Thursday, December 31, 2015

art prattle

I once came within an ace of beating the crap out of some art gallery owner who made the mistake of coming up behind me while I was drowning deliciously in some painting and trying to 'explain' the picture to me. His simpering wisdom combined with a desire to make a sale offended me right down to my DNA ... I was furious.

Art -- in the widest sense of painting, music, writing and whatever all else -- is from its inception (literally from its inception where the sperm consumes the egg and the egg consumes the sperm) an intimate matter between artist and the appreciator of that art. It is divinely personal. It is glorious and brooks neither doubt nor improvement. Any interloper -- as for example someone who can and will and insists on 'explaining' art -- is, in the moment of intimacy, apostate ... a bum feasting on the carrion left behind; a weakling filled with kiss-ass sincerity. A fire-breathing dragon within me labels it "disgusting."

The intimacy is not to suggest that all art realizes its intimate inception all the time. Sometimes the buttons simply do not get pressed, no matter how many interlopers insist that this or that is "great art." But when that moment of intimacy is realized and the delicious drowning occurs ... please do not speak or try to speak.

The artist makes his or her mark and that mark is made sperm-to-egg fashion ... although the event is not something that can be divided into something as trite as "sperm" and "egg." This is the beginning of art. Shazzam! Personal, person to person ... and yet beyond person. If it were not, then all bits of art would go directly from the easel or keyboard into the hands of the academics whose carrion-prone profession gives them leave to expatiate and assert their 'caring' hearts.

The middle men are too infrequently called out. Even in my own mind, the need to explain and find meaning jibbers and jabbers and denudes the art in front of my nose of its life-giving intimacy.

Middle men. Akkkkkkk!

None of this is to dismiss a discussion or two of the context in which art may arise or the culture that may have spawned it. But when it comes to middle men, the tendency to tip over into believing that somehow such discussions are on a par with art's consuming intimacy is really out of bounds, however popular it may be.

There are things more important than egotism.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

priest takes to hoverboard

Enforced solemnity.

Enforced frivolity.

What'll it be?
A Filipino priest has been condemned by diocese authorities, after video of him gliding around church on a hoverboard during Christmas Eve mass went viral....
"The Eucharist demands utmost respect and reverence. It is the Church's highest form of worship, not a personal celebration where one can capriciously introduce something to get attention," the diocese statement said....
The priest, who has not been named, can be seen sailing up and down aisles as churchgoers in Laguna province applaud.
The priest has apparently been sent somewhere obscure to reflect on his transgressions.

What is serious? Is it what someone else solemnizes or what the onlooker chooses to take seriously? It reminds me of  George Bernard Shaw's depiction of a simple girl who simply walks on water herself after hearing that that's what Jesus did.

PS. The church suspended the priest, though what that means was not explained.

comfort breeds morality?

Skittering around like some excited but under-informed teenager in my mind....

No hungry man ever concerned himself much with morality. Moral trappings may be tacked onto his cause, but the bottom line remains the porridge in the breakfast bowl.

It is only the well-victualed who may cast their eyes on a moral way of life and even this is not assured. After all, if you have enough to eat, there is no imperative to take up a moral suasion. For this reason, morality may be taken up not just as something serious but also as an adjunct or hobby or new-age addendum -- the fins on the car -- where the stomach does not growl. Some rich and well-fed people can only think of becoming richer.

Still, it is an odds-on bet that the well-fed are the likely arbiters of a moral lifestyle, even as they limit their calories and pour ashes on their heads. Jesus, Mohammad, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, monsastics of various stripes, the denizens of humanism, TED-talk adepts and perhaps the bathroom mirror -- each and every one bears a mark or more of comfort and stability that comes with a porridge bowl that is not empty. Religion, in both the narrow and broader sense, seeks out a conforming and stable political environment and links its voice to that choir.

If morality be roughly defined as an effort to bring happiness and peace into a life, then I wonder if a sustaining food source is not a requirement. Of course you'd be dead without it, but aside from that, does the feeding of body and mind amount to much the same thing? Imagination requires food but food is no guarantor of imagination.

Oh well. The teenager slips and slides ....

The sky is grey
No need to fret.
Just stir your stumps
And break a sweat.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

peace-loving Buddhism ... not

Here is Brian Victoria's latest pointed assessment of Buddhism past and present in Japan (and by association, elsewhere).

As time passes, the "noble silences" in which Buddhism can wrap itself grow frayed and it is hard not to think of (was it Aitken or Kapleau who said), "Silence is golden and sometimes its color is pure yellow."

sex slaves and other spoils of war

At the same time that Japan and South Korea have tap-danced their way to a 'resolution' of the long-standing matter of "comfort women" enslaved by the Japanese during World War II, the Islamic State, which is currently doing what it can to create a caliphate in the Middle East, has taken a different approach.

Islamic State has dissected the matter of using women as sexual slaves and laid down the quite-explicit law. Never mind that Islamic scholars dispute Islamic State's interpretations ... sex slaves are subject to various do's and don't's.
Islamic State theologians have issued an extremely detailed ruling on when "owners" of women enslaved by the extremist group can have sex with them, in an apparent bid to curb what they called violations in the treatment of captured females.
The ruling or fatwa has the force of law and appears to go beyond the Islamic State's previous known utterances on the subject, a leading Islamic State scholar said. It sheds new light on how the group is trying to reinterpret centuries-old teachings to justify the sexual slavery of women in the swaths of Syria and Iraq it controls.
To read the fatwa click here: here
"Theologians" ... now there's an interesting notion.

And, when it comes to shaping a caliphate and dividing the spoils of war:
Islamic State has set up departments to handle "war spoils," including slaves, and the exploitation of natural resources such as oil, creating the trappings of government that enable it to manage large swaths of Syria and Iraq and other areas.

The hierarchical bureaucracy, including petty rivalries between officials, and legal codes in the form of religious fatwas are detailed in a cache of documents seized by U.S. Special Operations Forces in a May raid in Syria that killed top IS financial official Abu Sayyaf. Reuters has reviewed some of the documents.

first snow

The first measurable bit of snow fell overnight and continues to tickle -- halfway to rain -- into these morning hours. It's only an inch or two, but it seems to be late in coming. Christmas was not quite the same without it. Even at my age, it continues weird me out to think of Australia dodging forest fires and sweltering when Santa is busy loading up.

I am glad there are others who are concerned about climate change and the effect human activity has on the air everyone breathes and the land everyone stands on. It's too big for me, somehow. I know it is worthy of knicker-twisting, but ... well, it's too big for me, even as I marvel at the smog in Beijing. I stand on some sideline and cheer everyone on: "Go get 'em, guys!" And "thanks for the effort." But it's not enough to get me off my own ass, whatever that might mean. It's too big, too important and, sometimes, too virtuous.

Maybe there is just a time when everything gets too big -- even an inch or two of snow.

selling drugs ... responsibly

Arrived unannounced in the email box this morning -- allegedly a sign in a 1971 Okinawa shop window.

Monday, December 28, 2015

color and music

Today as the dawn crept in and the houses and trees took on their familiarities, it occurred to me that color and music were of one breed... everything bathed in music, everything bathed in color.

The invisible made visible but still invisible.

What a lot of music.

cold comfort

South Korea and Japan reached a landmark agreement on Monday to resolve the issue of "comfort women", as those who were forced to work in Japan's wartime brothels were euphemistically known, which has long plagued ties between the neighbors.
The foreign ministers of the two countries said after a meeting in Seoul that the "comfort women" issue would be "finally and irreversibly resolved" if all conditions were met.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to take the opportunity to boost bilateral ties soon after the agreement by the foreign ministers.

 "Finally and irreversibly resolved." What fool would believe such a thing, whether slave or slave-driver? Cruelty cannot be erased. Nobility cannot cure it. Beware the noble (wo)man. "Closure" is a dream. There are awful things and that's the beginning and end of it ... awful. What is awful is not ameliorated by admission, but "awful" is better off admitted and embraced than shunned and soothed. The "past" is always only "sort of the past."

Sunday, December 27, 2015

pick a nutshell

With the slow-leak implosion of social agreements (at least as I sense it), the question arises, where is a (wo)man to lay a weary or agitated heart? Sometimes it seems, both near and far, that the world is falling apart and, even as peace beckons, the question of how to assure it nags.

I don't know the answer, but like anyone else, I get to guess. I too have tried on templates of philosophy and religion and work schedule and family life and whatever all else. All of it, little and large, has left me guessing still, I guess.

And this morning my guess is this: Your grandmother had it right. No need to travel to the ends of the intellectual or emotional earth. She had it right ... as, for example, with the nutshell observation, "if wishes were horses, beggars would ride." And that, by god, is enough!

Everyone has their nutshells, I imagine. The trick is just to see them through. Pick your nutshell or philosophy or religion and then, with a ruthlessness that would leave Genghis Khan in the shadows, follow and parse and examine and exercise and never, ever, give up. Do what you can to examine such nutshells without raining anguish on anyone else's parade, but do not give up the examination. The object is not to corral some wider agreement or understanding. This is not a cake-and-cookies church social. The object is to clarify this understanding.

The underlying assertion/assumption here is that everything invariably comes around to and clarifies everything else. Begin here and you are invariably there and vice versa. So the trinkets that adorn the adventure are not so important. Be a Christian, be a Jew, be a humanist, work for Amazon, pick daisies ... just pick a nutshell and never give up. Agreement with others is not so important when everything is already in accord. Don't be a wuss or a wimp or curl up next to the latest TED talk.

Your grandmother and mine were right ... and they never agreed about anything.

Pick your nutshell.

Go nuts.

Get peaceful.

burning the Christmas goat

STOCKHOLM (AP) -- In what's become a Christmas tradition to some Swedes, a giant decorative goat made of straw was set ablaze early Sunday and police arrested a 25-year-old man suspected of arson.
The straw goat is a beloved Christmas symbol in the city of Gavle, in central Sweden. However, it's also become a tradition of sorts to burn it down.
This year's edition lasted nearly a month on a downtown square before going up in flames.
Police said they arrested a suspect wearing a balaclava and clothes reeking of lighter fluid. His face was covered in soot and his hair damaged by fire.
Police said he would be questioned once he sobered up.
The goat is an ancient Scandinavian Yuletide tradition that preceded Santa Claus as the bringer of gifts.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

a second Christmas Truce

And now, besides World War I's Christmas Truce of 1914, a diary surfaces to confirm that there was yet another such truce in 1915 despite the fulminations and wrath and orders of officers and other leadership that was aghast at the notion that ordinary soldiers could simply lay down their arms in the middle of a bloody confrontation.
... a senior officer "came round the trenches and told every fellow to shoot any German he saw" but "no one took any notice".
Imagine how pissed off and/or confused those in command -- politically and militarily -- must have been.

Imagine how courageous without any thought of courage the soldiers must have been.

In the midst of a wild and horrifying slaughter house, somehow the word "no" gained traction. Not just talk-the-talk traction, but walk-the-walk.

I am not a great history buff, nor do I subscribe to the idea that history teaches lessons descendants are actually willing to learn ... but this hundred-year-old confluence and decisiveness gets under my skin every time and makes me want to cry.

It is beyond "go fuck yourself!"

It is just plain human.

As human as today's political and military yearnings to do it all again.

An irascible firebrand leaps up in my mind. He is defeated before he even opens his mouth. Nonetheless he does and screams, "Fuck 'peace!' Just don't do it!"

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Day

By the placement of the bed and the placement of the window and the placement of the moon, I woke this Christmas morning basking in the (full moon) moonlight. Not warm, not cold, just basking like some shark taking a break from all that might be edible ... in clear, blue-green waters. A float ... floating. Not a snicker of snow to mark the day.

No need for all that collected and skillful information. What a lot of it there sometimes seems to be. And sometimes too, I wonder if human beings don't spend half their lifetimes gathering and collating and buttressing and constructing in an effort to make things easier ... and then spend the other half trying to get out from under the constrictions they have created ... deconstructing.

It's not as if this were somehow sad or ridiculous -- a habit to hurry up and define and control and impute meaning to. Blessings and curses really are "too much information." It's as good a pastime as any and it's better than kicking baby robins, probably. Grasp and clasp; shun and scrub away.

Aside from the smarm and snarkiness of the Christmas season, I wonder if there is some element along the DNA universe that might be labeled "giving." Really, it does feel so good ... like hot soup on a cold day. It seems to contain an innate healthiness. And besides that, it's enjoyable. But it can't be feigned: When you do it right, it's all right. When constrained or lectured, it's just another tree ornament.

This year, I took a bit of honest pleasure in giving the woman who delivers newspapers a small financial gift together with a thank-you note. She's aces in my book and I wanted to acknowledge it and so, in what I hope is a way that may lighten her load, I gave her a little something. It felt right and it made me happy in a way that giving other gifts will not. The giving is the thanks ... that's all ... I give and I cannot help but get. But what I get cannot be named or held or extolled. The best I can do is shut up and be pleased. And I am ... even as I may be totally wrong.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

the Donald Trump of the Middle East

To hear the media regurgitate the tale, knife-wielding Palestinians constitute an almost monolithic threat to a beleaguered and virtuous Israel. Day after day and month after month, small stories recount yet another stabbing, sometimes fatal, sometimes not, perpetrated by yet another discontented Palestinian. Almost invariably, the perpetrator is shot dead by the forces of an implicitly righteous and purely defensive Israel.

This morning's contribution to this cookie-cutter amalgam begins like this:
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli authorities said Thursday that three Palestinians were killed after they carried out or attempted to carry out attacks against Israelis across the West Bank.
To question or even observe this litany is to risk being labeled an anti-Semite, a term that has been carefully co-opted to mean anti-Israel rather than taking a position against the peoples who speak a number of languages, notably Hebrew AND Arabic.

As the old saying goes, "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight." With the Americans selling weapons to pretty much anyone who wants them, why are the knife-wielders A. knife-wielders and B. a monolithic threat? Aside from anything else, the knife-against-gun outcome is pretty much the same over and over: 
Near-daily Palestinian attacks have killed 20 Israelis and an American student. Israeli fire has killed 123 Palestinians....
123 to 20. What monolithic threat is this? And with the Holocaust and apartheid and American slavery as a backdrop, how is anyone supposed to believe what the media seems to insist is believable? Not that the Palestinians are blameless and pure, but are they deserving of such imbalance both military and political?

Once upon a time, there was no 24-hour news cycle. A half hour in the morning, a half hour at noon and a half hour in the evening ... that was pretty much the news. But with a 24-hour news cycle, wouldn't you think there would be more time to dig in and ferret out the back-stories on tales that once got short shrift? That has not happened. Instead, the regurgitation and re-regurgitation of the same story all day long is the yardstick and template.

Arms dealers make money. News organizations make money. And any good understanding -- my own included -- of the news goes begging; heroes and villains are raised up; thought is placed on the back burner.

Sometimes it is hard not to see Israel as the Donald Trump of the Middle East.

Another monolith, I guess.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

grave matters ....

I wonder how many aspects of life are like this ... arousing a panorama of reactions, beliefs, philosophies, etc. and yet those heart-felt reactions have precisely nothing to do with the aspects themselves.

Smart or dumb, everyone is born. Smart or dumb, everyone dies. Isn't that enough ... or perhaps too much?

I see nothing wrong with telling stories, but calling them something other than "stories" is another matter.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"top stories" of 2015

NEW YORK (AP) -- The far-flung attacks claimed by Islamic State militants and the intensifying global effort to crush them added up to a grim, gripping yearlong saga that was voted the top news story of 2015, according to The Associated Press' annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors.
Somehow, concrete accomplishments and improvements did not make the list. But, as Walter Cronkite once observed, "News isn't about how many cats did not get up on the garage roof."

hiding behind devotion

Sometimes people are more devoted to their profession or discipline than they are to the people for whom that profession was intended. Politicians, doctors and religious leaders spring to mind, but the capacity/habit is hardly limited to them.

And what a sticky wicket. Everyone needs to immerse themselves in whatever profession or discipline they choose. How else would anyone learn? But at some point (and I can't pretend to know that point), that immersion and devotion becomes as much a hindrance and a defense mechanism as it does a possibility for the good it may claim to do.

To the extent that any of this is true, I think that in the search for an instructor or leader, it is a good idea to find someone who is a bit older and a bit more seasoned in the given profession. Age and experience do not guarantee a willingness to put discipline and self-importance on a back burner, but the possibility exists in ways that it did not when the professional first set out.

Today, for example, I have a doctor's appointment with a podiatrist. I looked him up on the Internet, partly because I wanted to find out where his office is but also because I wanted to look at a face and guesstimate the likelihood that his experience would be tailored to my needs rather than his credentials or status. His face suggested I had a 50/50 chance, but since I have to go to the appointment anyway, it hardly matters what I guesstimate. I wanted some reassurance ... and naturally, the foolishness of my quest became apparent when I looked at the mug shot.

Still, the habit interests me since I too have indulged in its come-hither wiles ... getting so savvy and adroit and well-protected by expertise that the wide-open nourishment that expertise is capable of granting is lost to view.

Maybe it's all a bit like gathering firewood. It can take long hours and sore muscles to gather and split and stack. It requires a blinkered attentiveness and devotion. But in the end, what's important is the warming and unpredictable ash to which it is all reduced.

Monday, December 21, 2015

the price of imagination

The price of imagination is humanity.

The price of humanity is imagination.

Is this true or is it merely another conceit that can be filched by some academic for his or her 'original thinking?'

I don't know, but if the two can in fact be laid side by side, I think the word "pricey" is warranted.

Empire's addiction to war

Passed along in email and well worth the watch ... this strikes me as intelligent:

Sunday, December 20, 2015

the giant-est salamander

If you had the longest salamander on earth, what, precisely would you have? It seems to me that the only salient question is whether this beast would eat the household cat.

For all that, the Prague Zoo laid tentative claim to the record with a Chinese giant salamander measuring (as of Friday) 5 feet, 2 and 3/16 inches.

what happens to your god....

A small spiritual Tinkertoy:

What happens to your god when you do not think of god?

In order to answer the question, the first thing anyone does is to think about it.

Which, of course, does not address the question.

How could anyone's god -- you know the one who is "eternal" and so forth -- be eternal is he/she/it was dependent on your thinking or mine? Thoughts come and go and thus are limited. But god, being eternal and so forth, is not prey to such limitations. Or anyway isn't prey to such limitations when I attempt to think things through.

Somehow I suspect that addressing the question honestly is important. But when the brick wall refuses to yield to the blandishments of praise and explication, I think the ordinary way is to figure (more politely, perhaps), "fuck it!" and return to regularly-scheduled, thoughtful programming.

Churches spring up on Main Street like toadstools after a summer rain and believers abound.

Still, perhaps, now and then there may be some serious soul.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

lottery fixing scandal

Why the story of a lottery-fixing scam that enable(s) people to know which lottery tickets are winners isn't bigger news, I really don't know.
The inquiry is sending a chill through state governments that depend on public confidence in contests that generate $20 billion annually in lottery revenue.
It's not quite clear to me how the scam worked or works, but the idea that anyone might get an inside track on winning lottery tickets strikes me as enormous news. Talk about a sweet deal!

Think of the states and municipalities that have thrown their credulous weight behind gambling as a means of footing the tax bill: If the credibility of the lottery were skewed, what happens to tax revenues?

FBI investigates Pete Seeger

FILE - In this April 4, 1961, file photo, Pete Seeger, with a banjo slung over his shoulder, is accompanied by his wife, Toshi, as he arrives at the federal court in New York for sentencing on a conviction for contempt of Congress. The Federal Bureau of Investigation released more than 1,700 pages of documents it collected on the folk singer. (AP Photo/File)
When confronted by the particulars of "background checks," I have to admit that such investigations scare the crap out of me. So often, those doing the investigating fall victim to their own grandeur and importance that the ordinary humanity of the one being investigated is relegated to the "suspicious" bin. Conformity is a frightening commodity, yesterday and today.

An Associated Press story today details the lengths to which the Federal Bureau of Investigation went when scouring folksinger Pete Seeger's associations and thoughts and friends as he tried to join the army during World War II. His "loyalty" was fragile at best, from the FBI's point of view.

Freedom of thought. Freedom of association. The wonders of the thoughtful mind. None of this seems to occur now to investigators who have the task of assessing a man or woman's make-up and potential. Then it was Pete Seeger. Now it is, perhaps, Muslims or some other perceived "radicals." If your job is to find dirt, what human being -- to the extent s/he is human -- is immune? Gawd!

Pete Seeger's left-wing affiliations were known. His left-leaning friends like Woody Guthrie were likewise known. His wife was of Japanese extraction at a time when Japanese-Americans were being rounded up and sent to American internment camps. And he, like his friends, dressed in workplace clothes. A slob, by some lights. A Commie agitator who, with the Almanac Singers or alone, gave resonance to songs like "Talking Union" and "If I Had a Hammer." Seeger's mail was intercepted as were his wife Toshi's letters.

I grew up on Pete Seeger's music. I knew nothing of communism, but the songs spoke to justice and equality, however badly defined. They were inspiring songs and Pete Seeger was one of my heroes. I was happy as a pig in mud when I was able to get hold of a Seeger album that was "banned" ... something like "Songs of the Spanish Civil War."

And then there was the question of how, when it came time to run a background check over my own life, investigators didn't balk at the fact that my mother -- at a time when it was fashionable for intellectuals -- had likewise joined the Communist Party. I needed a top secret clearance for the work I was to do in the army and someone must have stumbled on my mother's disloyal affiliations ... before she realized that the Communists were far too lock-step for her taste and she quit. 

All I could imagine was that the investigators had gone back to a time when, in college, I gained a "secret" clearance from the Navy in order to work at a facility linked to Columbia University where I had once taken classes and needed a job in order to pay tuition. All I did at Columbia was deliver books and mail packages, but the clearance was necessary. The facility worked on rocketry and similar secret stuff. I was a high-priced mail boy, so I got the clearance and when later it came time to join the army and bump up to "top secret," perhaps the army investigators went no further back than the point at which the Navy decided I was not a Communist threat and my mother's affiliations could be overlooked.

Secrecy, loyalty, conformity ... isn't there anyone in that self-involved and self-important world that stops to consider the ranging wonders of the human mind? Isn't there anyone who wonders if wondering and postulating are not really enough for a conclusion? These days, people even thinking about 'terrorist' acts are taken for questioning. I don't know about you, but I have seditious thoughts all the time. But it is when I act that you get to arrest or harass me ... and not before.

Oh well, I'm just an old scaredy-cat.

act with care; steer clear of goodness

Act with care but steer clear of goodness.

That little snapdragon of a thought came to mind this morning in the wake of a movie review that was passed along in email. "Zen and War: A Film Review," which I read with less attention than it probably deserved, reprises the complicities of Zen Buddhism in the war that Japan waged in China and elsewhere. It is carefully and forcefully and literately argued, as far as I could see.

But the particulars of the indictments fell out of my spotlight, somehow. What a lot of well-camouflaged hypocrisy goes into institutionalized religion's virtues. The bill of particulars deserves to be outed, but more than those particulars, from where I was sitting this morning, is the need/plea/demand of the human condition to imagine it is doing something good.

Institutionalized religion will occasionally tug a humble forelock and concede that there is a rotten apple or two in an otherwise nutritious barrel. But the unspoken assumption is that the barrel nourishes and is good. I certainly wouldn't argue for the opposite -- that the barrel is, of necessity, rotten. But I am interested in the notion that a great and good notion is necessarily great and good and therefore the institution deserves the power of an assumption. The Vatican did what it could to posit this position when pedophile priests grabbed the popular spotlight: "Yes, we have our problems, but the foundation is firm and good and holy" ... something like that.

But the Vatican is hardly alone in sustaining the goodness of what so much effort demands ... a place in the goodness pantheon. Zen Buddhism contributed to the mind set of death and destruction in the face of a precept that says pretty clearly, "don't kill." But even as anyone might comb the institutional landscape and turn up one hypocrisy after another, it is the bathroom mirror that impresses me more:

I work so hard to do something good that it must, both institutionally and personally, be good. The alternative is too distressing. I want to think well of myself because, because, because ... well, I just wanna and there's the end of it. A rotten apple or two, sure, but the barrel that looks back in the bathroom mirror is, because I say so, nutritious and good. Call me Mr. Vatican.

I wonder if goodness is just something to outgrow, like acne. Or is it perhaps not outgrow-able? Is there anything that enriches a nest of vipers more than the application of goodness? And what of the sense of loss -- so vast, so vast -- if goodness is set aside? The Vedas weren't whistling "Dixie" when they came up with "the razor's edge."

Whatever it is, I think my little snapdragon is pretty close to the mark. Not good, mind you, just pretty close. I'll try to keep an eye on it.

Friday, December 18, 2015

survival in Japan

With a low crime rate, Japan is one of the safest places in the world, but it is also prone to natural disasters. A 2011 earthquake and tsunami left more than 18,000 people dead or missing in the northeast. The last major earthquake in Tokyo, in 1923, sparked fires that burned wide swaths of the city and killed 140,000 people in the area.
The Tokyo disaster guide, with every page printed on bright yellow paper, is intended to help citizens prepare for and survive a major emergency in which power, water and heat may be lost for days. It opens with an ominous warning: "It is predicted that there is a 70 percent possibility of an earthquake directly hitting Tokyo within the next 30 years. Are you prepared?"

black site on red-white-and-blue soil

It appeared in The Guardian in February, but I first saw it today after it was passed along in email -- an article about a 'black site' used by the Chicago Police Department to hold suspects without charge or recourse for a number of hours.

It may be that I hadn't had enough coffee, but as dismaying as the article's details were, I found it sort of blurry around the edges. But for all that, it does seem to point to yet another bit of crumbling in the American fabric. "Disappearing" the largely dispossessed suspects feels like some tinpot dictatorship above which America might rather wish to stand ... like Central or South America or China, perhaps.

The police-state nightmare, often wispy in its outraged tendrils, seems to gain a more concrete footing. Firepower, secrecy, presumptions of guilt, legalities overlooked ... this is America? It tastes like the aftermath of throwing up to me.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

durable goods

The US firm is one of a small number of clothing companies actively countering the proliferation of cheap wears, where new collections delivered weekly, or in some cases daily, has helped fuel a seemingly insatiable desire to buy more stuff.
More stuff, and made to fail or go out of fashion into the bargain. If things don't fail, it's not as easy to buy more stuff. And a BBC article takes note of a few companies offering durable clothing ... stuff that lasts and can be fixed when it wears down and threatens to encroach on the need/desire/addiction to more stuff.

But there is a paradoxical element involved: Capitalism is based on more stuff, but more stuff never seems to still the craving for more stuff. As my parents no doubt felt about my early longings, I marvel at the stuff my kids can accumulate, learn to ignore and then throw away.

As in the picture above, I have a hammer I have owned for decades. It is a bit rusty around the edges, but that doesn't mean it can't pound nails with the best of them. I like it. Likewise a set of fingernail clippers ... ten, twenty, thirty, forty years and it works just fine. I like it.

It's nice to have something about which, theoretically, anyone might say, "one and done" ... or, at least relatively speaking, "one and done." But I too have mountains of stuff accumulated -- not necessarily based on vanity alone -- over the years. Important once, it is largely crap now. And still I like the idea of creating something that has the capacity to last a bit longer than some plastic automobile or a water heater that, as distinct from its predecessors, falls apart at the least surge.

Ah well, I guess it all gives new meaning to the encouragement, "if you want something done right, do it yourself."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Leaves of Grass" redux

Watched the whole of the 2009-1010 movie "Leaves of Grass" and while it was not so astounding as I had thought when seeing segments on TV, still it was quirky enough and human enough and touching enough and funny enough to qualify, in my book, as a keeper.

Hollywood didn't get its hooks into this one.

religion and cats

In this photo taken on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 in the village of Lemeshevo, Moscow region, Russian Archpriest Pyotr Dinnikov holds his cat Vasik at Ilynsky church. A group of Christian enthusiasts has released a calendar showing an unexpected face of the Russian Orthodox Church: cat-loving priests. The Priest and Cat calendar released earlier this month by photographer Anna Galperina and editor Ksenia Luchenko shows 12 Orthodox priests at their homes posting with their cats. (AP Photo/Sergei Fedotov)

taking on the shit

NEW DELHI (AP) -- The World Bank has approved a $1.5 billion loan for a sanitation program in India, where millions of people have no access to toilets. 
The bank said in a statement Wednesday that the loan will be used to support government efforts to provide toilets in villages and end the practice of open defecation by 2019. 
More than 500 million Indians, especially in rural areas, continue to defecate in the open, despite efforts to encourage people to change their habits. 
World Bank representative Onno Ruhl said one in every 10 deaths in India is linked to poor sanitation. 
Defecating outdoors increases cases of diarrhea, parasitic worm infections and other public health scourges that experts say contribute to childhood stunting and malnutrition.
Thank goodness India has a lot of computers to lessen the load.

monthly newspaper column

With a helpful nudge from "Judith," here is the monthly column as it appeared in the local paper today.

Military matters, from father to son (12/16/15 Daily Hampshire Gazette)

A couple of months back, my younger son, a machine-gunner for the Army National Guard, came home one evening and announced that two security positions had opened up in Afghanistan and he had volunteered.

My stomach lurched, but I tried to keep a straight face. Ives is 21, a college student and has been drawn to the military since he was little. There comes a time when a father needs to let go of his children. But that doesn’t mean the transition is easy.

Yes, a part of me can see the attraction of military engagement, but another part rises up in a protective fury: This is my son we were talking about. My son!

The late Russian dictator Joseph Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” With more than 20 million Russian dead during World War II, you can see where he was coming from.

But the idea that my son might become another man’s statistic was beyond all words! It was beyond horror. And it was at this point in my paternal confusion that a recollection asserted itself.

In 1959, I attended a college that had a mandatory ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program for freshmen. As a freshman, I successfully petitioned to be excused based on a 19-year-old’s conscientious objections. At 19, I was very sincere.

Yet, two years later, I signed on the dotted line and joined the Army as much as anything because, I was “more interested in experience than I was in virtue.” There was a draft at the time and “everyone” participated. My father was flabbergasted: How could a “rather intelligent young man” — as he once described me — be so stupid?

Anyway, I signed up and went. I was a pretty good shot, but when all was said and done I ended up as a pencil-pushing spy in Germany — a linguist who never shot at anyone and was never shot at in return. In addition, strangely, the unit I was assigned to in Berlin turned out to be the single most intelligent group of people I would ever meet in my lifetime.

My father disapproved and I did it anyway. And now my son was on the verge of doing it and it was my turn to grind my teeth.

But there is a difference between a pencil-pushing spy and a cannon-fodder machine gunner. I can sympathize with a young man’s willingness to go in harm’s way if that is the price for an inner peace that youth seldom has a handle on. There is “brotherhood,” “patriotism,” “service,” “courage,” “heroism,” and perhaps a whispered hope for “glory” ... all of it a heady and reassuring social support system.

Was it ever otherwise? Old men fashion the dreams; young men live the nightmare.

All of this and more like it flashed through my mind as I considered Ives’ announcement. I wondered if there was anything I could say that might be useful to the course he had chosen or might fall victim to.

All I could think to say was this: “If you are selected to go to Afghanistan, I think the first thing you want to do is learn at least 100 words of the native language spoken in your assigned country. It may not be much, but it could save your life or the lives of your buddies or the lives of the people whose land you occupy.”

My son looked supremely unimpressed. Machine guns don’t need words. Bullets have their own language. “Peacenik” rhetoric changed nothing. Why make things any harder than they needed to be?

But what good soldier is not trained to know his enemy? How could you know your enemy without some facility in the language? Does esprit de corps mean a willful ignorance and mindless flag-waving? Wouldn’t you like to think that women and children (the ones referred to blithely as “collateral damage”) might somehow be absolved and made safe?

One hundred words. In that desperate split second before the trigger gets pulled, one hundred words might make all the difference. True, it might make no difference at all: Sometimes cruelty is the only recourse. But in the instances where words can suffice, aren’t they preferable to the blood and loss, however gaily the banner waves?

Ives was not selected to go to Afghanistan. But given the events in the Middle East and given a hobbled political arena, I imagine he will get his chance. “Terrorism” is chic.

As always, the old men wear lapel-pin flags as if they were patriots.

As always, young men go to war.

And, as always, like deer on a highway, fathers stand transfixed in the statistical headlights.

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Leaves of Grass"

After a number of errands, I am looking forward today, assuming I can find it on the Internet, to watching a 2009-2010 movie called "Leaves of Grass." I saw part of it on TV last night and was delighted ... yes, Virginia, it is possible to make a good movie. After enough parboiled plots, you kind of forget how thoughtful-without-being-freighted a good story can be.

Other than that, I tweaked the newspaper column running tomorrow and have (as when fucking not?!) a doctor's appointment for reasons I don't or won't recall.

Forward the Light Brigade!

Monday, December 14, 2015

U.S. averts its eyes

From Reuters:
Two unpublished investigations show that the United States has consistently overlooked killings and torture by Iraqi government-sponsored Shi'ite militias.
Others may hit the mark from time to time, but when it comes to steady-Eddy real news, I find myself putting Reuters out front.

workers shut in coffins

When the pressure mounts, increase the pressure:
South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and workers often report feeling stressed. So in order to make people appreciate life, some companies are making employees take part in their own pretend funerals.
Strange to note that when management comes up with such nostrums, it is seldom if ever that they consider revising the circumstances that afflict the worker....

Sorta like "terrorism:" Don't examine the causes, just mow down the results.

who am I?

Seen through one lens, perhaps there is an unceasing universal prayer resting on every human lip, a request to the heavens and all their realms, sometimes whispered, sometimes yowled: "Tell me who I am." It may never be clearly enunciated and it never receives a perfect, consoling response, but still it lingers, I suspect.

Perhaps a job will answer the prayer. Or maybe marital status. A spouse. Or money. Or a philosophy. Or an institution. Or an award. Or an argument won. Or, or, or ... or any circumstance that seems to bind and bond and quantify and, at last, settle things. It never works perfectly, but that doesn't lessen the intensity of the quest. If I knew who I was, I could somehow get on with things and be at ease.

But in the midst of this wispy, floating quest and query, the possibility almost never asserts itself: What if there were some thing or person that could wrap up the case with a perfect, unassailable response. What if there were an answer that was in fact The Answer ... and there's an end to it! On reflection, it seems that something within knows that there is no answer and nevertheless persists and begs and seeks and insists. A settled and settling coherence is not in the cards.

Still, there are moments when the target comes close -- so very close -- to finding a focus and the arrow really seems to strike home.

Once upon a time, a time when I was hip-deep in visiting a shrink (who am I?) on the one hand and practicing Zen Buddhism (who am I?) on another, I got wind of a little work. A fellow at the zendo said that the advertising world had been thrown into a tizzy by a strike and agencies were looking for stand-in's to tout various products. "Why don't you try it?" he suggested. "All you have to do is show up."

So I showed up and waited in a room littered with unremarkable people like me who had likewise heard they might find work. There was paperwork. There was waiting. There was no indication of what product any of us might be touting. We waited. And finally, it was my turn in front of the camera and bright lights and reading from a story board. A much-too-skinny, high-octane woman placed me where I was to stand for the reading. And then I read.

The ad was for pickup trucks and I knew in a nanosecond that I didn't stand a chance. I was not someone whose looks would inspire faith or longing in the world of pickup trucks. The reading took perhaps a minute, after which the tightly-wound woman came to escort me towards the exit. Thanks for coming, she said perfunctorily but not unkindly. I wasn't what the agency was looking for ... and then she answered my unspoken prayer:

"You're more the priest, cop or young daddy if you'd smile more."

And she was right. A person I hardly knew, someone who had not delved earnestly into my psyche or plumbed my mystical realms took a finger-snap's worth of her time to nail me to the barnyard door. I was as obvious as clear water ... why beat around the bush?

Her on-target assessment left me both wonder-struck and bereft. For a few moments I knew who I was. No more frills and navel-gazing ... just plain. Just plain, and "just plain" was just plain fine. Sometimes "just plain" fills the bill. Sometimes not. Either way was just fine.

But to what constructive uses might I now put all the time once dedicated to finding out who I was. The prospect was so daunting that -- you guessed it -- I went back to petitioning the heavens and all their realms: "Tell me who I am."

Sunday, December 13, 2015

music box balm

Music from a music box [sample from elsewhere] ... it's antiquated, perhaps, but when it comes to soothing the savage beast, it gets my vote. My stepmother gave me one -- a real one from the old days -- and now and then, better than Valium, I crank it up and float away.

A BBC article begins:
Devices for playing music come and go - cassette tapes, MP3 players and CDs have all had their time as digital downloads take over.
But one system invented some 200 years ago lives on.
In the mountains of western Switzerland, one company still makes automatic music boxes for enthusiasts around the world.
Reuge is considered the last major manufacturer of a traditional device that once rivalled watches as one of Switzerland's greatest exports.

teaching Zen

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had a Zen Buddhist instructor I was inclined to listen to. One day, I asked him about the appropriate way to instruct relative newcomers to the discipline. He replied, "Tell them eighty percent and let them learn twenty."

Because I was inclined to listen to him, I rolled that around in my mind in the years that followed. In the end, I decided he was right but I also decided I did not agree with him. My answer to my question became, "Tell them one hundred percent and let them learn one hundred percent."

Like Christmas presents under the tree, it's funny how what is fierce comes differently wrapped.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"a minor scratch"

"A driver has escaped serious injury after a heavy metal beam fell off a truck, bounced then pierced his BMW X5 SUV's windscreen in San Jose, California.
"The driver was able to drive the vehicle to the shoulder of the road and no other vehicles were involved, fire crews said.
"The man received a minor scratch to his right arm, firefighters said."

artificial intelligence

Vast advance or assured suicide?
Prominent tech executives have pledged $1bn (£659m) for OpenAI, a non-profit venture that aims to develop artificial intelligence (AI) to benefit humanity....
Open AI says it expects its research - free from financial obligations - to focus on a "positive human impact".
Scientists have warned that advances in AI could ultimately threaten humanity....
Last year, British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking told the BBC AI could potentially "re-design itself at an ever increasing rate", superseding humans by outpacing biological evolution.
Does anyone doubt that the child will stick his fork in a light socket?

a movie I don't want to see

In my memory banks, "The Last Wave," directed by Peter Weir, is probably the most ballsy movie I ever saw. The 1977 movie is
... about a white solicitor in Sydney whose seemingly normal life is disrupted after he takes on a murder case and discovers that he shares a strange, mystical connection with the small group of local Australian Aborigines accused of the crime.
The spiritual daring of the movie blew my socks off. Apparently it blew Weir's socks off too because his subsequent movies ("The Year of Living Dangerously," "The Truman Show," "Witness" et al) while containing mystical/magical elements, bent a knee to Hollywood and the need to put spaghetti on the table. Still, "The Last Wave" is a benchmark in my memory. Who knows if it would stand up to rewatching today?

Like a child reaching out to touch the horizon, "The Last Wave" acknowledged the child in all of us. It was intelligent and unapologetic. It was no joke. It eluded the smarm that might have been brought to bear in other directorial hands. It was serious rather than solemn. Children fall down and skin their knees. There is literal blood on the tapestry of this childhood.

I guess I find myself casting back to "The Last Wave" because "In the Heart of the Sea" made it into movie theaters this weekend. A Variety review seemed to sum up the luke-warm reception it got when the magazine described the movie as "a pedestrian retelling of a harrowing real-life survival story that served as one of the key inspirations for “Moby-Dick.”"

Reading reviews is not something I generally do, but in this case, I had recently finished the 2000 book on which it was based. I liked the book, which was quiet and somehow embodied the vastness of the landscape on which 19th century whaling ships operated... man-in-the-face-of-the-huge ... was this courage or greed or insanity? I liked the book, but a part of me simply could not believe a movie would or could be daring enough to capture or investigate or even whisper about the "it" of it all. I thought the reviews might cast some light. And they did. Good reviews, bad reviews ... still reviews cannot escape whether or not the reviewer was touched or moved or informed or drawn-out or shape-shifted out of a convenient world.

I had wanted to want to see the movie. Now I don't. Big and brash and bold and sweeping ... or maybe just disastrous ... these are coupons on the cereal boxes. Balls are a different matter.

Friday, December 11, 2015

fog duty

A satin cat of a foggy morning and whatever energy I have needs to be apportioned first to column-writing chores.
Out of the fog, into the fog.
Pin the tail on the non-existent donkey.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

patching the holes

When I was a kid in the first and second grade, it was not unusual to see other kids wearing patched jeans to school.

Levi's made a good, tough pair of trousers and most of us wore them to school, but, kids being kids, there was wear and tear, mostly at the knees. Moms, in that time, knew how to sew and did so, patching the holes as they appeared: No point in wasting an otherwise perfectly good pair of pants.

And the patching wasn't chic as it is in today's throw-away times. It was practical. "Fashion" was yet to come.

And so it is, I sometimes think, with my mind these days -- patching the worn and wearing holes in the tapestry; reconnecting dots that others may see as obviously-connected dots. The gaps get bigger as time passes and the patching process becomes more necessary or, as I increasingly sense, not necessary at all: The connections aren't really all that assured in the first place.

Again I am trying to write a newspaper column, to connect dots in such a way that others will know what I am talking about. My free-association is not necessarily anyone else's, so there is some sewing necessary ... to make it all seem connected ... even if it isn't ... or is.

It takes more and more energy to patch these jeans. Maybe I could just go naked.

"Christina's" burden

Without getting too smarmy about it, sometimes I think everyone's life may boil down to the evocative depiction of "Christina's World," a painting by Andrew Wyeth....

Struggle and sweat and laugh and cry and in the end there is always the house at the top of the hill and the keen awareness of the crippling barriers between here and there. With what arms and legs can I make this journey? I don't know and have to admit I may never get where I insist on wanting to go... and yet what other choice is there?

Oh, if polio were the only wall!

maple syrup wars

Organization produces stability, but it cramps individuality. Individuals want the blessing of stability AND the freedom of individuality: Sacrifice to a wider good becomes onerous and confining... and the resulting revolution brings instability back into focus.

The American political landscape comes to mind, as does the De Beers diamond cartel and...

The maple syrup wars in Canada:
Redheaded grandmother Angele Grenier doesn't look much like a criminal, but she is one of Canada's most wanted women.
And as such, she faces the likelihood of lengthy jail time, and fines of about 500,000 Canadian dollars ($368,000; £245,000).
Her crime? She's a self-confessed smuggler and illegal dealer, someone who sells contraband across province lines.
But what exactly is she selling that has so incensed the Canadian authorities, and seen the police search her property? Drugs? Guns?
Nope, maple syrup - the lovely, sweet stuff that you pour on your breakfast pancakes, or add to your biscuit recipes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

"Lean On"

Lean On ... what's au courant leaves me pretty much gasping in the prop wash, but that doesn't mean I can't find some fun in a young Danish woman who has found success:
MØ won critical acclaim for her debut album in 2014

commodity prices dip

Steel pipes wait to be loaded on to ships at Lianyungang, in eastern China's Jiangsu province [BBC]
What I know about commodities is negligible to non-existent, but the following tale of sagging prices caught my attention as the kind of thing that will come knocking on my own, quite-personal door:
Mining shares have continued to fall in the face of low commodity prices.
Shares in Anglo American, which fell more than 12% on Tuesday, fell another 10% on Wednesday morning in London.
The group announced on Tuesday it would cut some 85,000 of its workforce in a massive restructuring.
Among the major commodities only oil managed to stage a slight recovery, with Brent crude rising above $40 a barrel in Asian trade.
However, most analysts believe that any recovery will be short-lived with the world continuing to face a glut of commodities.

Donald Trump, a shining star

If nothing else, Donald Trump, the current political front-runner in the Republican race to be 2016's presidential nominee, must stand out as a shining star in the eyes of those who credit themselves with an aristocratic heritage and culture.

The English, the French, the Japanese, the Chinese, the well-appointed hordes everywhere -- the ones whose ancestors' portraits hang on the walls and act as a reminder of a refined and cultured existence stretching back hundreds, if not thousands, of years ... how could they not bask in this billionaire's brash assertiveness and idiocies? With a pitch-perfect politesse, which among this band would not look on Trump as the very model of an America they had always quietly disdained, even as they were willing to take its money?

Nekulturny -- that's Trump ... the very essence of an America which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; the contrasting backdrop against which the aristocrat, real or imagined, might measure his own stature and composure. A guy like Trump bolsters and supports ancient and well-heeled understandings of what it is to be kulturny -- understandings that quietly overlook the role that the unwashed played in the clean hands of poetry and politesse.

No need to fret. A bias is assured. Donald Trump helps to make it possible:
America is a nation of merchants.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

the Dalai Lama redux

Yesterday, on an Internet Buddhist bulletin board, a New York Times Magazine piece about the Dalai Lama floated into focus and I decided to test myself and try to read it. Like many people of my acquaintance, I too have fond, if brief, recollections of encounters with the Dalai Lama. I read the piece (sort of) with that twinkly fondness in mind.

I was dogged. The piece went on and on and on and on and on and I could remember times when every spiritual hangnail the Dalai Lama might have was of keen interest: What he did, where he went, what he said, how he affected others, the problems of the world and his assessments, his mystical depths, what his daily schedule might be, his humor, his seriousness ... on and on and on and on and there was a time when I soaked it up greedily. What a shining light.

But reading the piece -- or rather, skimming it -- I realized I didn't much care. I liked the Dalai Lama and was grateful to the stimulation he once brought to my life, but ... but I was content with my inconsequential encounters. They were enough. Reading the piece was a little like running into an old girlfriend with whom there had once been fire but now there were merely pleasant embers. It wasn't something to ignore, but it also wasn't anything to write home about.

What a nice guy. Isn't that enough?

Strange to think how fierce the attraction once was and how lazily banked the flames were now. Not dismissive or critical, particularly, just a topic that others might jump up and down about but I no longer could. A serious and silly man and I like silly and serious people, flawed or otherwise.

What a nice guy.

Mt. Etna erupts

"After almost two years of quiescence, Mount Etna erupted this past Thursday with a spectacular display of lava and volcanic ash. Southern Italy woke up to ashen sky and a red glow above Sicily coming from Mt. Etna on the eastern edge of the island. The active volcano produced one of the most violent eruptions in recent decades and lasted in total less than an hour." 
And here is Reuters rough cut from yesterday:

Strange to consider what set of circumstances will bring what perspective to worldwide or even personal events of the moment.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Dave Allen assesses "the clock"

"a date which will live in infamy"

December 7, 1941
“A Date Which Will Live in Infamy”: FDR Asks for a Declaration of War. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, stunned virtually everyone in the United States military. Japan's carrier-launched bombers found Pearl Harbor totally unprepared.
What horrors were yet to come in the wake of the presidential speech? Excruciating, consuming, horrific in little ways as in large.

And yet here is the anniversary and not even the infamy lives on.

I am so sorry and yet am in need of something to feel sorry for or about.