Tuesday, June 30, 2015

calling your bluff

Once, at a Zen Monastery I would later flunk out of, I was assigned the chore of cleaning up a walking trail that bordered a lake on the monastery grounds. There was to be a ceremony or celebration in the near future and there would be weekend visitors, not least among them, the blue-haired ladies who form the financial background of any religion from where I sit: No need to have them or anyone else fighting their way through the brambles and thorns that might lately have humbled the trail since last it was cleaned up. And so, at a morning meeting that assigned daily chores, trail clean-up was mine.

Being a monastery -- a place of spiritual focus -- no chore was ever assigned or assumed without an eye to the deeper meanings the chore might exemplify. This was a place in which individuals were encouraged to slow down and take a deeper look at their lives and anything -- anything at all -- deserved the sort of attention it might not have received in the hurly-burly, hurry-up, workaday world. The implicit question was, in what way did even the most mundane activity exemplify the deepest meaning that life might have?

I don't remember the specifics of the meeting at which I received my mundane and spiritual marching orders, but I have no doubt that someone, somehow, suggested that the outcome of my work -- the goal I might strive for when cleaning up the trail -- was that things should look "natural." "Natural," but neat, if that paradox were not too daunting.

But of course it was too daunting. Nature may receive drooling accolades in certain corners, but all the evidence points to the fact that nature is more frolic-some than anyone's notion of neat or messy, beautiful or ugly, austere or enriched, thin-lipped or frolic-some. Nature is beyond not-giving-a-shit. It's just nature.

And so, in the end, I was left cleaning up the trail as I might have under auspices that had nothing to do with 'spiritual' life. I could be as neatsy-poo, anal-retentive about every thicket and twig as I wanted and still it was just clean-up... the kind of observation that the spiritually-inclined might applaud (and in so doing, applaud and elevate their attentive way of life). And in a certain sense, they would be right, but there is something irritating (however useful) in all the folderol, the sweet sounds of spiritual violins: Fuck it! clean up the trail! And a smug voice may respond, "Exactly!"

Like Plato's (among others') snake (ouroboros) the situation comes around and eats its own tail -- the false becoming true and the true once again relegated to falsehood -- until ... poof! no more snake.

Associatively, I sometimes think that the process of aging involves nothing so much as the dwindling-away of people who will call your bluff. On the one hand, who does not pray for friends with whom to agree -- a sympathetic group in whose midst the need for social connection is requited? One way of expressing this kinship might be, "I won't call your bluff if you won't call mine." The bluff is not exactly a lie, of course. But when a lifetime has been taken to build and maintain a certain intellectual and emotional persona, there is some desire to find a place of rest and friendship and support.

On the other hand, with aging, it becomes more and more apparent how wonderful and downright needful it is to be in the company of those who will, indeed, call your bluff... those who will, implicitly or explicitly, ask, "On whose watch is this bluff being run?" and "About what, precisely, is anyone bluffing in the first place?"

As age advances, those who can or do ask such questions have a way of dying off. Fewer and fewer either accept or challenge the bluff and it becomes apparent that those who did challenge it were a wonderful support mechanism that now rusts in the corner. It's a bit like a rabid Tea Party member fetching up on some deserted island: The island, like nature, doesn't mind what your politics or sensibilities or righteousness are. Go ahead, bluff or expound all you like.

And so the snake turns upon its own tail, seeking out a sustenance and strength once provided by others. What was once skepticism and challenge is no more ... the current environment has bigger fish to fry, other fish, younger fish, more compelling fish. You can do what you like -- your bluff or persona or whatever is no longer called and, more, is no very big or compelling a deal.

Want to find deeeeeeep meaning in clearing a trail -- go ahead. Want to husband and exercise great power -- go ahead. Want to amass money or accolades -- go ahead. Unless you go on a shooting rampage, nature or the environment or the universe doesn't flinch. All the creative exercises in the world no longer receive a challenge, a bit of nourishment. What's left is the snake's tail ... closer and closer and closer to ... poof!

Today, I have a hankering for a good orange sauce to put on top of some chicken for dinner. Not some sicky-sweet 'Chinese' restaurant stuff, but something with the bitterness of the rind ... something "French" as I think of it. I'll try to look it up and hope I have the energy to follow the instructions. There's more to life than just eating my tail.

Monday, June 29, 2015

staking an essential claim

In the early-morning grey-and-rainy -- where the colors are best and the silence has a tactile quality -- it seems to me that every (wo)man needs to stake a claim in life to a place that sheds imperatives and improvements, that sings its own song and is devoid of social harmonies, that provides a beginning and end without addenda, that declines to agree or disagree, but is simply relaxed and at home.

A place within which no "we" can enter. A place to touch base before moving on to the cares and caring, tears and laughter ... kind of like a starter-motor on a big-rig diesel truck... a place that makes all other places possible and gently declines to do so.

Why stake such a claim? Because, I think, without such a claim, this place that nitwits may acclaim will perch like a mountain lion on some strategic rock ... not attacking, not sleeping, not muddying the waters of action in any way ... just perching and waiting and being and ... and ... reminding the one who has yet to stake a claim that there is something left undone, that goodness and mercy and war and improvement are all well and good, perhaps, but what is left undone needs to be requited as well.

Stake a claim where and how...? The improvement books cannot capture or define. Blog posts cannot cut the mustard. One man's hermit hut is another man's contemplation of a Popsicle. One woman's kiss is another woman's 100-meter dash.

It cannot be praised, this whatever-it-is-that-is-essential, and it's never far away, nor near either. It is just the place to stake the claim ... and relax ... and move on.

I apologize for calling it "essential."

Sunday, June 28, 2015

dead cat becomes goddess

TOKYO (AP) — Tama the stationmaster, Japan's feline star of a struggling local railway, was mourned by company officials and fans and elevated into a goddess at a funeral Sunday.

early spiritual questions

A fellow who didn't come last Sunday to visit and talk Zen appears to be coming later this morning. I don't know him but imagine he is looking for some sort of support, which, if I can, I will give him. It makes me think back to my earlier times and the two questions that whispered from the shadowed corners of an interest in/longing for spiritual clarity: 1. am I crazy and, 2. will I get sucker-punched?

The answers from where I sit today are,

No, you are not crazy...


Yes, you will get sucker-punched.

On second thought, maybe you are a little bit crazy: Anyone attempting to set aside belief in favor of something more assured is bound to look crazy from the point of view of a 'sane' world.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Montana surrenders ... sort of

I have always been a fan of Montana, the state that bucked the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United to allow corporations to give as much 'free speech' money to those seeking election as they chose. Montana's 1912 law which limited campaign contributions remembered a time when politicians bought their way into office.

Now Montana has given up its battle with the Supreme Court. It will conform to the Citizens United ruling, but, like a good martial artist, has added a proviso:
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana, a state that has long prided itself on strict campaign finance laws, is giving up on barring corporations from political spending and is instead attempting to expose every penny spent by them in elections.
Proposed rules released Wednesday to guide the state's expansive election law approved earlier this year would increase disclosure requirements for corporations and committees granted free-speech rights by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2010 Citizens United ruling.
"This is an embracing of Citizens United," Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said Thursday about the new law. "They can speak, they can spend their money. They simply have to tell Montanans how much they're spending, who they spent it against or for, when they spent it and where they got that money from."

drone delivers to Poland

Dutch campaigners have used a drone to fly abortion pills into Poland.
The group, Women on Waves, flew the aircraft from Germany to highlight Poland's restrictive laws against terminating pregnancies.
Waiting for the drone on the other side were two Polish women who took the pills, used to induce a miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy.
Abortion was legal in Poland in the Communist era, but outlawed in most cases in 1993.


One of the adult difficulties about struggling for an envisioned future is that success immediately falls into the past. What person, spiritually-inclined or otherwise, foresees a brighter tomorrow living a life in a dimming yesterday? It would be a fool's errand, as anyone who dotes or relies on his or her own past can tell you.

Here in the U.S., yesterday's Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage the law of the land is a case in point. Locally, I cannot help but wonder if that decision will mean that my home town will no longer hold its annual "Gay Pride Parade," a celebration that I always found both understandable and a bit sketchy since there was no similar "Straight Pride Parade" to bring a wider meaning to the matter.

But my local concerns don't really mean much. What interests me is the struggles and tears and frustrations and efforts that led up to the decision that is likely to face more challenges. I dislike prejudice or religious conviction that shuts out or shuts down or legislates one conviction at the expense of another when it comes to personal matters.

Gawd, what a struggle! I cannot know the half of it and yet the half I know seems heroic, though I cringe at the word. And yesterday, there it was -- a decision that in large measure spelled "success." How long had anyone slaved or hoped or prayed for such a day?! Legal rights underpinning what can be caring or careless relationships ... you know, the relationships anyone might have.

Up-hill, up-hill, up-hill -- fighting for a more equitable future. The froth-meisters may jump in here and do a jig about the trials ahead, but it's basically self-serving. In a very real sense, what the Supreme Court did was to proclaim victory ... and success.

Success resides in the past. People live in the present.

Imagine that: Struggling in the present so that in future you could live in the past. Am I wrong or is that devoutly screwy?

I guess I think there is some reason to recalibrate the ways in which "success" might be viewed or longed for or adored.

Yes, you won the race.

You made it into heaven.

Now what?

Living in the past is not a happy or sensible pastime, do you think?

Friday, June 26, 2015

practical joke

Sent along in email, this practical joke which, for anyone who has turned a hand to carpentry, is not so far from the Murphy's Law actuality of life in which the old saw was born, "Measure twice, cut once."

consumed by drugs?

Lurid, yes. But the possibility that drugs could consume a human being so utterly is ... is ... I'm not sure what it is.
PROVO, Utah - Investigators had a hard time believing a man didn't know his wife killed six of their babies and stored them in their garage, but they didn't have any evidence to pursue charges and eventually concluded he may have been so high on drugs he didn't realize what was happening, according to public records obtained by The Associated Press.
Under intense questioning from detectives after the April 2014 discovery in Utah, Darren West repeatedly denied knowing of his wife's shocking actions, according to transcripts of police interviews obtained through a public records request.
West acknowledged that he knew of a couple of Megan Huntsman's pregnancies from 1996 to 2006, but said she told him she had miscarriages. West said he had no idea what his wife did with the fetuses or bodies.
That was, in part, caused by the fact that he spent most of the decade high nearly every day on cocaine, methamphetamines or marijuana before being sent to federal prison on meth charges, he said.

racism ... the 2nd column of the month

Yesterday, I literally had one foot out the front door for my daily pretense that I am getting some exercise by walking around the block, when I got dragged back indoors by an idea. It was as if some well-known bear had opened its hibernating eyes: I had an idea and the idea, for better or worse, grabbed me and turned the old circuits back on ... DO IT! So I sat back down at the computer and knocked out a newspaper column on a topic I generally shy away from ... it's too vast, too faceted, too electrifying, too self-serving ... no one can get a handle on racism and pretending there is some handle is a pastime for fools. OK, I played the fool, wrote the column, contacted the editor who had told me that I was allowed one column a month in the local paper (this would be my second), and he agreed to shoehorn the piece in today because, as he put it enigmatically, it had "value." What the fuck does that mean? I have no clue and am not inclined to find one.

Where had the energy and drive come from? It popped up like some teenaged pimple that had just been waiting to appear full-blown ... not-cleared-up at all. Other writing projects have been dwindling, waning in my mind. My social outrage circuit has run out of the pep it once had. And yet this one for no good reason I could discern, insisted that I spend forty-five minutes not walking around the block. I didn't really think it was very good or very important ... all I knew was that I was bound to do it. I did. Then I walked around the block.

Here's what the newspaper printed:


NORTHAMPTON — Here’s another column about racism you do not need to read.

In the emotional tsunami that rose up after June 17 fatal shooting of nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a friend of mine sent me a proposal.

The Rev. Emmett Coyne, a Roman Catholic and author, suggested in a draft of a letter he wanted to send to a newspaper that a serious approach to racism in United States might be an American version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that a good choice to head such a body would be Charleston’s longtime mayor, Joseph P. Riley Jr., who is planning to retire.

Emmett and I knocked a few emails back and forth, tweaking the wording he wanted to use in his letter. I played the skeptical — very skeptical — editor ... and did what I could to help make the proposal more newspaper-friendly. Emmett hoped to get it published in time for President Barack Obama’s trip to Charleston today: Maybe the suggestion would catch his eye.

Emmett needed to cut the emotional chaff, I said — there was enough of that abroad in the land. Angry? Grief-stricken? Weeping? Historic? Forgiving? Healing? Forgetaboutit! To create an impact, state your premise in clear terms and leave the tears and hymns to others. That was my half-hearted suggestion.

It was half-hearted because I didn’t think the proposal stood a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving liftoff. If there is one thing America has proved it can do, it is to forget the lessons of the last news cycle.

Kids gunned down in a Connecticut grade school? That’s last year’s news. Banks and stock brokers fleecing the world? Bail ’em out and gut meaningful reform. Jon Stewart is a hoot as he points out hypocrisy after greedy hypocrisy on his Daily Show, but as we laugh, not a hair on Mitt Romney’s head is dislodged. And then there’s always “Mission Accomplished” followed by yet another conflict in which young Americans will die.

Well, I’m just your average white-guy liberal — someone exhausted by the mounting examples of things that need doing and fail to get done on behalf of the country I live in. I am beyond infuriated: I am tired. Mitt Romney et al. know I am tired. And the same is true for any more overtly racist covens.

The trouble with the idea of an American version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — a place where people could speak and be heard — is that it would require a willingness to admit that such a commission were warranted in the first place.

It would require me to step up and say that despite all my feel-good guilt and make-nice talk, I am a racist. Not overtly, of course. I don’t burn crosses or act super nice around those of other races, but my fatigue outstrips my outrage. I have my excuses.

To step up to the plate and concede that I have been part and party to the grinding slights that other races have suffered requires an energy and patience and courage and self-assessment the leaves me breathless ... as I suspect it leaves other good-hearted liberals as well.

There are children to rear, bills to pay, lawns to mow, family fights to fight, jobs to be fretful about, ... the whole panoply of living life. There are many ways as well in which I may chastise myself — and I really don’t want to shoulder another. Really, I don’t.

I am thankful for Emmett’s efforts. I am thankful that anyone might consider a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I am grateful that some less galling outlook might claim the national scene and the bullets and poverty recede, if even only slightly. Grateful, yes. But not willing to buy into some “caring” solution that solves little or nothing.

I am unwilling to express a hope I do not feel. If I could make things better, I would. But in the meantime, the best I can muster is a bit of honesty and a hope that I can live up to the Buddhist suggestion that, “It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do — that is my concern.”

It may not be much, but it beats the heartfelt pretense that rises up and falls away with such striking regularity.

Adam Fisher of Northampton is a regular columnist.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

contrarian leanings

As a social matter, I agree with what is sometimes called a "contrarian" point of view. This, of itself, is an oxymoron since, like some mindless Republican, I become a stalwart in the phalanx of those who agree that disagreement is a nourishing stance and there is no need to put out a positive program of my own.

No good thing is so good that someone cannot -- or will not -- fuck things up. Religion, social programs, kindness ... the list is endless of approaches that have a positive aspect and yet can be twisted to bruising ends... or have a negative approval rating and yet have some twinkling nourishment within. War is endlessly corrupting and evil, for example, but medical advances are invariably a part of the bloody battlefield.

And still, I will vote, more or less, for a contrarian stance. This is not so much a desire to have others agree, like some teenager, with a sweeping skepticism. Rather, I really do think there is a fruitful component to looking in the bathroom mirror and trying to see how much I rely on the accord or applause of others and how much is what I actually believe in or credit.

Relying on others is a tricky matter. On the one hand, it's socially cozy, of course, but human beings are social creatures. On the other, the more experience anyone accrues, the more likely they are to see that relying on others is relying on a house of cards. If my identity and peace of mind relies on the will or wisdom of the majority, how happy could I possibly be?

So I guess what I like about the contrarian point of view is that it takes me to a place where I assess whatever truth I choose to be happy with. It is a business to which individuals may apply themselves so as not to live uncertain lives. "Keeping up with the Jonses" is not simply a problem for the suburban bourgeoisie or other social feather merchants. It affects the mind of even the most virtuously endowed.

Is it worth it? Maybe. Maybe not. Any answer stands ready to excite a contrarian riposte.

"Thug Kitchen Cookbook"

Passed along in email today was this "Thug Kitchen Cookbook," which is not a recipe for those offended by dirty words, but offers some relief from the holiness of tofu:

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

smile-booster video

Passed along in email:

practical joke arena

Divorce settlement: Half for you, half for me
A curious cusp: A practical-joker whose tall tale inspires widespread belief is then required to apologize because someone else is gullible ... is that the way it goes?
What seemed to be an extreme act of revenge by a husband against a cheating spouse turned out to be a marketing campaign by a German legal information company.
It was a parting statement - literally. A newly-divorced German man, "Martin", recorded himself sawing all his possessions in half, and then put them up for sale on eBay.
On the one hand there are the demolitions of Sept. 11, 2001, and the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq for which no one has adequately apologized, and on the other there is the burgeoning touchstone of skepticism that such legerdemain inspires ... if everyone is a liar, is it anything more than a practical joke to try to winkle out the truth?

It is a lot nicer when the practical jokes don't get people killed.

Practical joking seems to be impractical on the one hand ... but it's so much fun to laugh, on the other.

in lighter times

Color me tacky
Like a harrowing case of teenaged acne that miraculously disappeared, yesterday's viscosity has turned to a cool, clear and bearable lightness this morning. The air, so to speak, is as light as air and the humidity has moved on for the moment.

I wish I weren't affected by heat and humidity, that I were a stalwart of some sort, but the fact is, I am not. The heat and humidity suck me down-down-down into some sluggish puddle in which any inventive, surplus energy is required for more mundane, survival activities.

In the cool, however, the playfulness returns. No more acne, no more galling sluggishness ... for the moment.

Whispering, for example, is a quote attributed in a previous blog entry link to Don Featherstone, the inventor of the plastic pink flamingo lawn ornament and a man who recently died. The scorn heaped on his creation didn't seem to dent his good humor and art-oriented common sense. He kept his art interests to himself as he created ticky-tacky for profit, but he did offer this observation, if the Associated Press is to be believed:
"People say they're [flamingo lawn ornaments] tacky, but all great art began as tacky," Featherstone said in a 1997 interview.
I don't know if this is true or not, but it has the ring of truth to me and, even if it's not true, still it is frisky in an art world too often tinctured with solemnity and ghastly sacrifice. It reminds me of [I think it was] Aldous Huxley who observed approximately, "If the intellectual travels long enough and far enough, he will return to the same place from which the non-intellectual has never started."

Ah well, the air is light, the light is light, the day is here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

pink flamingo creator dies

BOSTON (AP) — Don Featherstone was a classically trained painter, a talented sculptor and artist who became famous for creating the pink plastic lawn flamingo — the ultimate piece of American suburban kitsch.
And it didn't bother him a bit....
Featherstone kept his real artistic talent under wraps to everyone except those closest to him, Abrahams said.
"He decided it would destroy the illusion and pleasure for people who knew him for the flamingo, so he only let those very close to him see his work," he said.

church, politics, news

Passed along in email today:

Monday, June 22, 2015

"How Can I Keep from Singing?"

Sitting in a corner on the porch this afternoon, I was invisible witness to the arrival of the mail-delivery. Our local mail-woman, if that's a term, arrived at about 3:30 as she usually does. The street was empty of cars and pedestrians as far as I could see from my secluded perch. I heard her open the mail box, place the mail and close the box back up though I could not see her. But I could also hear something else: All by herself, alone in the universe of our neighborhood, she was singing.

How long has it been since I witnessed such a thing? I don't know. I suppose it's not important in the great scheme of things, but I found it somehow intimate -- almost secret -- and lovely in the small universe that is our street. It wiped me out. A delicious little gift ... plain as salt ... clear as brook water ... singing where no one else needed to or could possibly know. Perfect. Perfectly perfect.

It was like feeling a green grape explode in the mouth when biting down ... ker-blam! -- taste and texture everywhere; nothing else but juicy, delicious flavor.

I never did recognize the tune, but it sent me associatively to the Pete Seeger version (my favorite) of "How Can I Keep From Singing."

"Camp Kill Jews"

Passed along in email:

MADRID — The tiny Spanish village of Castrillo Matajudios — which means “Camp Kill Jews” — on Monday officially changed its name back to Castrillo Mota de Judios (“Jews’ Hill Camp”) following a referendum and regional government approval.

oh grow up!

If there is one marker that signifies "growing up," then I think outgrowing your heroes is probably it. I don't mean this in some fiddle-faddle philosophical or religious sense. I mean it literally.

No more, "what would Gandhi, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Mother Teresa, mother, father etc. do?" You've run out of praise and the willingness/ability to pass the responsibility buck. The only thing that makes any sense -- that's sense, not improvement -- is "what would/will I do?"

And it's enough to make you laugh that at just about the time when you start to run out of the energy and mewling that raises up one hero or another, the body and mind are growing listless and slack and how the hell are you supposed to meet this challenge when the fizz has gone out of the champagne left carelessly on the arm of the sofa?

Not that role models and heroes are sneered at. It's just that they are just models -- and models are not the real thing.

And if there comes a time when out-growing what might roughly be called "heroes" claims the day, how could what are roughly called "villains" be exempted? Villains are heroes too, don't you think? The ones who wounded you; the ones who tore up anything resembling a social or human contract ... Hitler or the devil or some wracking parent that clings and cloys out of the past and creates a guiding present.

TED talks and spiritual money-makers speak of "letting go," as if you could drop this carefully-assembled sack of praise or blame. But I think it is just a matter of outgrowing Jesus and Buddha and Hitler and the Holocaust and ... so ... just this once ... what would you do? Isn't the ground firmer here? Isn't the laughter real?

Yeah -- it's a pain in the ass knowing what I'd do with heroes and villains in the rearview mirror, but since I already know it, the burden is not that onerous.

Oh, grow up!

Not a bad mantram, however much I may hate it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Garfunkel and Oates

This may or may not be just for women, but it had me laughing out loud:

cat bites woman; woman bites boyfriend

A cat has bitten a woman in Germany, sending her into such a rage that she then repeatedly bit and beat her boyfriend, the owner of the pet, police said.
A police spokesman said the 26-year-old woman was attacked by her 39-year-old partner's feline in the western city of Hagen in the early hours of Saturday.
After she tried in vain to discipline the cat, "a fight between the bitten person and the cat's owner ensued in which the 39-year-old was hit and bitten several times", the spokesman said.
The injured man tried to ring police but his partner repeatedly ripped his mobile phone from his hand until the man was able to escape and make the call.
He was taken to hospital for treatment, while the woman, who was charged with domestic violence, was slapped with a 10-day restraining order barring her from the flat.

back to the future

At Stonehenge, celebrants marked the summer solstice...
In India and elsewhere, people gathered in droves to mark the first-ever International Yoga Day...
And across Europe, Salafism, a fundamentalist brand of Islam, is said to be on the rise.

Was there ever a time when, as confusions became more widespread, people did not look to simpler and 'truer' times? At Stonehenge, visitors were said to have kissed the stones. A kiss is a trusting and intimate gift ... vulnerable.

And where vulnerabilities feel unduly wounded, well, life is pretty simple, isn't it ... let's leave the charlatans and vulnerability-wounders behind. Kiss the stones; join a yoga crowd that probably doesn't pay much heed to religious roots ... religion is one of those dicey, manipulative arenas ... but yoga (meaning Hatha yoga) is pristine ... it's your body ... no questions or skulduggery needed. And if Salafism follows the Quran literally ... well, "literally" is so much less difficult than "interpreted" or "investigated."

There's no reason to sneer at a return to imagined simplicity. Doesn't everyone do the same? -- Where a problem rages, there has to be a first, simple, straightforward step in order to solve the problem? Whether anyone clings to or insists on this sort of base-line simplicity as time passes ... well, that's up for grabs. But the first step in hard times is pretty much the same.

Kiss the stone.
Crinkle the body.
Do what the book ... uh ... says.

Back to the future.


Daily Hampshire Gazette photo
In email yesterday, a Catholic priest friend sent along an essay he had written about the possibility of creating an a-la-South-Africa Truth and Conciliation Commission in the wake of last Wednesday's shooting deaths at the Charleston, S.C., Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. A heart-felt essay directed at racism in America. Nine black people were killed by a 21-year-old, Dylann Roof, who felt that black people were taking over and no one was doing anything about it.

Once again, the country claims to be shocked, appalled, saddened, forgiving, enraged, healing, looking for closure, touting gun control ... blah, blah, blah. A hundred concerned possibilities inundate the news wires. My friend banged his drum as well and I applaud the drum bangers ... which is not to say I am not simultaneously sick of them. It is all unfathomably awful and the ain't-it-awful crowd is out in force ... for the moment.

For the moment, it's all too much for my capacity for anguish. I will stick with the picture of my friend, Frances Crowe, above ... seated at a sympathy rally here in Northampton ... a feisty, 90-something activist who is nobody's saccharine fool. For me, Frances nailed it: "Mourn."

Bang the drum if you must. I appreciate your verve. But don't ask me to credit any concrete outcome of your verve. Jerking off in the breeze may be the only option, but it's still just jerking off.

And I imagine my jaundiced outlook is inflamed by the fact that the whole thing is so desperately sad.

imperative and choice

The 'line' between imperative and choice is interesting.

Assuming it exists.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

memory aids lying technique

Children who have a good memory are better at telling lies, say child psychology researchers. They tested six and seven-year-olds who were given an opportunity to cheat in a trivia game and then lie about their actions....
"We already know that adults lie in approximately a fifth of their social exchanges lasting 10 or more minutes, so it's interesting to know why some children are able to tell more porkies than others."
She said they now wanted to find out more about how children first learn to lie.

extinction potential

The Earth has entered a new period of extinction, a study by three US universities has concluded, and humans could be among the first casualties. 
The report, led by the universities of Stanford, Princeton and Berkeley, said vertebrates were disappearing at a rate 114 times faster than normal.
And here's a Reuters take in a similar symphony.

bedeviling dust devil

Today I pray for a faith I do not have, for pots and pans I do not own....

On a trip to Russia in 1968 -- the 50th anniversary of the Glorious Russian Revolution -- I met a man, Dr. Haddon Alderton, who had lived among an Australian indigenous people called the Arunta. Alderton was in his 70's, an old-line socialist, I suspect, and the two of us took to having lunch together on the Prince Yuri Dolgoruki, a ship sailing down the Volga River. Alderton was full of tales and I was all ears.

Among the customs of the Arunta, according to Alderton, was one in which, when the micro-tornadoes kicked up on the Australian sands, tribesmen would leap into the middle of the dust and bang pots and pans as a means of dispelling the malevolent spirits believed to inhabit them. These dust devils, prevalent in so much of the earth, were called Willy Willies.

Evil everywhere, stinging the eyes, scoring the skin with a thousand small cuts, palpable but without handles ... drowning, fighting what cannot be other than a losing cause and yet fighting anyway. If pots and pans will do the trick, fuck it! use pots and pans. But of course there is no "trick to it."

Yesterday, my younger son galumphed through the front door dressed in camouflage fatigues and burdened like a Mexican burro with rucksack and other military paraphernalia needed for the two weeks of Nation Guard training he had just completed on Cape Cod. He looked big and bold and I was glad to have him back.

How was it, I asked. And he said it was mostly boring. He gave few particulars, which I figured was his prerogative, and then got around to his big news: His unit had been selected for "deployment" in 2017. It wasn't entirely clear where he would be stationed -- the situation in that part of the world is "fluid," to use the kindest possible word -- but for the moment, the south of Egypt was on the drawing board... as a 'peace-keeping' force, he scoffed. What ticked him off was that he would not receive either a unit patch to designate fighters nor was there any chance of being awarded the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the medal indicating that he had been where the bullets flew in earnest. Peacekeepers, of course, stand as good a chance of being attacked as any other, with or without the medals.

Nothing is fershur. It's all in a two-year offing. And I found myself in the middle of a dust storm, searching for pots and pans that wouldn't do any good if I had them. First and foremost, perhaps, is the fact that my son has always been drawn to the military. Never mind the psychological parsings -- it's just a fact and if you stand next to the fire, you're bound to get burned.

But I don't care if my son's outlook rests in a lack of information or a search for camaraderie or a sense of patriotism ... the dust around me fairly wails. To die on your own terms strikes me as OK. To die on someone else's terms -- notably the policy wonks whose war mongering hides behind American flag lapel pins -- is enraging, stinging ... and I want to hurt someone ... but of course there's no one to hurt ... those fuck-heads!

The fact that the deployment is two years out tells me that those seeking "peace" have every expectation that they will not achieve the peace they claim to seek. Instead, they dote on their policy-wonk achievements and look for more: It's good business.

The only reasonable thing I could tell my son was to learn a little Arabic. "It may save your life or the life of your buddies," I said. He looked at me with eyes that said he would never do it ... what was book-study compared to the barrel of a peace-keeping gun?

What could I do? Where could I turn? What pots and pans could I bang as a means of quelling this stinging projection in my mind? I tried on several simpering Buddhist nostrums and lenses and found that they just increased the force of the wind and sting... keep that shit out of my face! Take your TED talk and shove it! This is my son ... my son ... and of course it is your son as well. I am sick of people tempting death like some scaredy-cat Ernest Hemingway facing the ferocious beast as a means of expressing the blessing and wonder of life.

I could go on and on and on and on.

Just like the dust storm.

Just like the dust devil.

No matter how loud I scream, the dust devil's scream outflanks me.

Horror is never entirely horrible.

Evil is never entirely evil.

But it's horrible enough.

Evil enough.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

lying with acceptable flare

Yesterday, in search of a few alpha waves, I was tooling around the TV channels and came to one that was running a documentary called, "The Armstrong Lie." And somehow I got stuck.

I don't care much about professional bike riding and its various phenoms, but somehow the tale of this seven-time winner of the Tour de France who was later stripped of his medals and banned from the sport held me fast. It wasn't the use of "performance-enhancing drugs" that kept me glued: It was the utter attractiveness and human-ness and tale of a man who lost whatever grasp he had had on something resembling a moral compass...

Where no one has a moral compass, where the lies are part of the very fabric of the presentation and where everyone closes their eyes with a will, wasn't Armstrong right to suggest, implicitly and explicitly, that his case was hardly out of the ordinary except to the extent that he kept being the spot-light winner? He wanted to look good and he did look good and there were plenty of people willing to allow him his laureled place in the sun.

Armstrong was clearly dedicated to his sport. He was passionate. He worked his ass off. He walked the talk ... mostly. The fact that he was pretty and well-spoken didn't hurt. But somehow he got lost along the border between dedication to the sport and dedication to himself.

And that was what held me. It's not just high-flier politicians or athletes or businessmen or religious leaders who set out by taking the issue at hand and working hard to improve or shape it and then slowly, as success accrues, begins to feel they deserve accolades and credit. It is they who become the focus of what was once a pretty serious issue.

I can't say how sick to death I get of those who take up a cause and then expect applause for their involvement and virtue and hard work. "Right!" I want to say. "You're terrific ... now can we get back to the issue?" It isn't just the high-flying sociopaths ... there's also the small, day-to-day conflations that nag.

Perhaps someone can invent a time-out room where those who ostensibly have a good cause but are possessed of an even bigger need to be noticed can retire and recite:

I love myself
I think I'm grand.
I go to the movies
And hold my hand.
I put my arm
Around my waist.
And when I'm fresh,
I slap my face.

A time-out room built just for me.

redesigned $10 bill

The US Treasury Department says a redesigned $10 note will feature a woman, but who she will be has not been decided.
The new note will debut in 2020 to mark the 100th anniversary of the US Constitution's 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

racial statistics ....

... from a child's perspective:

Australia sends warning to California?

Western Australia's Department of Water is killing a local river by not releasing more water from a nearby dam, a group of farmers in the state's South West say.
The North Dandalup farmers said the department was committing environmental vandalism by not releasing water into the river, which runs through their properties.

the price of world conflict

Conflicts around the world cost $14.3tn (£9.1tn) last year, 13% of world GDP, says a survey on global peace.
That amount is equivalent to the combined economies of Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom, the report by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) said.
For those getting rich selling arms and infrastructure and philosophy, I guess a 13% outlay may be worth it ... not least since their houses are so beautifully intact.

kamikaze: to die or to die gloriously

KASAMA, Japan (AP) — The pilots filed into the room and were presented with a form that asked if they wanted to be kamikaze. It was multiple-choice, and there were three answers: "I passionately wish to join," "I wish to join," and "I don't wish to join."
How many (wo)men in how many places have been faced, perhaps less directly, with choices in which no choice was available?

N. Korea's hunger and guns

North Korea says it is facing its worst drought in a century, sparking fears of worsening food shortages.
State news agency KCNA said main rice-growing provinces had been badly affected and more than 30% of rice paddies were "parching up".
North Korea seems better than most at exemplifying the original meaning of the acronym "snafu:" "situation normal -- all fucked up."

June newspaper column

The June newspaper column below was published today under the headline, "The Ties that Really Do Bind." I don't like it much, not least since it's basically a lift from a blog post and I dislike copying other people's work. Also the topic is a too wispy and airy-fairy. Still, it's all I had so ... tough shit. In a piece of quasi-serendipity, a friend sent along the chuckle above.

NORTHAMPTON — On Saturday, as I was weeding around a decorative rock that sits on what passes for a front yard here, I heard a woman’s voice behind me saying, “Good morning.” It was a tentative, polite voice and I turned to search out its owner.

“Do you have any old metal stuff you want to get rid of?” the woman asked calmly. “My son and I are scrapping.”

I answered that in fact I probably did have some worn-out metal odds and ends, but added the truth, which was that it had cost me something to get down on my knees to do the weeding and if I got up, I was afraid I would not have what it took to finish the small chore I had set myself. Old age has its limitations.

The woman, in her 50s perhaps, or a frazzled 40s, understood completely. “Would you mind if we came back at another time?” she asked. And I replied that I would not mind at all.

It was a small event, an unexceptional exchange, but somehow it caught my attention.

At any other time, I would have been off my knees in a shot. Begging is not easy and I don’t like to see anyone in tightened straits. I seem to be programmed to lend a hand where I can, but at the moment I simply didn’t have what it took to meet the obvious and touching need. At any other time, I would have felt a twinge of guilt at having turned her away, but somehow, on Saturday, I didn’t. I had told my truth, she had heard that truth and we were parting as what I imagined was friends.

Old age, like begging, makes its demands and a waxing patience is one of them. The environment from which she spoke seemed to add weight to her words. By disposition if not wallet, Northampton is largely a lily-white community with an I-deserve-it outlook and sensibility.

Relatively speaking, there is plenty of money, so people can take an interest in things like creating a road crossing for migrating salamanders. The pressures of poverty are best observed over a glass of white wine. The dirty hands of “scrapping” are washed in anti-bacterial soap. It may all be well-intentioned, but good intentions don’t put spaghetti on the table or keep the bacteria-free bill collector from the door.

I don’t really feel the impetus to turn all this into some economic-inequality screed. There’s plenty of that available elsewhere. What interested me in the situation was a strange, momentary sense of kinship and family.

It was a little like the feeling that arises in a community snookered by a power blackout or a walloping snowstorm. Suddenly, everyone gets a little more understanding about others. The number of crabby drivers flipping each other the bird diminishes. People passing in the street may not say hello, but they look at each other and smile perhaps ... a warmish, complicit smile that was not there when the lights were on or the roads passable.
It all seems to say, “We don’t need any self-help smarm about how we are all connected. I know you and you know me. No need for forgiveness or pretense.” Things are looser and warmer and less-contrived. Fragility and sorrow live side by side with strength and laughter.

Also, in some way that cannot be proved or defended, all this is simply true.

Nor do I wish to elevate the scratching, searing realities of hard times. Hard times are hard and trying to make lemonade out of lemons is a pastime for those well-enough-fixed to envision safe passage for a salamander.

But hard times can scrub away some of the social callouses that keep others out even as they hem the calloused in. When the storm hits or the lights go out or the scrubbed bill collector comes calling, the fragility that is as much a birthright as any other gets a chance to breathe and relax and claim its rightful place.

I read you and you read me. In the only important sense, we are friends, even when I do not know your name. In a well-learned and sometimes wracking blackout, we can smile together or perhaps even sing.

Come back any time.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton and is a regular Gazette columnist.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Like a leaf floating in some coincidentally-formed pocket of calm along the bank of a flowing, bubbling brook,  I finished off or anyway sent out my monthly newspaper column yesterday. It was basically a blog post from several days ago and a pretty airy-fairy one at that.

The brook out there bubbles and flows, leaps and grows smooth. Even assuming I any longer wanted to, it takes energy to go with that flow, to wrestle with socially au courant issues. Bit by bit, I rest in the shallows and learn to be content with whatever the hell the quieter, uninvolved times provide. The ability and desire to leap into the social flow is just too tiring and too far from the current truth. Occasionally I am overtaken by caring or imagining that no one cares.

Like everyone else, I am stuck with who I am and that person has a harder and harder time pretending he is part of the flow and focus and bubbling passage of social time. It is enough, a little at a time, to ruminate and munch like some languid cow.

But is that interesting? Is that a position out of which to write a newspaper column? I doubt it. No one goes to a basketball game and keeps an eye on those players who sit on the bench.

poem for the funny bone

Passed along in email, something that hit my funny bone:

isolating the failure gene

Passed along in email was this tongue-in-cheek scientific breakthrough from Andy Borowitz.

The fact that it sounds so much like other scientific breakthroughs that sink like water into the Sahara ... well, humor seems to be the sole saving grace.

Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Jon Stewart et al coat the idiocy pill with a willingness to laugh. Since idiocy is inescapable, there might as well be an occasional smile, however bitter-sweet, to go with it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Islamic State, opponents take the bait

A fake battle, invented in a hail of tweets by a London man, has tricked both so-called Islamic State's supporters, and their opponents, supporters of Shia militia fighters in Iraq.
It was supposedly an intense battle involving Islamic State and Shia and Iraqi government fighters. Soon after the news broke, Twitter users that back anti-IS forces claimed a famous victory. "Big celebrations in Karbala after the freedom of Shichwa," said one. Another claimed "10,000 refugees flee Shichwa to Karbala" and rumours spread that neighbouring countries were being dragged into the fighting: "Disaster: the Saudi Army must quickly mobilize to the Iraqi border."
But the battle of Shichwa never actually happened - in fact, Shichwa isn't even a real place.


I suppose it is as well that it is pouring-down rain here today. That means I don't have to get out and do the lawn my son said he would mow and then, when I asked him when he was going to do it, said it was already done: He had "given it a pass" with the lawnmower and seemed surprised that I was surprised the work had been done. I walked out to take a look and sure enough, whatever had been done left a lot to be desired. What sort of person lays claim to accomplishment when things are so clearly unfinished? If you can't do the little stuff, why should anyone entrust you with the big stuff? Because you're kool? Bite me!

And then he added some icing to my cranky cake: "If you want it done, hire a landscaper." If there were a line calculated to light my NASA-liftoff fires, that was it. What sort of man cannot even mow his own lawn or, when doing it, make an honest attempt to do it well?! And then, to top it off, cannot acknowledge a piss-poor job -- opting rather to self-congratulate and lounge in the notion that if something breaks, all you've got to do is go out and buy another one.

Well, it's raining today, so I cannot get out and do what my body no longer can do well or easily ... clean up behind someone who claims insouciant accomplishment. Oh shit ... another mindless twerp. I may drop dead doing it, but when the rain stops, I will get out and, resentfully, do the work another claimed to have accomplished.

I am allowing my injustice-collecting mind to run its course. If I did anything else, it would simply puff up like a blister that then sagged into somnolent forgetfulness as time passed ... but never really got its day in court and thus dragged on the heart and mind.

And while I am in the business of being cranky -- of raining on whatever parade I might otherwise play music for -- my son has taken to a socially-acceptable piece of verbal bullshit that would better be left to the other smug assholes out there: "It is what it is."

I don't mind the sentiment, which is clearly true, but I do mind the mounting evidence that those using this get-out-of-jail-free card have never taken the trouble to consider:

If "it is what it is," then what the fuck is it?!

Failure to make that effort means that there is a comfortable and comforting nest that others will allow and therefore it's OK if I allow it as well ... and thus can get on with my self-servings and not be inconveniently interrupted.

Well, in the morning rain, with a good head of cranky steam percolating, my only request is, "Stay the fuck away from me!"

Who knows if I will be able to finish the column I have promised for this coming Wednesday. I will try my best. With any luck, it won't have too many weeds.

Oh well, I guess I shouldn't get my knickers in a twist: It is what it is and if it turns out badly, I can just hire some other writer.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Israeli soldiers breach p.r. wall

JERUSALEM (AP) — An organization of former Israeli soldiers dedicated to shedding light on the dark side of the country's military is coming increasingly under fire, roiling a country in the grips of a battle against the burgeoning threat of international isolation and boycotts.
The group, Breaking the Silence, says that without its work, stories of improper or even illegal behavior against Palestinians would remain hidden from an Israeli public that reveres the military. But the group has come under attack from legislators who threaten its funding and say it could help turn Israel into a pariah state.

tigers and lions and bears, oh my!

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Tigers, lions, a hippopotamus and other animals have escaped from the zoo in Georgia's capital after heavy flooding destroyed their enclosures, prompting authorities to warn residents in Tbilisi to say inside Sunday. At least 10 people have been killed in the disaster, including three zoo workers.


Yesterday, as I was weeding around a decorative rock that marks the sliver that might be called a front yard here, I heard a woman's voice behind me saying good morning. It was a tentative, polite voice and I turned to search out its owner.

"Do you have any old metal stuff you want to get rid of?" the woman asked evenly. "My son and I are scrapping."

I answered that in fact I probably did have some worn-out metal odds and ends, but added the truth, which was that it had cost me something to get down on my knees to do the weeding and if I got up, I was afraid I would not have what it took to finish the small chore I had set myself.

The woman, in her 50's, perhaps, or perhaps a frazzled 40's, understood completely.

"Would you mind if we came back at another time?" she asked. And I replied warmly that I would not mind at all.

At any other time, I would have been off my knees in a shot. Begging is not easy and I don't like to see anyone in tightened straits, but at the moment I simply didn't have what it took to meet the obvious and touching need. At any other time, I would have felt a twinge of guilt at having turned her away, but somehow yesterday, I didn't. I had told the truth, she had heard that truth and we were parting as what I imagined was friends.

Old age, like begging, makes its demands and patience is one of them.

The matrix of her request freighted her words: Northampton is largely a lily-white community with an I-deserve-it outlook and sensibility. Relatively speaking, there is plenty of money, so people can take an interest in things like creating a road crossing for migrating salamanders. The pressures of poverty are best observed over a glass of white wine. The dirty hands of "scrapping" are washed in anti-bacterial soap. It's well-intentioned, perhaps, but good intentions don't put spaghetti on the table or keep the well-scrubbed bill collector from the door.

I don't really feel the impetus to turn all this into some economic-inequality screed. There's plenty of that available elsewhere. What interested me in the situation was a strange, momentary sense of kinship and family.

It was a little like the feeling that arises in a community snookered by a power blackout or a walloping snow storm. Suddenly, everyone gets a little more understanding about others. The number of crabby drivers flipping each other the bird diminishes. People passing in the street may not say hello, but they look at each other and smile perhaps ... a warmish smile that was not there when the lights were on or the roads passable.

It all seems to say, "We don't need a self-help talk about how we are all connected one with the next. Here is the connection in real life. TED-talkers and pulpiteers can take a hike." Things are looser and warmer and less-contrived. Also, in some way that cannot be proved or defended, it is simply more true.

Nor do I wish to elevate the scratching, searing realities of hard times. Hard times are hard and trying to make lemonade out of lemons is a pastime for those well-enough-fixed to envision a salamander walkway.

But hard times can scrub away some of the social callouses that keep others out even as they hem the calloused in. When the storm hits or the lights go out or the scrubbed bill collector comes calling, the fragility that is as much a birthright as any other gets a chance to breathe and relax and claim its rightful place.

The beggar and the rich man are fragile. But scrappers are also scrappy.

The old dude weeding is fragile. But he is also doing a creative job anyone might likewise do.

It is a mutual fragility and a mutual ability that is every bit as compelling as the wondrous strengths that lemonade can provide.

In the blackout we can smile or -- who knows -- perhaps even sing.