Sunday, May 31, 2015

impaled by a swordfish

A man has died in Hawaii after apparently being impaled by the bill of a swordfish.
The fishing boat captain spotted the fish swimming in Honokohau harbour on Hawaii island, said a local government office.
He jumped into the water and speared the fish, but the fish then struck him in the chest, said witnesses.
"Jumped into the water...?

Oh well, perhaps millions of spiders floating down from the sky makes better sense.


Yesterday seems to have been a day of acknowledgements among other things.

For starters, my neighbor, Joe, a 60-something, came across the street to show me the award he had won during yesterday's graduation ceremonies at a local community college. He was wriggling with smiles.

Finally, he had gotten his ticket punched in the world of counseling elderly citizens, an activity he likes but had found himself shut out of for lack of a socially-approved certificate. For months, he gritted and ground his teeth, churning out academic analyses and learning long words and ... well, playing the game. Along the way, he would come across the street to sound off on all the younger students who didn't have a clue -- but knew a lot of lingo -- about the very real problems that life can serve up. They were sincere but also, in the end, tiresome.

Well, Joe's home free now and looking forward to scouting the terrain in Canada where he has a home -- seeking to set up some schooling for hearing-impaired people (his daughter has a cochlear implant). I wouldn't be surprised if he felt a bit of postpartum depression yesterday: The baby had been delivered and, as with all endeavors at last completed ... now what? But he was wreathed in smiles and I smiled with him. Good for Joe!

In the afternoon, an envelope reading "do not fold" was left on the porch. It was addressed to my younger son and when I brought it into the house and gave it to him, he said, "at last!"

So what was it, I asked? He ran a rending finger along the lip of the envelope and withdrew a handful of documents, the most impressive of which was acknowledgment of him as a minister in the "Universal Life Church." There were also smaller certificates he could put in the car window announcing that the person parked here was a minister or a religious-press representative. I recognized these latter as useful tools when seeking a parking space on a crowded day when police-department officials might be handing out tickets to the unwary and unwise. A minister or religious functionary might not stop the cops, but it might slow them down.

"Now I can marry people," my son said, though he didn't seem to have anyone specific in mind. Nuptials seemed to be at the top of his pleasure list after having sent off $30 to an Internet site and receiving an accreditation that seemed flimsy at best -- a kind of raspberry to the officious world of religion: If anyone can become a minister for thirty bucks, what was all that schooling that others worked so hard to master about?

I like a good tweak -- a good rat fuck -- as well as the next person, but my son's ministerial packet made me pause. On the one hand certification of accomplishment is an accomplishment others may or may not acknowledge. But what is the price of accomplishment? Is it merely to wow others, to receive their genuflects, to bask and wallow and be well-thought-of by a group that wanted to think well of itself? That's certainly one approach ... perhaps all too common: I've got a gold star and you've got a gold star so we can be social companions who, without saying so, can implicitly exclude those without gold stars. And who knows, maybe a gold star actually does prove something. But what?

My son's documentation certainly did not imply he had expended the sweat equity other "ministers" might have. On the other hand, is there some reason anyone can't be -- or isn't -- a minister?

What does anyone have when they actually have it? And the best I could figure was that now there was a responsibility to shoulder. Nothing can ever be relegated to some settled past, a comfortable and assured cushion of smug satisfaction.

And I wanted to tell my son that although he might be inclined to brag on his new-found status, he should be careful: Someone might actually believe he was a minister and come to him in great sorrow and seeking relief because he was a "minister." I wanted him to recognize the responsibility he had to set aside his plumage and be prepared to sooth and smooth and help out in reality what otherwise was just a rat-fuck silliness. His status might be fun, but if someone took it to the next credulous level ... well, there's a time for fun and a time to serious up and be kind.

What spiritual persuasion does not contain within it the tale of some thief or other rapscallion who dons some holy clothing as a means of hiding his identity from those who would punish him? He tricks those in pursuit and then, bit by bit, is himself tricked by the very trick he has played. He play-acts decency and goodness and becomes decent and good.

What spiritual aspirant, even though s/he is not a rapscallion, does not seek to somehow trick a spiritual discipline and bring it under a personal control ... only to find him- or herself tricked? Everyone starts out by fakin' it, by making the moves and talking the talk ... and then, with luck, is tricked out of that trickery.

I do not worry too seriously about my son. First of all, he is likely to forget all about his new-found status. Second, even if, for some reason, he chooses to follow it to another level, he will probably make the same errors as anyone on a spiritual path might make but in the end will come out OK because he is, before he ever got a gold star, a kind person.

Same for Joe.

Same for my son.

Riding into the sunset of accredited accomplishment amounts to riding into the dawn.

Or that's what I choose to think.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

listening to music

I have been listening to a little music I like and note....

It is like being embalmed while alive, my brain skewered and twirling on some ancient implement and then drawn out of my nose. It's not unpleasant ...

Suddenly, in a trice....

Shouting, laughing, swooning, dipping, weeping with joy, whisper and wallow ... an ecstasy without anyone to feel ecstatic....

Where did I go and why should I care?

truffles and trespassers

Bits of law:
-- PARIS (AP) -- A court in southeast France has sentenced a farmer to eight years in prison for the shooting death of a suspected truffle thief.... Truffles sell for up to $1,000 per kilogram (2.2 pounds).
-- RENO, Nev. (AP) — Accused of murder for confronting two unarmed trespassers with a deadly barrage of gunfire, Wayne Burgarello walked out of a Nevada courthouse a free man after the jury found him not guilty of all charges in the latest of a series of cases nationally testing the boundaries of stand-your-ground self-defense laws.

shaking off the soggy conflations


Just because a thing is secret does not mean it is important...
       Any more than...
       Just because something is not secret means it is unimportant.

This is not just some gimcrack philosophical talking point. Failure to take on these conflations means people will get hurt and, as President Obama was quoted as saying when assessing the American involvement in the Syrian civil war, "Don't do stupid shit." Secrecy as the truth or lack of secrecy as the truth -- "Don't do stupid shit."


Somewhere in Hinduism there is the tale of a student who huddles with his teacher in an intimate setting. As by tradition, the teacher gives the student a mantram, a selected bit of Hindu text which acts as a guiding principle for the student in future. Mantra vary according to the teacher's assessment of the student. And in this story, as ever, the teacher warns the student never to reveal his mantram. "If you were to tell others, it would save the whole world," the teacher says approximately.

Upon leaving the teacher, the student rushes out to the public square, assembles a crowd and promptly tells them his mantram. You gotta love the Hindus! They dare to smile, they dare to laugh, they dare to take on the ordinary man's ordinary way of thinking. If spiritual life reaches everywhere and always and if it is as wonderful as any student might dearly wish it were, then secrecy is A. a bald-faced fantasy and B. just one more cruelty in what can be a cruel world. 
In Zen Buddhism, a discipline I have slogged around in for a number of years, there are periodic bouts of mental and verbal dyspepsia over the financial costs associated with extended retreats or sesshin. An elderly teacher in my bomb zone -- was it Yasutani Roshi? I'm not sure -- was once asked about whether and how much to charge aspiring students, who were sometimes financially strapped. He laughed and replied, "Oh yes! Charge them a lot! That way they will think the Dharma is worth something!"

The Dharma -- the enlightened state, the big-bingo truth of things, the everywhere-and-always of things, the primal wonder and goodness of things, the inescapable nature of things, the very-god of very-gods ... how could anyone charge money for such a bright light? Wasn't that false and mean-spirited? Wasn't the demand for $50,000 for a guaranteed enlightenment experience both crass and cruel and exceptionalist? Wasn't the same true for lesser charges? Didn't it sully the purity of goodness and omnipresence and, well, the dream? How could anyone charge a lot for what ought to be -- because it was -- free? Surely the Dharma was worth a great deal ... right up until the moment anyone put a price tag on it.
Oscar Wilde once wrote that a cynic is a man "who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." By this pungent yardstick, I wonder that anyone might consider himself less than a full-blown cynic. And yet out of that cynicism -- that knowing and assigning of price -- the bright light of idealism, the rock-solid certainty that there is some ineffable value that cannot be taxed -- gains considerable stature. The contrast is inherent in Wilde's bons mots. How could anyone deny or demean this state, this value ... listen to a piece of beautiful music and be swept up and melted; read a poem that purely shoots you dead; love and be speechless. The is a land where secrecy finds no purchase ... until someone puts a price tag on it... at which point those deeply touched exclaim and complain and give umbrage. No! No! No! God is not for sale ... except, perhaps, on Sunday.
After World War II, the British assembled a documentary called "The German Concentration Camps Factual Survey." Until this year, the movie was suppressed because it was feared that the horror and guilt it could instill in German viewers might demoralize a Germany that needed reconstruction more than it needed a guilt trip. Out-takes of the movie were aired and focused on "ain't it awful," which it sure as hell was. But the wider implications -- a more grown-up view -- were kept under wraps, much as the wider implications of a "war on terrorism" today are kept under wraps amid the "ain't it awful" of nightly news reports ... or the price tags of spiritual life are used as a stopping point for dismay and complaint. The American out-takes on the concentration camps were and still largely remain in the "ain't it awful," shock-jock realm ... which is one reason the shock of the Holocaust dwindles even as the ostensibly well-intentioned strive and claw to keep it alive.
Last night, I dreamed of a copper fire extinguisher which was adorned in ways that suggested "Alice in Wonderland." I was looking it over and felt myself drawn to it, though I don't much like "Alice in Wonderland." I wanted to have it, to take it home, to love it. But as I was looking it over, a friend pointed out to me that there was a price tag affixed -- a price tag I had utterly failed to notice. The price tag said, "$430." And with genuine surprise, I thought, "How could anyone put a price tag on this love child of mine?!" I meant it seriously. It just didn't compute ... didn't fit together ... was apples and oranges or as ridiculous as the old joke question, "What is the difference between a duck?" ... price tag and love: Imagine that! I felt the sort of surprise I feel when looking over an assemblage of bidders at Sotheby's or Christie's ... paying big money not because something reaches down inside them and sings, but because it's a "good investment" or its color scheme complements the living room couch.

What'll it be? The ascendency of bourgeois mediocrity or the aristocratic snicker of excellence? Or perhaps a little from Column A and a little from Column B ... all of it descending into a stomach that is not entirely content? Where the secrets and the obvious mix and mingle, is there any chance for relaxation and a noonday doze?

Friday, May 29, 2015

"American Sniper" Chris Kyle

Because my son is in the National Guard and because he was pretty enthusiastic about it, I am reading a book called "American Sniper," a "#1 New York Times Bestseller" and "autobiography of the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history."

At 38, Chris Kyle was shot dead on a Texas shooting range in 2013 by a fellow combat veteran who had likewise served in the Middle East.

The book is ineptly written and poorly edited and I read it anyway. Along the way, I keep hoping there will be something to tell me about the man behind these words. The book manages to skirt that possibility by depicting a man who is content with a loyalty and patriotism and fervent courage. The American flag is enough to move him deeply. Friends, family, country and fellow SEALs are the touchstones of the identity Chris Kyle chooses to don in "American Sniper."

And I am reluctant to argue: There are more Chris Kyles out there -- more people content with what is approved by others -- than there are those willing to reflect. Finding fault does not interest me as much as trying to understand and sympathize: Who would not like a well-defended and warming persona, a dignity born of agreed-to values? Those who insist on sidestepping their own horrors may horrify me, but it doesn't horrify them and I am curious about the protective certainties ... do they pan out for the one espousing them? Fuck the mealy-mouthed moralists: Does it work ... for them?

Chris Kyle and wife Taya
I have only read 110 pages of a 400-plus-page book but I find myself harkening back again and again to some nature essay I once read in which it was observed that a wounded or sickened or weakened bird will puff up its plumage as a means of suggesting that it is still full of competence and protective vigor. The weak get savaged and killed and eaten -- better to look your best and keep dangerous predators at bay. Look ma! I have an Apple watch ... I'm in with the in crowd, hitting on all six, no flies on me.

"I yam what I yam," said cartoon character Popeye.

Chris Kyle probably would not have liked me. I'm one of those eastern sissies who can't break a bronc or lasso or cares much for the shooting I once did pretty well. Chris Kyle grew up in Texas and Texas is sui generis ... a sui generis which I am not. Chris Kyle wouldn't have liked me, I suspect, but I sort of like him. He's apparently straight as a string and, well, if that's what he wants to do, OK. There are more of him than there are of me, so ... I keep reading.

But much as I don't want to slip into some TED-talk, moralistic soup, I wonder as I read who the man is behind the man. Who is the inner fellow with whom Chris Kyle might once have gone to bed with? Yes, he is loyal and patriotic and combative and excelled in his training and sounds quite nice in some ways. These are all his choice and you can't fault a man's choices ... which is not the same as saying you can't notice them and wonder to what extent they are acknowledged as his choice or whether those choices and responsibilities were only a ticket to a social agreement and a warming, well-populated nesting place... a nook in the social fabric.

Asking a young (or even an old) man to think is probably too much. Patience -- or is it laziness -- is probably better: Life has a way of decimating all convenient boxes.

The sluggish announce, "I yam what I yam" or "it is what it is." And you can hear the unspoken addendum, "and that's that!"

A wholesome, hard-working, concerned, American patriot.

A man shot dead together with fellow veteran Chad Littlefield  by a fellow veteran, Eddie Ray Routh, who was said to suffer from a PTSD that followed in the wake of his deployment to an arena in which Chris Kyle throve, if his book is to be believed.

American Sniper -- I yam what I yam and I yam willing help someone with PTSD to see the world as I do. 

PTSD -- I yam what I yam, even if I might be lying.
"You took the lives of two heroes, men that tried to be a friend to you, and you became an American disgrace," Littlefield's brother Jerry Richardson said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Your claims of PTSD have been an insult to every veteran who served with honor, disgracing a proud military with your cowardice."
The moral platitudes rise up enthusiastically. But there are more of them than there are of me, so I keep reading.

spoofing Duggar child abuse

It's a serious case, but serious cases sometimes don't land the best body blows.

I thought this spoof -- passed along in email, was a pretty good example.

Maybe the Duggars would be interested in the punishment meted out to a child molester in China.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

making a donation

I honestly cannot figure out why I did it. With all the needs in the world, some of them tragic beyond naming, somehow this one got to me and I made a small donation in support of a local high school senior who supports her mother with a part-time job. Her mother has Stage 4 cancer.

The computer bucked and balked as I wove my way through a GoFundMe web site that would allow me to donate to Sylvia Hemminger and her daughter Hayley Hemminger-Martin. The machine kept warning me about the insecurity of the site. Somehow, I was willing to take that risk. Something just grabbed me -- perhaps the idea of a teenager on the cusp of her adult life being confined in a little-room-to-ramble arena of sickness ... a bastion of childhood turned into something in need of buttressing.

The reasons and possibilities for why I made a donation dangle like the tentacles of some Portuguese Man o' War jellyfish ... each stinging tendril defining a part of the foundation but none encompassing the whole.


Because I read a newspaper article?


The only sassy response I can find is, "Oh grow up! Why not?!"

dancing with a fat girl

The smothering blubber of summer humidity gathers strength in my neck of the woods and somehow I am ashamed of how easily it can decimate my energies. Well, shit! It is like crawling into bed with a Walmart lady and being forcibly enfolded by a space-hogging fatness that gives no quarter.

Somehow it reminds me of a school dance I went to in the seventh or eighth grade, a time when fat kids were singled out for a knee-jerk ruthless teasing. Somehow, I ended up dancing with a fat girl. I think her name was Audrey. And with a few steps, all of my male certainties about fat kids were thrown into a cocked hat.

First of all, I realized that Audrey was incredibly nice. Just a really nice person. Probably nicer than I was. And second, she moved with a lightness I could feel where my hands took their ritualized position in her hand and on her waist. It was like holding a feather. Though I could see her plainly, still, it was as if she were barely there. It was beautiful. How did she do that?

I never did find out, but I know it melted me.

The summer heat is nothing like Audrey.

British tradition

Britain's Queen Elizabeth proceeds through the Royal Gallery before the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords, at the Palace of Westminster in London.

life imitates art?

"Kermit -- everyone's favorite singing and dancing frog might be real. Or, at least a frog that looks like Jim Henson's popular Muppet. The Costa Rican Amphibian Research Center just announced the discovery of a new glass frog species."

vegetarian food for thought

Received in email:

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

religion loses its helium

Passed along in email was this National Catholic Reporter essay by

 I found it an interesting and clearly-written depiction of a niggling sense I have had lately ... suddenly religion and the authority it once wielded is being relegated to the status of cap pistols and dolls ... very important in their childhood time, but now somehow drifted-away. And I have a sense that it is not the righteous atheist egg-throwing or even the pedophile priests or other negative p.r. that made it happen  ... it just drifted and shifted like some dulcet sunset.

It feels like acne ... something to find compelling in its moment and yet eventually outgrown.

On the one hand I am pleased. On the other, given the culture I grew up in, I am flabbergasted.

Religion loses its helium.

small Buddhist icon, big human result

The spiritual path is littered with shards of penetrating glass, bits of old barbed wire ... proving itself over and over again capable of twisting its own best meaning. I keep a skeptical and occasionally jaundiced eye on what I practiced for so many years. Where the light shines brightest, it is well to keep an eye skinned for bullshit.

And then along comes a story that is so down-to-earth and so gentle and so nourishing that it shuts my skeptical, jaudiced gob. "How lovely," my mind says. "No reason not to take part in this small nourishment."

Here's the story that opened my taps today.

No big deal, but a pretty big deal, I think.

Or maybe I'm just getting old a squishy.

Reminds me of the old, straight-as-a-string shepherd's prayer that was admired by the Bal Shem Tov ... approximately ...

Dear God,
Though I keep the sheep
Of others for money,
For you I would keep them for free
Because I love you.

academic disciplines

Academic disciplines are a little weird in my mind.

A biology teacher teaches biology. Whether s/he is a "biologist" or not is up for grabs.

A sociology teacher teaches sociology. Whether s/he is a "sociologist" or not is open to question.

A philosophy teacher teaches philosophy ... and yet is often unblinkingly referred to as a "philosopher."

This last leaves me scratching my head. And I guess the same thing is true for spiritual discipline. Is anyone a certifiable Christian because they teach Christianity ... or a Buddhism teacher a Buddhist?

It's a somehow-sour note in my musical lexicon... close, perhaps, but in the old carnival-speak, "no cigar!"

dismembering democracy

To my mind, you have to set aside the revulsion or delight that can attend on the "Frontline" investigation of America's policy of torture if you want to feel the body blow that that policy dealt in the name of democracy.

The program is 54-plus minutes long and thus not for the Twitter or Facebook crowd.

I watched it first yesterday and, as is often the case with the program topics, I came away feeling dirty and demeaned by the other terrorists -- the ones claiming to protect my country from terrorism. "The United States does not torture," George Bush, the president of the United States, said in an address to Congressional leaders and hence the world. He lied ... or at any rate hid behind the Jesuitical skirts of an indecent law, acceded to by Congress, that permitted torture where the international community called it illegal.

The horror of what was done to prisoners was bad enough so that in one report, the interrogators themselves turned away or vomited. And the bald fact came out again and again -- torture, by whatever name, did not provide the information the torturers and their minders hoped to elicit in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, demolition of the World Trade towers and other high-value targets.

Torture didn't work.

Torture was illegal.

"The United States does not torture" and it destroyed the tapes that documented that torture. The Congress approved a law that gave immunity to all those engaged, in whatever capacity, in what the president of the greatest democracy in the world said the United States did not engage in.

The demolitions of Sept. 11, 2001, were frightening. To allay that fear, something had to be done. And from there, it was a short step to the cottage industry -- in which the United States invested millions, if not billions of dollars -- of a loosely-defined-but-politically-nourishing world of "terrorism."

Even John McCain, (R-Arizona), a Vietnam POW and somewhat addled conservative looked over the evidence and refused to support those trying to skirt the "torture" label. He is shown in the program, walking away and voice-over-quoted as saying something like, "It looks like torture to me."

OK ... there is the horror or, if you prefer, the delight, at the counterpunch that "enhanced interrogation techniques" seems to fulfill. "It's a war," one supporter says approximately. "Bad things happen in war."

Yes ... and yet there is some small voice that begs to believe in the decency of my country. Don't we stand for something and isn't that something worth nourishing? I cross my fingers and scrinch my eyes shut like a wishful five-year-old .... please, please, please, please, please ....

But the only sound I hear is the squeaking pulley as the polished and adroit raise yet another American flag.

Bit by bit and drip by drip, the exceptionalist patriots sell out my country for the swagger and swag of their indecencies.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

letter to a friend

Cannon ball
This morning I wrote back to an old army friend. We haven't seen each other in years and yet I think each of us counts the other as a serious friend. We write to each other (off and on) from within unquestioned bonds. Strange stuff, that.

Dear Barney -- Don't fret. I am used to hiatus, in letter-writing as in other things.

At the risk of trying your patience, here is a loose-leaf starting point/notes/thoughts that never got finished for me on the topic of "loneliness."
Getting old is like becoming a first-time parent: Everyone is a beginner.
On the one hand, there's no going back, but on the other, the power to accept and cope are not yet in hand: How is anyone to get a handle this brand new baby called old age? What are the rules of the road? To whom can anyone look for reliable counsel?
The honest answer to that question is that there is no one to look to. Yes, there are people who can TED-talk the topic of new babies and old age to death, but experience is an individual matter. There is no group hug of agreement that can actually lighten the confusing load.
Every field of expertise has its no-no's.
When it comes to race, there's the "n-word."

When it comes to cussing, there is the "f-bomb." 
And when it comes to old age, there is the -- uh-oh, "Big L."

The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, once observed that "Youth is wasted on the young." As witty and pointed as that may be, still it raises the counter-question, "If youth is wasted on the young, is old age likewise wasted on the elderly and if so, what is being wasted?"

In the corner of this room here, there is a collection of boxes and other bric-a-brac that once belonged to my mother who died in January. I have not found the energy or interest to sort it out, make sense of it, figure out what I covet. It's stuff, just as my stuff and yours, perhaps, is just stuff.

I have been thinking about the process of un-learning things, a strange bit of learning that attends on old age and dwindling light. One of the strange things about it, for me, is that you don't need to be a Zen Buddhist to run into a wall that is familiar to practicing Zen Buddhists: How much of this life has relied on the matrix in which we lived ... the people and thoughts and adventures that found themselves supported by the thoughts and adventures of others. Yes, I have felt woven and "a part." But now, ineluctably, bit by bit and drip by drop, I am forced to face the lonely fact: There is no sharing of experience ... it simply cannot be shared or buttressed in any way. My reliance on the matrix was a misapplication of trust. I don't mean this in a mean way -- railing about how unfair or sorrowful it all is. But rather it's like recognizing a daisy: What the hell else did I expect?

Well, it takes some getting used to ... sort of like a new baby. What is left when nothing is left? I can't propose some inane TED-talk pill of understanding or solution, but the best I can come up with is that we are like kids splashing in a delightful swimming pool ... what a kool place to do a cannon ball! But then, sometimes, the past reliance on the matrix creeps back in and loneliness can seem unbearable. Surely stuff must be more than just stuff ... I worked so hard to get it or learn it or digest it ... it's gotta be more than just stuff, doesn't it? Am I not more than just stuff? than a daisy? than a weakening body and mind?

Meaning and explanation? Get real!

Oh well ... just muttering from here. Thinking about stuff and sympathizing with the imperative to disconnect and/or connect with something else for you. Retirement has its up sides, but the down sides can be a burden no one wants to shoulder. What do I get when what I've got is taken? Friends and relations disappear. Where did they go?  I don't know, but I wish them well. Laughter and music make some sense to me.

Just buzzing around a topic you may prefer not to. News from this end is sparse. My two sons live at home and probably help keep me on some straight-and-narrow. Periodically, I write a column for the local newspaper, but the friction and debate required by writing loses its oomph, or so it seems. I don't want to talk about Nazis either. It's going to be hot today and I cower ... but at least it's not India for the moment.

Buck up, old friend. You've got company even as the company dwindles.


weather crescendoes

The death toll in an Indian heatwave has topped 800 as temperatures flirt with 50-Celsius (122-Fahrenheit).

The Texas governor has declared a disaster in 37 counties as an avalanche of rain decimated communities through the long holiday weekend and made counting the dead (confirmed at four) iffy at best.

Here, a hot day (near 90F) is predicted and a sissy like me cowers at its coming. I wonder if I would be cooler if I were invisible.

Monday, May 25, 2015

what's wrong with this photo?

It's always nice to see that someone is out of step as group activities muster and and march:

The Hopkins Academy Band march [sic] in the Memorial Day parade Sunday in Hadley [The Daily Hampshire Gazette photo by Jerrey Roberts]

Vatican bank profits

Anyone looking for a seemingly unbeatable investment opportunity should probably consider trying to get some money down on the Vatican bank, the Institute for Religious Works (IOR):
Reforming the IOR has been one of the most sensitive issues facing Pope Francis as he seeks to overhaul the complex Vatican administration after years of scandal, ranging from allegations of financial malpractice to coverups of child sexual abuse by priests.
After 2013 results that were hit by heavy write downs on investments and a jump in operating costs to meet new anti-money laundering standards, net profit last year rebounded to 69.3 million euros ($76.15 million) from 2.9 million the year before.
 And here I thought hedge fund managers were the guys and gals to watch for spectacular gains.

Silly me.

PS. And, associatively, received this in email:

Memorial Day

Sunday, May 24, 2015

fortune cookie du jour

The mind coughed up this fortune cookie...

Sleep with the sunset,
Rise with the dawn.

writing your own bible

Today I think:

Everyone writes their own bible. This is the text that lies below or behind the text brought to bear in social situations -- times when politeness or kindness or the longing to be accepted and loved holds sway. The bible is what anyone honest-to-god holds ... well, if not sacred, then anyway true in some deeper and more honest sense.

And a part of that bible is based on what has been un-learned -- the stuff that has been invested with social acceptance up until now and yet, through experience or thought, has had to be reframed or reassessed or just plain thrown out.

A small example might be something like "multi-tasking." Here is a socially-bandied notion that business and academia may toss around as if it were a social good -- an indicator of adult behavior.

But in my bible, multi-tasking is a bald-faced lie which may make business owners feel as if they were cracking the make-money whip effectively, but in actuality diminishes the product they are selling or trying to sell. No one can do more than one thing at a time. They may shift from one topic to another -- back and forth -- but they simply cannot do more than one thing at any given moment. Asserting that such a simultaneous function is actually possible may scare the shit out of employees and encourage them to be more 'productive,' but what is the actual result? The actual result is mediocrity in both tasks as distinct from excellence in either one. Those who seriously assert "multi-tasking" are saying in essence that they want more money without admitting to such a crass or perhaps wonderful -- but praise-worthy, dontcha know --  greed. In short, in my bible, multi-tasking is so much bullshit.

Or "holy matrimony. " Matrimony has many tendrils, but a great many of them can only qualify as unholy. The initial bliss wears out its welcome. Holy matrimony is something to unlearn or reframe. Socially, we wish the newly-weds the best. But in the bible we wish them and greater clarity -- one that may, in fact, nourish and wonderful love.

Or "love." Lord love a duck! Who has not got some social construct to slather on top of that one ... and likewise a biblical revision?

Or "death." The I-don't-know of it cannot deter a rousing social framework that awaits a biblical reinterpretation. You're scared, I'm scared ... how cozy to be scared together. But where that doesn't work either, well it's time to consult your own bible.

And that's the hard part, I imagine -- recognizing that it is my own bible. Well and truly no one else's.

I ... am ... responsible...

And there's nothing novel about that.

I may hate it as much as I like. I may mewl like a kitten or caterwaul like a cat in heat. I may pray fervently for some reassurance from out there or in here ... some other know-it-all who offers not only answers but a warming lap in which to rock.

It struck me this morning that checking your own bible from time to time is not a bad idea. That way, although the social adhesives which make life more friendly but don't quite stick do not consume a perfectly good life.

PS. Post facto I find that Thoreau had posited the same "write your own bible" line. I hadn't known and no doubt he had better things to say ... I discovered it while surfing for some sort of picture to add to what I wrote.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

attention span worse than that of a goldfish

Canadian attention span is said to be shorter than that of a goldfish. Why the observation is limited to Canadians (or goldfish for that matter) is not quite clear to me. Moreover, the serious fallout from a dwindling attention span strikes me as far from funny ... the dumbing down that attends on Twitter and Facebook and 'multi-tasking' is no joke:

Ireland's gay marriage vote

The Ireland vote that appears to have sanctioned homosexual marriage in a traditionally conservative and Catholic realm is certainly a reparation of sorts for a stigmatized population.

But beyond the obvious social impact, what occurs to me is the statement it makes about the voluntarism in shaping a religion. The writ-in-stone quality that religions can arrogate to its tenets is a figment of a frightened imagination.

Get it straight: You create your religion and any over-arching, daddy-knows-best quality, while it may be comforting, is just another bit of imaginative and personal creation.

Taking responsibility can be frightening, but it is one of the indispensable characteristics of a religious usefulness and joy and credibility.

Or anyway that's my take.

fallout from a pill

Last night, I took a pain pill before going to sleep. Today, predictably, the mind is a bit wubba-wubba and rubbery ....

-- Words slip away these days, or anyway lose their crisp edges, and two that I thought I'd look up today were "heuristic" and "dystopian." So I did. So what? What does anyone know when they know something? And, further, to what extent are words invariably used as defense mechanisms ... a way of asserting a presence and social connection that is dubious at best... a defense against the pale darkness of silence that pervades and insists like the informative emptinesses of a Chinese or Japanese ink painting. There is so much sky; what is the sky made of? Call it "relevant" and you miss the point. Call it "irrelevant" and you miss it again.

-- If, as I read the other day, women use 13,000 more words in a day than men, then ... A. What are women saying, B. What are men not saying and, C. If you knew the answers, what would you know?

-- Today is another in a series of sunshine-y, sparkling days -- cool and crisp and bright and perfect weather for the track meet my older son has gone off to coach. Somewhere in the leafed-out branches across the street, a woodpecker raps out an impossibly rapid tattoo. How the hell can anyone or anything move that fast?

-- It's Memorial Day weekend -- a three-day adventure that declares Monday to be a federally-mandated holiday for many. Remembering the wars. As usual, the greater the pride and orations, the more apparent the lack of tears becomes.

The other day, a Comcast technician came by to fix a TV connection that was on the fritz. Besides his cable job, he is also an Air Force reservist who spent time in Afghanistan as a radio technician. But when his radio duties were in order, he was also responsible for helping to unload planes bringing in the dead and wounded. When I asked him what that entailed, he said he was "not at liberty" to discuss the matter ... it was "classified." Perhaps Memorial Day is likewise classified ... it's OK to talk about the wars and warriors, the flags and bunting, but the fallout is stowed away in the "secret" bin. It's enough to make you weep.

-- Passed along in email as a reminder of the unsung workers who backstop all projects for which others are blithely credited was this:
In 2007, Boulder City commissioned local artist Steven Liguori to immortalize "Alabam," one of the unsung workers who helped to build nearby Hoover Dam. Alabam was a specialist. His job was to clean the outhouses of the vast construction site: sweeping refuse, tossing lime into holes, and restocking the always-diminishing supply of toilet paper.

Friday, May 22, 2015

gyrocopter pilot pleads not guilty

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Florida man who landed a gyrocopter atthe U.S.Capitol said Thursday that he will never pull a similar stunt again — and doesn't recommend anyone else try it either.
Douglas Hughes made the comments after appearing in federal court in Washington where his lawyer entered a not-guilty plea to the six charges Hughes now faces....
The charges Hughes now faces include two felonies: operating as an airman without an airman's certificate and violating aircraft registration requirements. Those charges carry a maximum of three years in prison. He also faces three misdemeanor offenses of violating national defense airspace, each carrying a maximum of one year in prison.


Perhaps it is the cool-warmth of the morning that brings it up and back....

My childrens' fingers move like lightning across the key pads of their texting telephones. Lord, they are fast. Lord, their eyes take on a fixed intensity. Lord, which of us has not sought out connection and love and reassurance? It does not matter that the mode of search leads to an dismal recognition that the tool employed guarantees the reverse of what is conceived -- distance instead of closeness; separation in place of connection; doubt instead of reassurance.

The cool-warmth of the morning puts me in mind of bliss. Cool-warmth ... easy, awake, without barbs or arrows or good intentions.

I dislike talking "bliss" and yet I suppose it's not much worse than lightning text messages. Now and then I feel like saying something nice about it, even at the risk of joining company with those who TED-talk it to death or sermonize without embarrassment. Their problem is, of course, that the bliss of which they speak only exists in the future or the past. Anyone seeking bliss will know that that's a crock of shit: How much nicer to be connected than to be "connected;" how much more convincing to bliss instead of "bliss."

As once I sought inspiration in books, so, perhaps, the children of my age seek inspiration in Twitter and Facebook. I wonder, but don't know, if the twitter-sphere inspires them to take action, to find out if the bliss and comfort and connection could possibly be true. I wonder if they too come to the brick wall a minister or other happiness merchant might reach when, after years of sermonizing and talking about bliss, the question rose up in a fury: "What if God were actually true?" What if all the previous p.r. really did relate to something real -- something that needed no p.r., no promises, no threats, no past, no future? What if, like Madeline Kahn in the movie "Blazing Saddles," the words came out of the darkness in a scene with the black sheriff she is seducing:
"Is it true what they say about the way you people are gifted? Zzzzzzzip! Oh it's Twue.... it's twue.... it's twue!"
The books I once read inspired me to hitchhike across the United States twice. To actually do it in the wake of adventurous dreaming that rose up off the Beat Generation page. I wanted to join the non-conformist, inventive crowd who had done similar things. I wanted to know what it was to be in with the out-crowd. In the event, of course, hitchhiking was not the wondrous thing I had imagined. It had its lessons to be sure, but the lessons did not conform to the blissful light-heartedness I had devoutly credited.

Can bliss be realized by seeking bliss? I doubt it.

During one of my hitchhiking adventures, I found myself, late one night, dropped off on a two-lane road in Pennsylvania. It was the end of summer and I was heading for the east coast. The likelihood that I would catch another ride on this small road at this time of night was slim, so I stepped off the road and found a nook behind a billboard. There were white pines, so the ground was littered with pungent and soft needles and it was there I laid out my old army blanket, wrapped up, and went to sleep.

I awoke to a warm-cool morning, surrounded by gentle scents and a sense of what I can do no better than to call bliss. Not a cell in my body expressed any intention. Improvements and meaning were absent and irrelevant. There was no dissecting or praising possible. It was as relaxed as chocolate pudding. If someone had called it "wondrous," I imagine I might have snapped, "Don't be ridiculous!" On the other hand, ridiculousness needs its time to play, so, OK ... be as ridiculous as you like.

I don't know how long the sense of bliss lasted or where it went when at last it left. Naturally, there were and remain glances into the past that long to infuse the future with some similar experience. But that's just more texting and TED-talking, more running away from what I might claim to want.

It was nice.

And these days I think bliss is not what anyone can seek out. Bliss just seeks you out. No need to get your knickers in a twist:

It's just "twue" after all: Seeking is optional.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

women in industry

Received in email:

nomadic herding

An elderly Kashmiri Bakarwal woman leads a heard of horse near Peer Ki Gali, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Srinagar, India, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Bakarwals are nomadic herders of India's Jammu-Kashmir state who wander in search of good pastures for their cattle. Every year in April-May more than one hundred thousand people from the nomadic Bakarwal tribes arrive in the meadows of Kashmir and parts of Ladakh from areas of the Jammu region with their flocks of cattle and sheep. After crossing snowy mountains with their cattle and belongings, Kashmir valley's lush green meadows become their home from April to September, after which they begin their return journey. This seasonal shifting of “homes” ensures a regular flow of income for the families. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

Bin Laden or American wish list?

Like a knitted sweater whose trusted knots come bit-by-bit undone, a Reuters story about Osama bin Laden and his written wish list leaves a skeptical taste in my mouth.
Osama bin Laden was fixated on attacking U.S. targets and pressured al Qaeda groups to heal local rivalries and focus on that cause, according to documents the United States says were seized in his hideout in Pakistan and released on Wednesday.
The documents published by U.S. intelligence also contained details of purported negotiations between al Qaeda, its allies in the Pakistani Taliban and representatives of Pakistani intelligence, and what seemed to be an al Qaeda job application.
From the disinformation that led to the American invasion of Iraq to the intelligence revelations of Edward Snowden, what once might have been trust in a U.S. agency tasked with gathering and interpreting intelligence information has weakened and frayed until now assertions that might once have been credited now compels the question, "Who will verify that this information is not just another self-serving bit of disinformation?"

Losing trust is a pricey business, not least because of the body bags returned to the United States. Integrity is as hard to quantify as it is to win, and yet I sometimes marvel at the willingness to go on crediting and trusting what has proved so fragile and dubious in the past.

Doubting your policy makers is not a nice feeling. It's sort of sour and furry like a tongue after the previous night's carousing. The mediocrity swells like some oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oh well, Lincoln wasn't wrong: "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time."

failure to bridge the gap

It seems now to be a hundred years since Bill Samaha, my 90-plus-year-old stepmother's longtime partner, bought the house in Worthington, a hilltown community perhaps 40 minutes from here. Now he is trying to sell it: The gatherings and sweat of yore are no longer. Yesterday I looked over the real estate dealer's web-site presentation of the house and grounds and found myself sorely shaken.

When Bill bought the colonial (real colonial, not just some real estate descriptor of a 50-year-old house) farmhouse, the only water supply came from an uphill spring, the barn was collapsing, there were second-growth trees everywhere and the house itself was awash in small, low-ceilinged rooms whose doors could be shut to conserve heat. Weekend after weekend, some segment of the family would go to Worthington to work and laugh and make changes. It wasn't sissy work. At the end of the day, the group might sit around the dinner table a drink Big Herm (I swear it's true), a rot gut wine my brother-in-law brought once as a hoot and everyone got to hooting after choking it down.

The thing that fried my circuit box yesterday was the bridge. Somehow, while I had been raising kids, Bill had added this structure ... an almost Louis XIV addendum of luxury about which I had known nothing ... and my demanding mind asked incredulously how that had happened without my knowing. I felt possessive and dispossessed. There was something 'wrong' about that luxury item ... something upsetting. It was like a too-bright light on a well-lit and well-fashioned stage ... a stage I had once been on and held carelessly in my mind.

Well, as Beatle John Lennon put it, ""Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans." Somehow the down-home memories I had of the Worthington house had been by-passed and I was reluctant as hell to revise my thinking. And yet the big-ticket bridge demanded it.

I guess bridges go from here to there and staying here is not an option.

a small silly

Passed along in email:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Israel 'ditches' segregation

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday called off a proposed plan to segregate Palestinians from Israelis on West Bank buses, overruling his own defense minister following a flurry of criticism in an attempt to avert the first crisis of his new government.
An official in the prime minister's office said Netanyahu called Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon to tell him he found his proposal "unacceptable" and the two then decided to freeze the plan.
What does it tell you about a country that would even conceive of such a plan. The next time Israel waxes moral and moralistic (or the United States either), consider the question.

In earlier times, when political correctness lacked its current foothold, there was an expression: "How very white of you/them."

Maybe lynching could be outlawed next.

the gossamer of memory

Memory, as compliant and gossamer as cotton candy....

And sticky. Let's not forget sticky -- an unreliable adhesive, it's true, but still, sticky.

With a nourishment value at about zero, memory is nonetheless delicious and blissfully unaware of its oh-so-certain malleabilities. "Good" or "bad" are equal in the eyes of memory: Infuse any add-on you like and memory complies.... Yum-yum-yum or ouch-ouch-ouch -- no matter: This is a world where, for a lip-smacking moment or two or longer, delicious certainty rules.

Perhaps it is easiest just to slap a label on it: The universe IS cotton candy. Get used to it.

This morning I remember a time when I was about kindergarten age in New York City. We lived four or five stories up in one of the apartment buildings on Claremont Avenue. We had a cat named Vyacheslav Molotov Toffee (after a popular Russian communist of the time) whose name was generally shortened to "Toffee."

In warm weather the windows were left open. There was no air conditioning. And the sounds of the street would float up and waft in: The man dragging his cart and calling out from the street below -- inviting people to give him their rags; the ice truck which delivered blocks of ice to those who still used "ice boxes" to chill their food and keep it fresh; the knife-grinder who would stop his truck and grind the knives of those desiring it ... on the street, you could stand at the back of his truck and watch him sitting patiently at his twirling grind stone; the coal trucks on tires made of solid rubber (not pneumatic) that would stop, open the bulkheads set into the sidewalk and send coal sluicing into the nearest apartment building ... the sound remains embedded in my mind; and the organ grinder who came around with his one-legged hurdy-gurdy to which a monkey dressed as a bellhop was attached: The man would grind, the monkey would hop around and people, like me, would throw pennies from the windows above where he stood ... and yes, I admit I tried now and then to hit the grinder himself.

The street car one block away cost a nickel.

Looking back, the memories seem to be infused with a kind of innocent honesty: These visitors did honest work for honest pay.

And, of an occasional evening, I might walk unattended up to Broadway where the white Good Humor truck dispensed ice cream bars. I didn't care that much about the ice cream, but I liked having the stick on which the ice cream was molded. Once the ice cream was gone, I could sit on the concrete sidewalk and, by scraping the stick against the stone, I could create a pointed stick ... a mildly powerful weapon with which to face the world, though I never stuck anyone with my home-made armament. Like any other human being, I longed for grown-up-ness and a sense of power in a world that seemed to view me as an ineffectual kid. Don't fuck with me!

The memories come back unattended by much nuance. What does a kid know of nuance? But likewise, what adult needs much nuance either? Is there anything nuanced about the present? It is pleasant to loll in a compliant past that lacks nuance.

So, this morning, I loll.

monthly column -- gyrocopter

Below is the monthly column appearing today in the local Daily Hampshire Gazette under the (Internet) title, "Douglas M. Hughes' air mail message of protest." It's a bit wussy and lazy, but then, I am a bit wussy and lazy, so perhaps it is a little bit honest.

I wonder if Hillary Clinton or Rand Paul or Jeb Bush or Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz will show up tomorrow.

May 21 is the day when Douglas M. Hughes is due back in a Washington federal court, accused of various offenses related to his April 15 gyrocopter landing on the Capitol lawn. Landing on the Capitol lawn is illegal.

"It's the safe money bet," Hughes wrote in an email to me on Sunday, that the arraignment will result in a trial date based on his perceived infractions.

Will the high-rolling and high-profile politicians be in the courtroom to either defend or decry Hughes' risky but peaceful protest against the sale of American democracy to the highest bidder?

The 61-year-old Florida mailman literally took his life in his hands to bring 535 letters to the seat of American power -- one letter for each member of Congress. The substance of his message was lost on a media too-easily consumed in the prop wash of excitement surrounding his landing.

Politically, Hughes is a hot potato. He may generate a following that any presidential wannabe would covet, but his message is too hot to handle in a world that relies on the political money he decries. My bet is that those eying the "for sale" sign on the White House lawn will stay home in droves.

Is Hughes another lapel-pin patriot, another Tea Party wing-nut waving the flag with great sincerity and little substance? I kind of doubt it, though I do not know the man.
Hughes planned his flight for two years, so to assume his was just a cranky, flag-waving, off-the-cuff adventure won't wash. Right, wrong or indifferent, Hughes was deliberate.

"... I did not commit this peaceful protest thoughtlessly," he asserted on May 15th in The Washington Post. "The most important requirements were met: No one was hurt, no property was damaged and the message was delivered."

At every written turn, Hughes seems willing to take responsibility for what he did: American democracy is just plain more important than the slogans or purchase of political clout or the acclaim anyone might seek in life, his message seems to say.

Hughes' action does not appear to have been grounded in any applauding or catcalling group. Hughes made up his own mind and went alone because ...

Because why?

Was it because, as the French writer Albert Camus once suggested, "too many people now climb onto the cross merely to be seen from a greater distance?" Was it for acclaim? Was it some outraged anger that the Supreme Court had declared political donations "free speech" in its Citizens United decision? Was it because there was only so much he could stomach of the bits and pieces of legislation that let banks and brokerage houses off the legal hook after they helped create what the media insist on calling the "Great Recession" -- mostly because "the Great Depression" is already in use?

What motivated Hughes and how appropriate are his concerns and criticisms?

The news media have no time for the news -- the background that would bring context to Hughes' actions. As with the issue of "terrorism," investigating what might have prompted Hughes' protest is left in the media shadows. Digging into the causes of "democracy for sale" or "terrorism" would require journalistic heavy lifting. How much easier and cheaper to focus on the excitement of a gyrocopter landing or another wispy and unsubstantiated story about the arrest of some addled teenagers bound for terrorist training in the Middle East.

Nor can I claim to be privy to Hughes' willingness to get into his gyrocopter, leave supporters and detractors behind, and, all by himself, land in the Capitol lawn.

But from where I sit, one possibility nags and whispers: For Hughes, it was a matter of honor, an old-fashioned word that implies a willingness to do what individuals might prefer not to do and to do it because it is right. Honor does not come cheap. It is more expensive than a lapel pin or a speech about "heroes." Honor sometimes demands personal sacrifice. Honor has its imperatives and to my mind, Hughes is meeting his.

Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz may avoid Hughes' court appearance like the plague and simultaneously lay an unabashed claim to honorable pursuits. But at what point will any of them leave supporters and detractors behind and jump, like Hughes, into an honorable fire?

Hughes landed his gyrocopter on April 15.

April 15 is the deadline for Americans to pay their taxes.

I wonder, with Doug Hughes, what those taxes will buy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

emotion and the law

NORTHAMPTON — Attorney David Hoose, one of a few Massachusetts lawyers who have tried death penalty cases, said Friday he was disappointed not only by the verdict jurors delivered in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but also with their quick deliberation....
 “It really sort of makes me look at victim-impact evidence and the role passion and emotion has in capital cases. Passion and emotion is not supposed to be part of criminal justice system,” he said.
The above appeared in the local Daily Hampshire Gazette and has been nibbling at my mind for several days.

Passion and emotion is not supposed to enter legal deliberations? You don't need to be a Zen Buddhist to feel the koan-like pressures of that observation.

What is it besides emotion that led anyone to codify social rejoinders to anti-social events in the first place? Someone got pissed because someone else punched him in the nose; someone felt wronged that someone else robbed her deaf, dumb and blind; someone wept that a family member should have been coincidentally shot dead in some American shoot-out.

Angry, bereft, unjustly treated ... the litany is endless and the law is a recognition of emotional wounds .... but the law keeps a civil and reasoned tongue in its mouth. It is codified, carefully constructed, in-control ... whereas emotion is enormous and edgeless and can fly off the unreasoning handle.

On the one hand, I sort of agree with Hoose: Succumbing to emotion is too messy and, possibly, anti-social. On the other hand, I don't: Of course people want their emotional wounds bound up. It's good to stay on topic, to address the issue rather than the emotion that may infuse the issue. On the other hand, where is the honest dividing line between emotion and reason?

a good-looking 'Shakespeare'

If you know of knew what someone looks or looked like, what, precisely would you know?

It's a curious matter because anyone who has taken the trouble to get to know someone else knows that how that person looks is a good way from depicting who s/he is. On the other hand, looks do send a message and sometimes a message that is accurate.

A botanist in England is said to have 'decoded' various symbols surrounding a picture of a man who turns out to be, according to the botanist, William Shakespeare. Since there are few if any depictions of the English Bard, it is a woo-hoo discovery if true.

But why is it woo-hoo. Does anyone reading "Othello" or "Romeo and Juliet" or "The Taming of the Shrew" think how much richer or full of life the play might be if the reader knows what the 16th century writer looks like?

The same questions might be asked of The Shroud of Turin or any other painting or even photograph. What would you know if you knew and ... well, not to put to fine a point on it, who gives a shit?

On the other hand, "one picture worth ten thousand words." I do tend to trust my gut about what's inside the face or form I am looking at. A "mean cuss" or a "kindly" person is processed almost without thinking.

Odd stuff.