with an equal curiosity and said some awkward hello’s since neither of us was much good at the other’s language.

And after a bit of distant but friendly silence, I motioned for them to sit on the grass. From my pocket, I withdrew a handful of change — a mixture of American and Russian coins. One by one, I placed coins of about equal value side by side — an American 50-cent piece and a 50-kopek coin; a 25-cent and 25-kopek piece; and so on down to a penny and a one-kopek coin. When I was finished and I could see that they had absorbed what I was saying, I gave each of the boys one American coin.
They looked pleased and I got up to return to the boat.

But about halfway to my destination, I heard a voice calling me from behind. One of the boys came forward shyly and held out his two hands, across which lay a 16-inch bit of twisted black and white twine. Each end was adorned with a black and white tassel.

It was clear he wanted me to take it.

It was equally clear that it was one of his prize possessions — a possession that reached down into his heart. He loved it, but more than loving it, something in him knew that giving what he loved was the way of the world. My gift was 91 cents. His was priceless ... and he didn’t have to think twice before parting with it.

I didn’t want to take the string. I didn’t want to deprive him. I didn’t want to be ashamed of the carelessness with which I had given my gift. And...
I could not refuse his gift. I could not not take it.

I took the string and said thank you. I tried to look calm, but inside I was seething with a desire to take back my past, to reshape it and infuse my gift with more honesty. I wanted to honor my heart as he had honored his own. At the time, I wasn’t up to the task. 

Having given his gift, the boy smiled with delight and scampered away to be with his friends: He had not lost anything; he had not gained anything. He had given and that was the way of the world and a joy. He knew it without any starch-collar instruction — as surely as a mosquito bite itches.

Tradition is nice but common sense is better: The gift is the giving, not the gift.

For years, I kept that string. In the midst of my accumulating of stuff, I always knew just where it was. But I never solved the loss of an opportunity to do as well as what that small boy had done without effort.

And then one day the string was lost. How and where I really don’t know. But it lingers in my mind at times like Christmas, stinging gently, its pedestrian message ever fresh: Give and be happy; receive and be happy.

Be happy.

There’s no time like the present.

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

time-lapse at Yosemite

Passed along in email: A 200+ mile backpacking experience through Yosemite National Park captured by Colin Delehanty and Sheldon Neill. This project was filmed over the course of 10 months. We spent a combined 45 days in the park capturing the images in this video. Published on Feb 27, 2014.

governed by laws

The best that can be said for a country 'governed' by laws is that it is an improvement on the alternative.

I first got some sense of this when, as a young reporter, I covered police and courts ... the starting point that a lot of reporters used to begin with.

Police was and remains an easy sell: "If it bleeds, it leads" expressed the yearnings of the civilized to seek out an often-uncivilized underbelly of their own human nature. Being naughty has a lot of allure.

But it was in the court that I began to sense what I think is true: Any social attempt to codify and guide human behavior is bound to fail: Human nature is more interesting than anything that could be found in a book.

Perhaps "fail" is too strong a word. Laws can really be quite good. But they cannot be "complete," cannot cover all the permutations of, say, a murder or robbery. Circumstances eddy and swirl in any given situation and so the crime invariably offers differing dollops of delight or distaste.

The crimes of the judicial system are not difficult to find: Just ask anyone in the business. But the alternative of anarchic and tribal decision-making happens to be less introspective and more capricious. And my guess is it is this compromised and compromising attitude that leads people to applaud a "country governed by laws."

And the same is true for individuals trying to guide and make sense of their own lives: Some applause may be warranted, but not as much as is sometimes applied.

Russia ... too big to fail?

Too big to fail?
OK -- I understand the English words, but I don't honestly understand the links between action taken and ends desired:
Russia's rouble has slipped back near its all-time low despite a dramatic interest rate rise by its central bank.
It increased rates to 17% from 10.5% in an attempt to boost the currency's value against the dollar.
The rouble has lost almost 50% against the US dollar this year as falling oil prices and Western sanctions continue to weigh on the country's economy.
I know that American neocon princelings like Dick Cheney love to chortle and preen when the enemies of the country that prints money and morality at their behest suffer a setback.

But I also wonder at what point our enemies' difficulties have the same effect as those experienced by our friends. In this instance, for example, at what point, if any, does Russia's financial plight have the same effect as the past difficulties of a Goldman Sachs and the U.S. is forced to address the 'fact' that Russia is "too big to fail?"

Wallowing in victory can only suffice for so long before the negative effects become apparent.

Monday, December 15, 2014

writing neurosis ... again

Woke at 2:30 and was immediately aware that I wanted to get rid of the newspaper column due for publication two days hence. It was a grinding sense: I had already rewritten it three times; it was still too damned long; and I was not at all sure that the argument I wanted to make hung together. I had reached the fuck-it zone.

When I was asked to write a monthly column, I had been flattered and was convinced that I could write such a thing as easily as falling out of bed: I had opinions up the ying-yang and was anxious to spread my imagined wisdom about ... well, pick a topic.

But nowadays, I find myself reclining in less insistent realms -- mostly in the recollections of an old fart. Those now-ancient lessons or observations or experiences are much more inviting than the rants ... even the rants I might rant about ... the Vatican, the militarization of my country, the hypocrisies and depredations that dot the social landscape, the advance of drones or whatever.

Instead, I feel like a bird settled on its eggs, warming them though they may never produce a chick. It's all I honestly have and so, though I sometimes despair of this backward-focused way of being, still, it is the being that fits me like warms socks. Social outrage is a very good thing in its time, but it takes a lot of energy and the likelihood that its targets will be more than mildly bruised.

I am picky about writing a column -- picky in ways that I seldom if ever apply to this blog. No doubt my slovenly approach shows through on the blog, but I forgive myself: No one takes a blog that seriously. A quick and even misspelled hit is OK on a barf-mobile blog. Rewriting, rephrasing, replacing ... forgetaboutit. One and done. By this time tomorrow, who will give a shit?

But the column is for public consumption. I feel that there is some undelineated bar to meet. Phrasing, length, choice of words ... it's homework and I drop back into some getting-an-A mode. It should be interesting but of course "interesting" is a subjective matter... even as some dictator or philosopher insists it should be universal.

Well ... I shipped it off in email a few minutes ago ... "The Expense of a 91-cent Gift." I'll now leave it to the editor to make what changes he thinks necessary ... as long as they agree with me, of course.

Funny how the old stuff -- in my case writing -- can't die a peaceful death but insists on coming around to bite you on the ass.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

the most courageous (wo)man

Maybe the most courageous (wo)man is the one who can live without enemies.

Enemies are so delicious.

warming tales

Along the news wires, occasional warming stories of success spice up a drum beat of death and destruction ... the flubs that so many work so hard to put a dignified face on... you know, the ones in which tragedy is good and the more people believe that, the more the perpetrators are given permission to commit further 'worthwhile' atrocities.

Anyway, the warming tales are welcome since a constant diet of agitation and propaganda causes rickets of the mind.

The warming tales are so compelling that their failure, when it occurs, is seldom mentioned.

In Amsterdam, an amorous suitor rented a crane and planned to knock on his would-be wife's window on Saturday, play her a song and pop the question in style. "Instead the crane toppled over, smashing a large hole in the neighbor's roof."

The girl said yes -- why else run a heart warming story -- and the two went off to Paris to celebrate, but the crane crushed other structures in the subsequent efforts to straighten it out.

A warming story to be sure and thankfully no one was hurt, but it does seem that warming stories -- like bloody ones -- leave out the clumsy or ravaged tale that can easily follow in their wake.

Perhaps the "and they all lived happily ever after" is so tightly woven in the DNA of a self-serving humanity that the naughty or confused bits are shuttled to the back row of any tale.

Who, in the specific case, is paying for the damage inflicted in order to spin this warming, marital tale?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

lord, make me the person.

If I had to pick a prayer that sidestepped the religious treacle that can drip from such entreaties ... something that nonetheless spoke the honest language of love and yearning, it would probably be this:
Lord, make me the person my dog thinks I am!
Yes, it's funny, but that doesn't mean it's not serious.

The brow-furrowers of spiritual pastimes may see this prayer as silly or childish or insulting to one profound religion or another, but my own leaning is to encourage anyone prone to spiritual interest to get down to brass tacks as soon as possible.

It does not matter whether those brass tacks are twisted or juvenile or miles off the track ... as long as others are not made to suffer: For my money, spiritual life always means your spiritual life and finding the courage to be honest about it is about the only way I can think of to find a usefulness that is not laden with diversions and gimcrack... that opens the heart that longs to be opened. Don't worry, your dog won't sell you out.

Today, a friend sent along an article about Pope Francis' saying that dogs were perfectly welcome in heaven. You know the shit will hit the fan on that one but a spiritual adventure in which the shit doesn't hit the fan can hardly be called a spiritual adventure.

Many people love their pets. In some cases it is instinctive. In some cases it is a fine way to steer clear of human beings who can be messy and contradictory and ... well, you know. In some cases it is an avenue on which to nourish a love and reciprocity that is ineffable. It doesn't really matter if it's "right" or "wrong" -- what matters is that it is true and whether that wide-open truth can form a starting point for a happier and less-beleaguered life.

Loving a pet is like loving a piece of music -- it opens out in all directions and fills the sky. It is utterly quiet and yet thundering in its effect.

The drawback is not so much whether animals have "souls," but rather how much damage to others can be kept in check. Such a love may be psychologically twisted or right on target: Each works that out on his or her own time and to the extent that no one else is harmed, I think it is important to say "yes" to such a love, such an openness, such a gob-stopping certainty. Saying no to such a love merely encourages what it seeks to expunge. So, for my money, it is best to say "yes" and be very careful not to shove it down anyone else's throat.

Yup -- if I had a dog, I can well imagine being swept off my feet ... enfolded in a tail-wagging world that leaves Vatican and mosque and temple in the shade. How this works, I have no clue, but I am comfortable for my own purposes to say it does work and that it is worth my soul, by whatever definition, to embrace what cannot be embraced.

Strange to think how unconcerned my dog might be with any of this. Her tail wags, his tongue is wet against my cheek ... everything between us is instantaneous and clear because, I suspect, there really is no "between" between us and saying so neither improves nor diminishes the truth.

My dog knows all this, I imagine, and there comes a time when I simply have to throw caution to the winds and just know what neither of us could possibly "know."

Perhaps I will deify my dog for a while. The dog doesn't mind, but his or her presence does pose an increasingly insistent question: Whose tail-thumping deity is this and do I have the courage to stop making a federal case out of it?

Imperfectly remembered, the Baal Shem Tov was once said to have been deeply impressed by a shepherd's prayer:

Dear lord,
Though I keep others' sheep
For money,
For you I would keep them for free
Because I love you.

Friday, December 12, 2014

anything you want

This afternoon, I got an email from my sister, Revan. It said:
What would you want to do if you could do anything? Take a trip to the islands, to the mountains, read a book, go to a concert? Whatever it is let's see if we can make it happen. If you need my help or presence let me know and I will be there.
For a moment, I just sat there flabbergasted. My sister is a serious person and not just some Hallmark-feels-good sentimentalist so I know I can take her at her word. But this was ... well, jaw-dropping. I felt as if I were six years old or something. No one has asked me a question like that in forever, let alone offered to help make my wish come true.

After realizing that the pleasure of being asked such a thing was really as good as it gets, I wrote back saying that and adding that ...well... maybe going on a whale watch would be nice: I haven't seen the ocean in so long and being on a ship and seeing a whale ... well, that would be nice too.

But the question itself was really the manna from heaven.

love and fear as usual

Just a reminder to myself that I sometimes forget and others might find utterly useless:

It's a good idea to examine what is loved and longed for with an eye to the fear that invests it. Likewise, it is a good idea to examine what is feared with an eye to the loving and longing it implies.

So often the two come as a matched pair, like the double helix of DNA. The question is not so much whether this is good or bad, corrupt or pure, confusing or clarified. The question is simply whether I am willing to examine the obvious.

At my age, the willingness dwindles.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christmas lights

The Christmas lights have begun to adorn the street where I live. Holy or unholy, the colors are jolly, even in a New England which once frowned upon and sometimes outright-banned the holiday.

Is there anything so good that it can't serve to piss someone off or anything so evil that it can't excite someone's praise?

Oh well, I suppose saying I like green lightbulbs is a bit over-the-top.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

the moral of the story

Sitting around chewing on the topic I'd like to use for this month's newspaper column, I wonder idly:

Do all stories have a moral?

I guess I think they do. Probably more than one according to the listener(s)/reader(s).

And perhaps the most dangerous scenario is not when someone says there are many morals or no morals at all, but rather when they insist and get others to agree with them that there is only one moral.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

thinking ... true or false?

Stolen from Zen Community:

oops... enlightenment day!

Well that frosts the cake for sure: I missed Dec. 8, the day celebrated in the Zen tradition I once followed as Buddha's enlightenment day.

Enlightenment didn't even cross my mind, where once there were pedal-to-the-metal sesshins/retreats; tears of joy and sorrow; wispy paradoxical talks that lifted me on their wings; giggling and a sense that there was something overarching and wise and humane in life.

Well, I guess I can see why the Buddhist Santa will cross me off the list of boys and girls who have been "nice."

More seriously, to completely miss it after all the years of sturm und drang I once put into it?! It's like forgetting World War II or something. Dec. 8 was important ... big time!

Worse, I don't much mind and have no need of commiserating souls telling me I can get back on the bus if only I'll consent to see and focus and breathe and ... well, do the stuff I once did so much of.

But I think I prefer to be the one others can point to as an example of those who practice Buddhism poorly if at all. "Poor bastard ... that's what can happen to you if you don't watch out!"

I honestly hope everyone had a nice enlightenment day, whether or not they remembered it.

a Palestinian mantram? "I can't breathe"

I wonder if some of the same people who have protested the I-can't-breathe-death of a black man, Eric Garner, at the hands of a video-taped white police officer might consider transferring some of their concern to the Palestinians under constant assault by a righteous and who-me Israel.

Amnesty International has accused Israel of "war crimes" in the decimation of four buildings in Gaza. Though the situation is not proved, still there are endless similar and much-excused assaults by the well-armed Israelis taking one step or another to grind down the no-account and comparatively-ill-armed Palestinians, a group which might likewise cry out, "I can't breathe."
Israeli air strikes on four high-rise buildings in the final days of this summer's conflict in Gaza amounted to war crimes, Amnesty International says.
Evidence suggested the destruction was "carried out deliberately and with no military justification", a new report by the human rights group found.
The deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have sparked street protests across the country -- the latest being seen on the professional basketball court Monday where several players donned "I can't breathe" T-shirts for warm-up drill.

The racial upset pits civilian rights against publicly-sanctioned police authority. Police do a dangerous job and need to be both vigilant and fair, a hard line to draw sometimes, but not a line that should be ignored. The arrogance of power needs to be called out, publicly labeled as unacceptable, and punished where warranted... just like any other crime.

It is really not enough to imagine that a particular individual or group might do something bad, the U.S. foreign-policy excuse for all sorts of random-but-'righteous' attacks on 'terrorism' that the U.S. allows itself to define without restraint.

No doubt Israel sees an opportunity in U.S. leadership. Palestinians are bad. They think bad thoughts and do bad things. Israel, like police forces everywhere, has the preponderance of weaponry and a boatload of propaganda. They are taking pre-emptive action against an opponent who has proved his villainy in the past.

But the villainy of those who do not categorize themselves among the villains goes unchecked and worse, has the gall to raise its actions to a pedestal of righteousness. The result is people who "can't breathe" ... either metaphorically by subjugation or literally because they and their families are dead.

I think it would be nice if the outrage of the street protests in the U.S. took a moment or two to consider the actual and potential arrogance of America's client in the Middle East -- Israel.

Monday, December 8, 2014

the allure of high heels

On the one hand, high-heeled shoes can make their wearers out as little more than sex objects. On the other hand, a study seems to prove one thing for sure: They work and there's no arguing with success.

where scarecrows outnumber people

In this Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 photo, a teenager look alike scarecrow sits on a log pile in Nagoro, Tokushima Prefecture, southern Japan. This village deep in the rugged mountains of southern Japan once was home to hundreds of families. Now, only 35 people remain, outnumbered three-to-one by scarecrows that Tsukimi Ayano crafted to help fill the days and replace neighbors who died or moved away. (AP Photo/Elaine Kurtenbach)

Saturday, December 6, 2014


In the end, a brown man stripped to the waist and hunkered by a doorway, pointed amiably to the door: That was was where I needed to go, he indicated.

I opened the door and stepped into the darkness. Almost immediately I could feel what I took to be two young boys, each holding one of my hands. We went forward until I had had enough: "Get me to the light!" I said loudly as I swung both of them to and fro.

I could feel the fear in their hands and I issued my demand, but they made no noise. I did it a second time -- even louder, even more imperious ... swung them and inveighed, "Get me to the light!"

And I woke up. It was 1130 last night and who knows how long the dream had gone on -- an endless, meandering dream that ended like this ... awake.

There had been priests and nuns in the half light.

There had been corners to turn and boys playing jai alai and a feeling of one of those intricate South American dream/reality books. I hardly knew where I was going, but I was walking and everyone seemed to be barefoot and I remember no cars. Occasionally I asked to be pointed to "12th Avenue," but even I was not sure if that would get me where I wanted to go.

Dreams. No one can write them with transmissible impact. They are like skinny dipping through the universe. Maybe fear. Maybe longing. And yet full of bare-ass impact.

On and on and on it went.

Maybe it was the lingering hospital drugs. Maybe it was the damned pills I take to 'improve' my health. Maybe it was hallucination. Maybe it was reality knocking on the door. There were shadows and light, young people and old. It probably had meaning and yet thumbed its nose without arrogance at anything so flimsy as meaning.

When anything can come true, is that true or is it reality and who gives a shit?

I gave a shit, but to expect anyone else to give a shit about my dream was really off the charts. It was important to me and yet how could it be important where no one else could possibly find import? Were such dreams questions or answers? Was there a difference between the two and if so, who cared when no one else cared?

So much force. So much importance ... for what? I don't know, but I know I was pretty serious: "Get me to the light!"