Friday, July 31, 2015

tectonic disaster

Passed along in email was this quietly-spoken and apparently well-researched New Yorker article about the tectonic disaster looming over the West Coast.

It is both persuasive and too huge even to be depressing.

before the words

The most interesting things are the things before the words.

Assuming anyone might enter this oxymoronic playpen, then, as I hear it, there are soothing, compromising, self-affirming voices raised.

"Words may not be much, but they're all we've got." The wheedling and the attempt to apply some balm to a fiery challenge -- the cry for absolution and forgiveness ... oh, it is so compassionate. No one wants to be lonely. Human beings are social creatures. Are we not to be forgiven this small transgression? We try. We are frail. We are imperfect. We ... yum, yum, yum.

In one sense, "we are not perfect" camouflages another less soothing suggestion: "We are spineless." But even this cannot wrap up the case. Criticism is as cheap a date as praise.

The most interesting things are the things before the words. Isn't it true? Isn't it laughing at the fumbling petitioner seeking to bolster and buttress all these words that create ever more distance from what is most interesting?

Is this a playpen worth entering? Since, like a block of implacable ice melting before the eyes, it cannot be escaped, I think maybe it is. Better to fail at something true than succeed at something as strained and bland as baby food.

All this strikes me as beyond wheedling confessions of weakness. What is interesting doesn't care if anyone is weak or strong. What is interesting plays its music and locks the lips within and without. No lock, no key, just interesting music.

Isn't it worth making this peace?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"You think white is one color...."

Budget cuts and a declining attendance has put the last Roman Catholic priest in Antarctica out of business.
Father Dan Doyle, who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, would spend summers on the remote continent and serve the population in the area of about 2,000, the BBC reported....
He served a daily Mass, performed last rights and even a few baptisms. There are some religious constraints by living in the most remote corner of Earth. For example, you cannot be legally married or buried on the continent because no one country stakes claim on the land.
And Doyle once told an interviewer:
You think white is one color.... But white is a thousand colors when you get inside a glacier and it’s all around you.

the Spanish hunting dog

Here's a blog focusing on the Galgo or Spanish hunting dog:

The Spanish greyhound, or Galgo, was traditionally used for hunting by royalty and was so revered that to kill a Galgo was a crime equivalent to murder....
A Galgo that is too old or too slow or too weak or just not into a crappy game of chase-the-hare tends to meet a brutal death because they have shamed the hunter.  This is tradition.

making things "better"

Was there ever a time when the longing to make things "better" was not in play? And if there was, would that be "better?"

Last night, I got hooked on "The Dead Poets Society," a 1989 movie about an English teacher at a tony, WASP-y boarding school in 1959. The teacher inspires his students from within a rigorously regimented system that freely admits its attempt to send its students out into a world they were bound to rule. Everyone is white. Everyone wears a tie. Many come out of rich or wannabe-rich families. But ... they are kids, adolescents who, whatever their circumstances, are as confused and uncertain as any other raging-hormone, trying-to-be-a-grown-up teenagers. Peter Weir, who was responsible for "The Last Wave," a movie I consider one of the gutsiest (if not the gutsiest) movies I ever saw, directed.

What held my attention was the fact that I too came from such a cossetted environment -- an all-boys  school at which everyone was pretty smart and pretty well-heeled and terribly white and yet, because they were kids, were largely unaware of their privilege. There were classes in Latin. There was a "chapel" each morning at which Christian values were enunciated. Grace before lunch. No matter that the smartest kids in my class came from Jewish families, a man of parts should know something about the prevailing persuasion of his country. There was a compulsory Bible class. There was tennis. And there was a good education ... but who could know that: Collegiate School was just the way things were ... wasn't it?

High school was the time when my single-parent mother was busy being an alcoholic, a universe I was drawn into and wounded by. No matter: School was school and we wore ties and people were destined for Ivy League colleges. My mother sent me to dancing school.

I desperately wanted things to be "better" somehow but of course I didn't know what better might consist in. Like me, my hang-with group of friends had family difficulties as well. We were wowed by Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," and yearned for the kind of freedom that seemed to be written in those pages. Maybe that would be better.

The teacher in "The Dead Poets Society" urged and pushed the students. "Carpe diem!" was the rallying cry. Seize the day -- follow your dream. But the problem was that it was not exactly clear what the dream was outside of being somehow, amorphously, better. We were privileged, but I imagine we might have felt the same yearnings and the same confusions if we had not been what today I call "privileged." Looking back, as the movie forced me to do, I am somehow embarrassed by the riches I enjoyed and yet how can a kid know what is rich and what is poor? A kid sucks up what is put on his plate to suck up. This is what is and that's all.

In my own defense, I remember speaking with the representative of a prospective college -- one of several I met with when the time drew near to pick a college. And when he, like other representatives of other colleges asked, "Why do you want to go to college, young man?" something in me snapped. I was sick to death of parroting, "Because I want to learn, sir." And so I said instead, "Can I tell you the truth?" "Sure," he said as if any admission I might make would be something he had already heard a hundred times before, whereas for me it was a terrific act of courage. And I said simply, "I don't know what else to do." And there it was ... out in the open ... and I felt a lot better, if no less uncertain and confused.

I didn't much like wallowing in the past, as last night's movie invited me to do ... or perhaps "insisted" is a better word. But I watched as a matter of some discipline that said, "own it!" I watched and watched and tried to get a perspective on the privilege that had been mine ... all pink and well-educated and knowing how to dance.

And then I relaxed, somehow. Yes, I have wanted in a hundred hundred ways to be "better," but the characteristics and clothing in my life's closet are just the characteristics and clothing in my life's closet. Smart, dumb, privileged, neurotic, strong, weak, wise and incalculably asinine ... it's just the clothes I am stuck with. I am like a tenant farmer, tilling the soil beneath my feet and there is no "better" way. There is this way ... with occasional modifications. Comparisons are unnecessary. Doing harm is probably not a good idea, but I am bound to do it. Praise and blame are not the point.

Carpe diem? How could such a thing be possible when the day itself has dawned long before I ever set to work to make it somehow "better?" Don't bullshit me with "karma." Just lend a hand and, in the kind of heat that we've been experiencing around here lately, try to stay cool.

Even if I wanted to, I couldn't dance as once.

But there is music.

Good, better, best ... get a life.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"The God Delusion"

Passed along in email for those not yet overstuffed with such argumentation, was this British film, "The God Delusion." I suppose, in some senses, it is satisfactory as it points out the grotesqueries of Abrahamic persuasions. The geographically-limited, western-religion observation, "nothing east of Suez" pretty much applies to the film, but you have to start somewhere, I suppose. I found the film's intellectual adroitness a bit tedious, but that's just me and the depredations referred to are no fucking joke.

Is there anything -- rationality or theology included -- that cannot be turned to galling bullshit or offer up a bit of useful truth?  I doubt it. The question I find most useful for either construct is probably, "If you're so well-informed or deeply and credulously imbued, how come you're not happy?" I guess my premise is that if someone's happy, there is no reason to be getting others to agree or applaud or even demur: What the hell -- happy is just happy, isn't it?

So ... FWIW:

dreaming of "Tajikistan"

Suddenly, the Romantic ignorance and excitement came flooding back, plump as a wet cotton ball -- a sense of delight at the possibility of going to a place I had never been before, if only in a second-hand capacity.

Yesterday, my younger son said that two men from his National Guard platoon would be detailed to a security assignment in ... wait for it! ... Tajikistan. My son said that he had offered to go. Whether he will or not is up in the air ... a short assignment next month ... a couple of weeks ... but still ... "Tajikistan!"

On the one hand, my parental concerns for an offspring revved their motors. It was so far from home, so far from a place where, with luck, I could protect and defend him. But that is the nature of being part of a military unit: No parents are allowed to participate. Weep and writhe, sure -- but not participate.

And then the old Romantic idiot kicked in and, like my son himself, I felt the warm winds of excitement and adventure and ... Tajikistan ... wowsers!

Of course my son saw the matter from behind lenses I was not wearing. This was an adventure, a grown-up, can-do, real-world assignment, even if he didn't know what the assignment consisted of. He would be among others assigned to be armed grown-ups fulfilling a mission no matter what the environment.

But me -- I had first of all needed a map to tell exactly where Tajikistan was. I had only the vaguest of ideas. And where it was was another of those confluence points of many cultures, where traders and cultures mingled and squabbled and traded goods in the past. A small, poor country with an economy centered around cotton and aluminum and some drugs ... a place that depended on the many Tajiks who had gone elsewhere and sent money back to relatives left behind. A land bordering some of the biggest players on the world stage at present: China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan ... with a history of Russian invasion that had left behind an educational system that meant over 99% of the population was literate, but also found those capable of higher education dismissing the opportunity because there were so few job opportunities that required advanced smarts. A place of beauty and poverty and religions (heavily weighted towards Islam) pretty much getting along.

I read up on the history and wondered how hard it would be to learn a little Tajik, the focal language, or Russian, a language employed by many. My son didn't see mixing and mingling as part of the assignment or even a very useful pastime. He was doing a military thing in his head. When I suggested that the military man who does not scope out his environment and its customs is a half-trained soldier, his eyes took on a dismissive glow. No matter: My parental habits may fret, but the idea that my children might visit other lands -- lands beyond the barriers of Atlantic and Pacific oceans -- has been a long-held dream I could not finance.

In earlier times, I had had dreams of visiting Tierra del Fuego and Afghanistan (before the American invasion that followed the Russian invasion), and the Orkney Islands ... places far away and foreign and utterly outside my ken. Those pipedreams had receded, or so I thought until yesterday, when "Tajikistan" provided a whole new possibility and sense of excitement and wonder. Not knowing there are others on the planet who live quite different lives in quite different ways is a gaping bit of ignorance in my opinion.

Anyway, I dreamed yesterday, rolling around in a half-formed idea the way a dog might wriggle and roll in the beach sand.


Imagine that!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

intelligence, artificial and otherwise

More than 1,000 tech experts, scientists and researchers have written a letter warning about the dangers of autonomous weapons.
In the latest outcry over "killer robots", the letter warns that "a military AI [artificial intelligence] arms race is a bad idea".
Among the signatories are scientist Stephen Hawking, entrepreneur Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
The letter will be presented at an international AI conference today.
Does anyone else sense, as I do, that this apparently-heartfelt letter is a little like the mother who, as she prepares to leave home, counsels her children, "... and while I'm gone, do not stick beans up your nose?"

You just know someone is going to find a way and an excuse for "improving" things.

And then there's the question of whether, given the sometimes stumbling and sometimes horrific uses to which the intelligence in hand is used, creating an artificial intelligence makes a whole lot of sense. Wouldn't you first want to learn the uses to which current intelligence could be put before you added another stratum of intelligence on top? Is a naturally-occurring intelligence somehow lacking? How? And wouldn't it be worth correcting that first ... and then get out the Tinker Toys?

the price of small chores

Yesterday was a day of doing. Today is a day of paying the price.

The front stoop, whose black paint was flaking and peeling, got scraped and repainted. I did half and, much to my delight, my younger son did the rest. Then the same son roped in a friend and they stacked the fire wood that was piled in the driveway.

Since I do few Mr. Fixit chores any more, the painting part seemed a simple task. And it was ... but it did not account for my weaknesses, which, these days, are stronger than my strengths. Today I ache all over and probably will for a while. I had tried to make a bargain with my inabilities -- I'll just do a little now and then -- and the inabilities replied, "Sorry -- no deal."

Well, the stoop has a refreshed look and my wife got some impatiens for the flower cups built into the concrete ... pink ... which will look nice against the black paint. But in the meantime, my pain pills have gone missing and I could use one. I guess I'll practice being content with the sort of joke passed along in email yesterday:
Three old Indian women were discussing the travails of getting older.
Mvskoke woman said, "Sometimes I catch myself with a jar of mayonnaise in my hand, while standing in front of the refrigerator, and I can't remember whether I need to put it away, or start making a sandwich."
Seminole woman chimed in with, "Yes, sometimes I find myself on the landing of the stairs and can't remember whether I was on my way up or on my way down."
Cherokee woman responded, " Well, ladies, I'm glad I don't have that problem. Knock on wood," as she rapped her knuckles on the table, and then said, "That must be the door, I'll get it!"
I don't mind being a wimp; I just don't like being reminded.

Monday, July 27, 2015

California's drought....

A California conundrum, perhaps ... passed along in email:

finding the grown-up

I guess it's probably a DNA thing -- the sense that someone, somewhere, somehow is or will prove to be the grown-up, the expert, the person who is capable of pointing the way. Since parents provide the food, it probably starts with parents and it is there that the habit takes up residence and resides and lingers and is alternatively very sensible and incredibly stupid.

Left to their own devices, the young would perish. Left to the devices of others ... well, who knows?

Last night, I watched a movie called "Intimate Enemies," the story of France's military attempt to hold onto its colonial vassal, Algeria, in 1959. It was an OK movie that was simultaneously predictable from today's vantage point, and compellingly predictive of wars yet to come. Why was this French contingent battling the natives who were called "insurgents?" How interesting that combatants on both sides had fought on the same side of a still-remembered World War II... and yet now were willing to kill and torture each other with and without compunction. The land was shown as rocky and spare and hot and dotted with hard-scrabble farmers who were mostly Muslim where the French were mostly Christian ... and each buried their dead with a well-rehearsed reverence. Each side slaughtered. Each side was kind. Each side had grown-ups who set the scene. Wasn't this a tale worthy of heeding? Dien Bien Phu had come and gone. France did not want to lose another example of its greatness and so, as the Americans have entered the Middle East and Afghanistan in these later times, they fought for Algeria.

The movie was good enough to make me wonder like a child why, with such good examples of sacrifice and horror and loss, new and improved examples of sacrifice and horror and loss should ever gain a foothold. Wasn't this an obvious example of something to root out and shun? Wasn't this something compelling enough to create a rule stating, "don't do that" and then not-doing it because no one wants to die?

Who is the hero -- the man who grows a single stalk of corn or the man who pulls the pin on a grenade at the behest of the grown-ups?

But I cannot sit here and white-whine about the horrors and insanity of war. It is a habit and there are times of necessity ... times of necessity that are often manipulated and employed by those with the unexercised capacity to be grown-ups. It is enough for tears, but the tears are clearly a waste of water if history is any guide.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," George Santayana observed. And all I can think is, "go fuck yourself." No one remembers the past with much of an effect ... not nations, not individuals, so Vaselined nostrums echo with a smug foppishness. We will kill men, women and children because ... because we can and because the notion of grown-ups needs to be outgrown. It may be achingly and stupifyingly horrific but there it is, as far as I can see.

And what then is left? What life-preserver or Band-Aid of sanity can be applied? I can imagine little if any succor or sanity outside the suggestion, "do no harm."

"Do no harm" and then take responsibility for the failure to do no harm that follows the attempt.

Could a grown-up do more?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

virtue vultures

In the parking lot of the Walmart where I had purchased eggs, dish soap, Band-Aids and a couple of decadent candy bars, I was brought up short by what I took to be a red-tailed hawk floating above the mall buildings. Around and around s/he went against a very-blue sky, movements more minute and immaculate than a Japanese tea master.

Circling, circling, circling ... catching small, unseen updrafts or east-west puffs ... flapping only on rare occasions ... one-two-three ... and then floating some more and circling, circling, circling above the acres of mall buildings. It was beyond "perfect" and I stood rooted for a few minutes before some nudge arose and I knew that all perfect things exist only in a rearview mirror and there was something arrogant and clumsy in my gob-stopped wonder. Why do I insist on creating imperfection by calling something "perfect?"

Inaccurately, no doubt, I think of vultures as critters that soar and float on high and yet hop and hobble on the ground, feasting on road kill and other cast off carrion. "-Challenged" might be a suffix to describe the vulture's mealtime efforts in this time of oozy-goozy correctness. "Klutzy" is easier and yet ... and yet ... and yet ... on high ... Jee-SUS -- will you look at that?!

Hawks, vultures, soaring, limping ... and my mind pounces on the phrase, "virtue vultures."

Not long ago, my wife got our TV/Internet service upgraded. The upgrade meant more movies were available plus some stuff that the kids might use on their limitless gadgetry. I like movies, so I thought maybe I would watch more TV in my too-sedentary retirement. But the reverse has turned out to be true. There is something unimaginative about movies. Where music and books underscore the soaring, delicate immenseness of mind, movies hem in and constrain. The tale is the tale and what the viewer brings to the tale is cast away: What you see is what you get. Like Novocaine, there is a numbing delight, but its numbness begins to cloy and claw after a while. Or anyway, that's the analysis I am currently toying with.

And it is here that the virtue vultures might assume there is some heart-felt screed to be written about the stupidity and lifelessness of TV. I don't think it's worth the price of admission. Everyone toys with the suicidal potentials in life and a good numbing is nice from time to time... an impossible attempt to limit the unlimited in search of the unlimited. Let's make a virtue out of it and soar on vultures' wings only to limp and hobble when meals come due.

Virtues, like vultures, can soar and soaring is nifty ... for as long as it lasts. The limitless can be so exhausting ... but only from a limited point of view. A nice bit of Novocaine is nice now and then. Drugged on virtue, drugged on wonder, drugged on correctness ... ahhhhhhh.

My two sons both go to the gym to work out. It is good to keep in shape. But they also watch a lot of TV and I wonder why it is that biceps and triceps should receive care and nurturing, but the muscle of the mind is somehow outside that bomb zone.

I am not criticizing. Just wondering. The TV has wondrous gobs of alpha waves to offer .... soothing, relaxing ... and yet exercise makes the biceps and triceps useful and healthy and fit. I suppose anyone given to health must likewise be curious about unhealthy potential. Suicide is, after all, an option.

I wonder ... and note simply that I don't watch TV as much as I assumed I might when the 'upgrade' was added. I do enough hobbling as it is. No need to add more perfections.

"true wisdom"

Passed along in email under the title "true wisdom:"

Saturday, July 25, 2015

death of Taitetsu Unno

It's a bit late, but time and distance may forgive the oversight on my part:
EUGENE, Ore. - Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno, Feb. 5, 1929 to Dec. 13, 2014. Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno, of Eugene, Oregon, passed away peacefully at home with his family.

Jill Ker Conway Professor of Religion, Emeritus, at
Smith College, and Shin Buddhist minister, he leaves a legacy of scholarship and ministry.

A memorial service will be held Sunday, August 2, 2015, at Helen Hills Chapel, Smith College, at 4 p.m.
In my life, Tai Unno was a gentle man and a gentleman. At a time when I was a fledgling news reporter, he became my go-to source when it came to backgrounding stories about 'eastern religions.' He answered my questions patiently, no matter how contrarian they might be. But I think he knew -- though he never mentioned it -- that anyone with so many questions was snooping the spiritual terrain on a far more personal quest.

I look back on 40-plus years of Zen Buddhism with a thank-you in my heart for Tai Unno. I am hard-pressed to describe how or why he encouraged me: I only know he did and that I am grateful to him. He was a small lotus on my small pond.



Somehow, the whole of whatever it is that seems to be the presumed ecosystem of this life, dissolved and threatened to float away yesterday. A concatenation of events -- none of them terribly important from an ordinary point of view -- just huffed and puffed and blew the house down. Where did it go and what was left ... I really couldn't say, but I felt under assault and overmatched.

First, my wife and two sons took off for a family wedding in New Jersey. The old man doesn't travel well or willingly these days, so suddenly the house was empty of human touchstones. Then next year's load of fire wood was delivered and dumped in the driveway, awaiting whatever solution will be found to stacking it.

The old man doesn't stack wood as once and even a little of that effort is likely to reverberate into subsequent days of aching muscles ... to the extent there are muscles left. But that doesn't mean the mind can't formulate what it is/was to stack wood.

Then a carpenter came by to estimate the time/money that might be required to fix the back stairs leading out of the kitchen. Something broke and it needs fixing and the old man doesn't fix and fiddle as once.

And finally, there are the painted concrete stairs outside the front porch. The paint is peeling, as it does every few years. It needs scraping and repainting -- hardly a significant job but the old man's mind, while capable of remembering, remembers the aches and fatigue such a small chore might create.

Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be an "I can't" that was not entirely assured: Was it "can't" or was it "won't?" I don't cotton to laziness, and yet seem to cozy up to its environs in ways that memory finds unpleasant ... the ecology says "get up and get going;" the capacity says, "forgetaboutit." The mess mounts up. And I abhor with childish, foot-stomping frustration the cozy nostrums others might slather on... peddle your crap someplace else!

Yesterday was a day when I could see the handholds and yet, like some opium-den customer, was somehow left biting clouds that neither fully satisfied nor fully dissatisfied. And then, to top it all off, I would whine about it.

The graceful cohesiveness of whatever my ecology had been became as piss in a snowbank. I didn't like it and yet saw no way to escape it or revise it. Maybe it was just my turn for depressed and lonely, but even that seemed too agile without discernible result.

Oh well, it's a beautiful day and perhaps I will try to do something concrete.

There was too much happening yesterday and yet nothing much happened at all.

Friday, July 24, 2015

the empty places

Do not be too quick to fill the empty places....

I have been fortunate in my life to indulge the luxury of a spiritual investigation which provided pointers on what is not ... as well as what is. From gross to subtle, it has some usefulness.

The accumulated 'stuff' around my house aroused this train of thought. So much stuff accumulated over time. Perhaps it was useful or beautiful or satisfying in some way ... a pair of baseball cleats; a plastic box in which to store whatever; a basket constructed out of some old tree trunk; the space between the stars. It all came to roost or satisfy, but now makes a somewhat different point: What I own likewise owns me and it's tiring.

Nor would I wish to shove it down anyone's throat. Everyone has the opportunity to assess the empty places that were then filled and proved reassuring. But what happened to the emptiness? What happened to what was fresh as the air swirling in proximity to a water fall?

The old saw is just an old saw: "Honor thy mother and thy father."

But still, honor is flavorful.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

when the Dalai Lama says "fuck it"

And then, as passed along in email, there is the Dalai Lama -- yes, the Dalai Lama -- holding up the mirror and suggesting that the differences between and among people are really less important than they seem and generally deserve a well-considered ... "fuck it."

He's very cute when he doesn't seem to understand the audience reaction. "Isn't that the way people talk?" he seems to ask. And of course it is.

His defenders say it was a slip of the tongue, that he meant to say, "forget it," but I choose to think he chose his words deliberately and usefully.

Kick 'em Jenny erupts

No joke: Kick 'em Jenny has erupted and those in the underwater volcano's vicinity have been put on high alert:
As a result of the increased activities, the Government of Grenada has issued an alert to all maritime interests to strictly observe the Kick 'em Jenny Volcano Exclusion Zone of five kilometres around the summit of the volcano.
I have no doubt that this is a serious matter, but I am foundering and chortling in some juvenile thought-bubble-gum that wonders how/why scientists -- whom I blithely feel are far from playful or imaginative -- should have conceived and then allowed to take root a name that might as easily be found in a giggly children's adventure tale.

Was the namer inebriated at the time? And were his or her companions who no doubt had to concur in the baptismal name for a geological feature likewise squiffed? I really would like to know, but knowing or not-knowing does not lessen my playful pleasure in the name itself.

wedding worth attending

Passed along in email, this wedding ceremony that I found touching....

don't ask the boss

One of the seeds that took root when I was a cub newspaper reporter -- and subsequently spread far and wide -- was this: If you really want to know what's going on, don't ask the boss. The notion was born, no doubt, out of repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to get to the meat and potatoes of some social or political direction by trying to elicit comments from the poobahs in charge.

No, I learned after a while: If you want to know what the governor is doing, don't call the governor.

And the same seedling took on meaning in other realms as well. Trying to get to the bottom of things almost invariably meant talking to those trying to implement whatever grand scheme was afoot: Hitler could not tell you much about Nazism; the police chief was unlikely to impart the bloodstream of his or her profession; the mafia don or medical miracle worker or angel of journalism or Buddha or Jesus ... if you really wanted to know what was going on, don't ask the boss.

Find the sergeant who implemented the lieutenant's instruction.

Why NOT ask the boss? Well, partly because the boss always has an agenda that is outside the direction of the movement of which s/he is the honcho. At the easiest level it's, "save your own ass." At a more intricate level, it's assuring a cohesiveness to what may be a very diverse bunch of acolytes. It's politics and the lying by omission (the omerta) that tints the scene: Doctors and mafia dons and church fathers and cops look out for their own and ... well, sometimes the rest of us pay, however benevolent to social direction.

But what began and to some extent remains the touchstone of don't-ask-the-boss showed itself as less-than-certain as time went by. For one thing, if you don't ask the boss-spokesman-leading-light, it means a lot more work. Ferreting out aspects of "what's going on" is like nailing Jell-O to a wall. The further anyone gets from the guiding principals that poobahs may enunciate, the more self-centered and fractured things become. Communism/socialism become gulag; Christianity becomes inquisition and child molestation; goodness requires enforcement etc.

Last night I watched U.S. President Barack Obama talking with TV satirist Jon Stewart. One of the things I think Obama correctly observed was the social diffusion that has erupted with the spread of communications/the Internet. No longer was there a social conversation about serious issues that affected everyone. No longer was there an assumed commonality of national interest. Instead -- though he didn't put it exactly like this -- there was Facebook and Twitter and a self-centered impatience to get my view across. And of course there was the impatience of those who were impatient with the impatient. The ground work necessary for health care or a nuclear detente with Iran took years to cobble together but now ... well the critics and apologists claim the day as if they had done anything in reality.

Don't-ask-the-boss seems to have morphed, over time, into don't-ask-the-employees-either.

This morning, on the porch, a butterfly had become trapped and confused by the windows that were closed yet seemed to reveal an open space it was meant to inhabit. It fluttered and flapped against the glass and paid scant attention to the fact that I tried to talk it out the open door.

At first I watched. Then I talked. Then I tried to net it. Then I simply couldn't take it any more and, despite the accumulated boxes and other detritus that barred the way to various windows, I had to do something. A stumbled and lost-regained-balance over to the long-unopened window and opened it amid squeaks and squeals.

Good? Bad? Humane? Self-centered?

Be responsible.

Get a life!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

the 'earliest' Koran

What may be the world's oldest fragments of the Koran have been found by the University of Birmingham.
Radiocarbon dating found the manuscript to be at least 1,370 years old, making it among the earliest in existence....
The manuscript is part of the Mingana Collection of more than 3,000 Middle Eastern documents gathered in the 1920s by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born near Mosul in modern-day Iraq.
He was sponsored to take collecting trips to the Middle East by Edward Cadbury, who was part of the chocolate-making dynasty.
The tale swells the mind. The beauty and devotion and import infuses the heart. It is, to my mind, incredibly touching, more intimate and flavorful than the best chocolate mousse. An act of love that inspires love. In no way am I willing to fault it; it is too human and therefore speaks of my nearest and dearest kin. It catches my breath and for a moment, the universe is still and whole and perfect.

Isn't this one of the delicious truths of spiritual life -- to be swept up and swept away and washed and anointed? Like music, it calls and compels and cannot be captured.

And yet, my dear, dear friends ... and yet there is more to be done if the music is to be sustained. To love is lovely, AND....

The 19th century Vedanta Hindu, Sri Ramakrishna, was not playing some prickly, smug skeptic when he invited one of his students to take a deeply-venerated text and place it in a room whose entrances and exits would then be sealed. The text should remain locked up for several days, at which point the student was advised to re-enter the room and see if anything had happened.

This is no snarky experiment. It is the truth of spiritual endeavor ... to winkle out the essence of the beauty and music and love. If nothing happened, then however blood-of-my-blood dear a venerated text or totem or teaching might be ... then please do not stop short and merely elevate the swelling in heart and mind.

Please. I know it's beautiful and I know it's human ... but please!!!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

the English breakfast

I cannot NOT pass along this rhapsodic paragraph from a BBC article about the wonders/marvels/ecstasies of the English breakfast:
The English breakfast is a cholesterol-laden calorie bomb usually consisting of two eggs, sausage, bacon, baked beans, fried tomato and toast. It’s a symphony of deliciousness on a plate, enough to ward off the worst hangover and fill you up until dinnertime. Indulge in it as often as [Somerset] Maugham suggested and it could take years off your life. But devotees insist you can’t find a better breakfast anywhere.

"Anonymous" challenges Islamic State

Strange to think that the same American policy wonks who decried the Internet hacking of an Edward Snowden might now be applauding the hacktivist group, "Anonymous" for its assault on Twitter-users who support Islamic State or disseminate its information.
Hacktivist group Anonymous is ramping up efforts to tackle sympathisers of the Islamic State group on Twitter.
It has published a list of Twitter accounts it claims are spreading propaganda in support of the group.
Some accounts have been flooded with images of Japanese anime characters to try to influence search engine results for phrases connected to IS.
But it seems to me that enthusiastic policy wonks might also take note of a comment offered as regards the "Anonymous" assault. How many of them would take the following yardstick and apply it to the government that is so swift to condemn Islamic State and its concomitant "terrorism?"
"The action is both positive and negative," said Rashad Ali, a senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue which works on ways to counter extremism.
"Practically speaking, you are getting rid of a whole host of people from the public domain," he said, adding that such a large takedown can undoubtedly have an impact.
"However," he said, "it's not a solution because what we now need to do is not just take down accounts but actually provide new narratives for people.
"This is where we are failing," he said. "We have not had a strong, thought-out counter-argument to IS's message."
"This is where we are failing," he said. "We have not had a strong, thought-out counter-argument to IS's message."
 Repeating for an emphasis a policy-challenged wonk might require:

We have not had a strong, thought-out counter-argument to IS's message.

It took 50 years to acknowledge American strangle-hold approaches to Cuba as a "failed policy." How long will it take to recognize that a big stick is only as good as its thoughtful counter-argument tread in the Middle East?

police, potential and 'protection'

Of police and potential and 'protecting' the rest of us....
A 24-year-old man has been charged over an alleged plan to attack US military personnel in the UK.
Junead Ahmed Khan has also been charged, along with his uncle Shazib Ahmed Khan, 22 [sic], both from Luton, over attempting to join Islamic State militants in Syria.
Prosecutors said the men were charged with the intention of committing acts of terrorism.
Both men will appear at Westminster Magistrates' Court later on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, in Egypt:
Dozens of people in Egypt have apparently disappeared after being detained secretly by security forces, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned.
The US-based group said in some cases state officials either denied holding individuals or refused to reveal their fates.
It called on the authorities to immediately disclose their whereabouts and hold those responsible to account.
Enforced disappearances constitute a serious violation of international law.
If carried out systematically as a matter of policy, they are a crime against humanity.
Once "disappeared" in Argentina. Now "disappeared" in Egypt. "An alleged plan" in England....

And I am supposed to feel safer? 

Whose "terrorism" is this?

serious silliness

Sometimes I think the only real way to "serious-up" is to get seriously silly:
Chris Hutt owns the Fowling Warehouse, a 34,000-square-foot repurposed industrial site in Hamtramck that's devoted to a football/bowlinghybrid sport — fowling — he and some buddies invented while tailgating years ago at the Indianapolis 500.
The facility features 20 lanes, where players or teams try to be the first to knock down all 10 of their opponents' bowling pins by tossing a single football from a distance of up to 48 feet.

mummified spiritual miracles

Sangha Tenzin
Rather than drag anyone through my muddy byways, I'll try to spit it out up front: Why, for heaven's sake, does spiritual endeavor insist on playing the "miraculous" card? Isn't it really self-centered and to some extent cruel? "Cut the crap!" some voice within snaps.

A BBC article I skim-read a couple of days created a launch pad for mental masturbation. It's a little like bubble-gum on the sole of a shoe on a hot summer day ... dragging, sticky, and vaguely irritating.

The BBC account was yet another one about a long-dead-yet-wonderfully-preserved mummy of a Buddhist monk. Naturally, the tale is set in the high and mysterious Himalayas, far from prying eyes. The monk seemed to be about 500 years old and yet -- as in all these documentations -- wonderfully preserved. He is dubbed "Sangha Tenzin." What seemed to catch my eye was the detail about self-mummification.

The article segues from Buddhist practices into Japanese Yamagata monks and the process by which they self-mummified as a means of reaching "the highest form of enlightenment."
The Yamagata monks would eat a solely tree-based diet, ingesting only roots, nuts and herbs in order to completely deplete their fat reserves. This process could take anywhere from several months to 10 years, during which time the monks were also believed to be ingesting poisonous cycad nuts and lacquer tree sap, which facilitated vomiting, removed moisture from the body and acted as a deterrent to flesh-eating insects after death. By the time the monk died, the body was so devoid of fat and the organs were so shrunken in size that the desiccated body wouldn’t start decomposing – thus preserving the physical form and beginning the baffling process of natural mummification.
OK, we're into wowsers territory. Onlookers are left gob-slapped. Imagine that! Jesus walked on water or turned water into wine or rolled back the rock on his tomb. Other gurus from times gone by encourage followers to dismiss miraculous happenings as deluded ... but that doesn't put the wowsers genie back in the bottle. And when you get down to it, who doesn't like being wowed?

But taking a slightly different tack, I don't wonder or even much fault the human desire to be wowed. What I do wonder about is by what process those capable of wowing others feel compelled to exercise the capacity. Why would Sangha Tenzin leave this reminder? It is hard to dismiss the notion that "the highest form of enlightenment" is nothing of the sort. It smells a bit like ego-tripping ... and not very kind at that.

I take the direction of spiritual endeavor fairly seriously. It is important to ease the suffering that can claw and tear. Onlookers deserve ... deserve ... deserve the best, whatever that might be. Is leaving a mummy for posterity the best? Is crucifixion the best? Is healing the best? Is there, in fact, a "best" that can be offered? I doubt it.

Spiritual life weaves a tapestry. Often it is beautiful and inviting. Sometimes it specializes in scaring the pee down your leg. Whose tradition doesn't make much difference ... the tapestry beckons to onlookers ... onlookers who are sometimes wowed. But the trick is this....

No matter how beautiful, no matter how wowsers, no matter how compassionate or clear or colorful the tapestry may be, still it is up to the onlooker to reweave it. Personally, intimately ... and if a mummy or a resurrection inspires that reweaving, well OK: The only error that might occur is when the onlooker refuses to reweave and sticks with the wowsers.

I guess I wonder at the mind of any man who might think that self-mummification could advance or ameliorate the circumstances of others... or even, come to that, themselves.

Tell me the truth and I still have to find out the truth.

Tell me a lie and I still have to find out the truth.

Is there much difference between and ornate truth and an ornate lie?

Sure spiritual life is a pain in the ass, but do mummies ease the course? Maybe so, but it feels somehow smug and self-centered and off-the-mark to me.

Which is not to say I don't owe a debt to a guy like Sangha Tenzin.

"The highest form of enlightenment?"

Get a life.

Monday, July 20, 2015

John Oliver on food waste

Why the public is forced to get intelligent news coverage from comedians I am not entirely sure. Nevertheless, here, passed along in email, is John Oliver's take on food waste in America. It's funny, of course, but the facts are serious.

no swan song for swan count

Thank goodness! For a moment there I thought the British might give themselves over to a full-bore feeding of the starving, housing of the destitute, or healing of the wounded.

But not to fear -- no great tradition has been undermined by such efforts.

The counting of the queen's swans will not be overlooked or its funding rerouted.

LONDON (AP) -- Teams of census-takers have taken to the River Thames for the colorful annual count of Queen Elizabeth II's swans - a blend of science and ceremony that dates to the 12th Century.
Swan wardens and zoologists count, measure and mark the swans in order to safeguard the population and determine its health in an event known as swan upping. By tradition, the monarch owns all the swans found in Britain's open waters, and the event assesses their overall well-being.


What Jesus raised this holy cross?
What dentist touts this dental floss?
Whose energies rouse up these fears
That swear, by God,
To staunch whose tears?

Burma Shave.

wandering-eyed spouses on the lam

Dorothy Parker
The razor-tongued wag, Dorothy Parker, once asked approximately, "How can you expect others to keep your secrets if you can't even keep them yourself?"

The question lingers in the air like a fart under the sheets when considering the reported hacking of the spouse-cheating Internet site, Ashley Madison.

Imagine: 37 million alleged customers put at risk ... their predilections and suggestive photos and credit cards sucked up by "The Impact Team," whoever they may be.

surfing champ escapes shark attack

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Knocked off his board by an attacking shark, three-time world champion Mick Fanning punched the creature before escaping unharmed during the televised finals of a world surfing competition in South Africa on Sunday.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

in the catbird seat

In times gone by, the "catbird seat" was a description of where anyone might sit when s/he was fully in command, assured and brighter than other nearby bright lights.

Says Google:
"The catbird seat" is an idiomatic phrase used to describe an enviable position, often in terms of having the upper hand or greater advantage in all types of dealings among parties.
An enviable position. And when it comes to assured and enviable positions, who better to be in the catbird seat of your life than you? Popeye's swaggering, "I yam what I yam" anoints the realm. It's simple, really: I know who I am, even when I pretend I don't.

And yet, this morning, the fragility of this scenery reasserts itself in the person of one of my all-time favorite videos. It asks simple, personal questions -- questions to which the catbird might have ready responses.

Pretty cinchy, right: "Who do you love?" "What do you hate?" The catbird smirks and puffs up its feathers ... but then ... but then....

Saturday, July 18, 2015

playing by the rules

There are rules, of course -- parameters which designate and describe one pursuit or another. No one brings a basketball to a baseball field: If you want to play baseball, you bring a glove, a ball, a bat and work within the rules.

And it is comforting -- the rules: It's not something else ... this is this and I am among the friends who likewise adhere to this ball field, of whatever sort.

But have you ever noticed the progress of one painter or another or one musician or another? It seems to me that s/he may begin a career well within the parameter of melodic or representational rules and yet, as time passes, as the rules take root, there is a willingness to wonder what this game might be without the rules, outside the boundaries ... where harmony turns to dissonance or representation turns vastly abstract ... are these adventures any less a part of the game's panorama?

Pushing the envelope begins to insist as the contrivance of rules becomes more apparent. No longer is the comfort so comforting. No longer are the rule-inspired agreements so agreeable. What-if's natter and need to be attended to: What if abstract were no different from representational? What if harmony and dissonance were similar and symbiotic instead of opposites to be shunned or adored? What if marriage were not just an anointed union, but also a field from which to roam and range?

Those who depart from the rules are likely to find themselves alone and sometimes lonely. No longer is the communication with others made easy by rule-book strictures. Abstract art communicates, but it's not quite as recognizable as a woman in a hoop skirt. The departure from the rules puts the practitioner out on a limb where there is only room for one ... if that.

And yet there seems no other recourse. Rules can only hold sway where the land of no-rules offers contrast if not conflict. Baseball is not basketball. The matter can be confusing and discomforting and yet somehow needs to be addressed or incorporated ... in art, in music, in a perfectly ordinary lifestyle. In what way are rules and no-rules consonant ... friends? And how big a deal is it to wander and explore a world that has rules and no rules and seems perfectly at ease in the "paradox?"

Today, in email, I received a video of a spiritual guru expounding on the use of the word "fuck." Leaving aside the reputation of the presenter -- Rajneesh -- still I think anyone, whether spiritually inclined or not, might listen to this apparent pushing of the envelope. True, it's giggly and the audience laughs, but the principle is informative ... taking a step away from the lugubrious sincerity that can characterize spiritual presentations and playing in a no-no world of "wrong speech" or something similar. Can "fuck" be denied, even by the most devout? Doesn't it have a role in the mix? Are the rules against it much different from the rules for it? There may be comfort in a world that does not push the "fuck" envelope, but once the rules are in place, is it possible to overlook their dependence on the no-rules of usage? Who says you can't bring a basketball to the baseball field? Who says infidelity is not part and parcel of the harmonies of marital fidelity?

At first, the step feels like fingernails on a blackboard: You simply can't play baseball with a basketball; it doesn't compute. Stepping from representational art into the abstract is ... is ... is messy and fractious and fractured and, perhaps worst of all, lonely. It feels as if some battle had been enjoined. There must be a winner, right? No one says "shit" in a nunnery but then someone says "shit" in a nunnery and ... well, now what? No one contravenes whatever rules bring comfort to this life, but then someone or something does in fact contravene and for a while it feels as if the handholds have been snatched away.

The rules ... the meaning ... the explanation: Chaos is daunting and yet simultaneously imperative. Rules made some sense: What makes sense when the rules dissolve? Does a daisy have rules? Well, yes and no... but which is it?

Saying there are rules is comforting and true. Saying there are no rules is just another ruling. The best I can figure out is to let the battle fight itself out. Over time, the energy to complain and explain and demand some resolution to "paradox" or parallel lines meeting in infinity wears thin.

In one, light-hearted realm ... fuck it! Troubling yourself where there is no trouble seems a bit over-the-top. But I am prepared to be called "wrong."

Friday, July 17, 2015

how to get your girlfriend to shut up

And, for the uncertain males in our midst, a little advice passed along in email:

Japan's nuclear disaster

Passed along in email was this update on the finagling going on in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in Japan.

The piece is both clear and compelling and stands as a reminder that just because things are "over," that doesn't mean they are really over.

As usual, the bottom line is, "follow the money."

And, in the same email delivery, came this update on a small segment of the ongoing reaction by the Vatican to its pedophile abuses of the past.

Just because I forget and forgot doesn't mean it's forgettable or forgotten.

Let alone forgiven.

an ennobled life

This morning I imagine that there is nothing ennobling about poverty. Just ask anyone who's poor. And likewise there is nothing ennobling about being rich. Just take a look at anyone who is. Nevertheless, there is a longing to ennoble whatever station his or her train has stopped at.

Is it curious or is it not, the esteem heaped on a Jesus or Gandhi, not least because they seemed to live simple lives in line with what others might call poverty? As the stories go, neither had a lot of stuff; they were poor in a manner of speaking; and yet too they posited ideas that were ennobling and were, by others' yardsticks, ennobled. Never mind that, by background, both men arose out of backgrounds and/or education that was pretty cushy -- Jesus, a middle class guy who spoke three languages in order to ply his carpenter's trade; Gandhi a British-trained lawyer who turned his talents to civil rights.

Neither took the Donald Trump route of collecting a lot of stuff and yet they were ennobled and being ennobled rests in part in the fact that I too would like to be ennobled, to find a wider, deeper, greater meaning to my existence, whatever its station.

It was the newspaper delivery woman who got me off on this train of thinking today. In her 50's and of medium and plump height, she generally arrives around 5:30, a time when I am waking up on the porch with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. When I see her bustling around dropping off the newspapers up the street, I get off my ass and prepare to greet and thank her in the doorway. I do wonder whatever happened to the times when 12-year-olds rode their bikes as they plied their first job trade delivering newspapers. I guess they're too ennobled for that and now it's the elderly-or-getting-there who deliver newspapers... usually from cars. Times are not always easy, but they are not so hard that bicycles are the norm.

This morning, she stopped long enough to tell me the tale of a squabble at the newspaper office where she picks up bundles. A newish delivery man, in his sixties, had complained vociferously when my delivery lady got her bundles first. Who died and left her queen, he complained loudly according to the tale I was told. I asked how long it was between pickups by delivery people -- by how much time was he discommoded. "A couple of minutes," the woman said. So, because he had to wait a couple of minutes, a man raised a me-first-me-ennobled ruckus. It was unpleasant as all encounters with unpleasant people are. But it seems likely that the matter will be straightened out by tomorrow.

A woman in her 50's. A man in his 60's. Squabbling about who had precedence when it came to picking up and subsequently delivering papers ... a job that pays less than a lot by quite a lot. Squabbling over crumbs passed through my liberal-leaning mind ... and then I thought that was pretty arrogant.

I grew up admiring the likes of George Orwell and I.F. Stone and Pete Seeger. Orwell, the British novelist, journalist, essayist and polemicist made a living tweaking the social condition in general and British aristocracy in particular. Besides his touchstone "1984" and "Animal Farm," Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell was a pen name) was also the author of "Homage to Catalonia," "The Road to Wigan Pier" and "Down and Out in Paris and London," three works dissecting and depicting and to some extent ennobling what his ennobled readership was unlikely to know anything about. He described his own background as "lower-upper-middle-class," but one thing's for sure: He was pretty well educated (Eton) and he didn't go hungry. By the time he died in 1950 at age 46, he was considered by some to be one of the greatest 50 writers since 1945.

Orwell pointed out the contradictions and inequalities and hypocrisies and I loved him to death. He was a hell-raiser. And I was a teenager ... it was a match made in heaven. But, as is the wont of even those who are no longer teenagers, I made the mistake of assuming that because anyone (most notably me) could point out and criticize the ignoble, I was somehow in possession of the keys to ennoblement. This is a curious presupposition.

In his "A Modern Monk's Tale," Joseph Cavanagh, a now-deceased Trappist monk who took the Catholic church to task for its corruptions before he died in 2012, quoted his mother, a wealthy Long Island Catholic who was intimate with the power-brokering within the church as saying,
"Once a man has made real money," she would say, "That man is a saint -- a saint I tell you -- and how he made his money is nobody's business."
It is not only the stricken or impoverished or hungry-and-keen-eyed who seek ennoblement. Even in the baronial halls of wealth, there is a longing to be more, to seem more, to glitter with a more that is more than the Louis Quinze chairs and the humming-bird tongues for dinner... "a saint I tell you!" No matter how much or how little anyone has, everyone seems to be humming the same old tune, "Is That All There Is?"

So what is the deal with this longing to be anointed and important and ennobled? I have a hunch it is simply the weep-worthy longing to relax at last with what is presented in any given moment. Everyone may long to find his or her face on someone else's billboard, but the bathroom mirror tells another, enduring story, a story anyone might long to be at peace with.

The usual measuring sticks may be useful and apt -- it really is pretty grotesque to watch wealth overlook or disdain poverty (grab your own bootstraps, you laggard!) or poverty disdain or demean wealth (the 1% are sucking us blind). But using comparisons in order to ennoble your life is a losing battle ... and an exhausting one as well. As an old saying once had it, "Comparisons are odious."

Ennoble what, precisely? And what would happen if the chores associated with ennoblement were simply set aside? Would your ass fall off? Would anything be reduced or raised up? And if so, how reliable could that possibly be?

To suggest that everyone and everything is already ennobled is one of those smarmy pieces of bullshit bandied about by those on edge. Likewise, I suspect, the suggestion that nothing is ennobled or ennobling is one of those blow-out-the-candles birthday wishes that has no staying power.

Ennoblement ... wouldn't you rather relax? Haven't there been enough nostrums and tooth fairies? Isn't it time to relax?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

a nice day

The viscous swamp that was yesterday cleared out overnight and today is cool and crystalline as pink quartz. Never mind if the pinky dawn suggests inclement times ahead: It's nice to feel lighter in the lighter air.

Humidity defeats me in ways I probably shouldn't admit but do because keeping secrets at my age takes too much energy for too little useful result. Secrets are for the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the ones who stand half a chance of accomplishing something they will be able to credit ... for a while.

Yesterday, some Zen Buddhist promo arrived in the mail. It was a book or a lecture or something and I skimmed it over and was grateful to find an invitation to "unsubscribe" from future mailings down at the bottom. In the skimming, I could feel the improvement-vortex of the language and direction and it's not as if I disagree ... I too have allowed myself to be swallowed and warmed by such invitations, but that time is in the past and today I am disinclined ... not negative or critical, especially, but just disinclined as I might be when confronted with a plate of anchovies.

An old army friend of mine, Barney, is into economics. For years he has taught it and traveled the world helping others to understand what he knows, as far as I can figure out, from muzzle to butt-plate. But when Barney gets off on economics with me, I zone out. The topic is simply not my cup of tea and pretending it is is false. Like lowering myself into someone else's vortex of improvement.

I love Barney just fine ... enough to tell him what my tastes and capacities are ... no-thanks to economics. No thanks to the vortex of correction and improvement: I have enough trouble setting my own course without adding my name to the manifest of someone else's ship. I suppose it is somewhere between egotistical and common-sensical.

I like Zen Buddhism, but pray to whatever gods there are to be spared a world in which others praise it.

Who knows ... perhaps I will take my stick for a walk today, as I try to do each day around 1100, and my neighbor's free-range chickens will be on the loose, walking purposefully from yard to yard, always clustered gaggle, scratching the earth and pecking. I love the fact that they seem to know what they're doing and appear oblivious to their own deepest understanding.

July newspaper column

July's column for the local paper was printed today under the title, "Big Political Idea from Big Sky Country." It feels too much like a car running on tires that don't have enough air ... OK, but sluggish and unconvinced and teetering on some whiny, solemn cusp. I don't much like it. In writing, sometimes you have to eat shit because there is nothing else on the table and Montana refused to shut up in my mind ... or rather, I couldn't muster another, more sassy focal point. Oh well, maybe there will be a naked lady jumping out of next month's cake.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015
(Published in print: Thursday, July 16, 2015

If the election were held today, I would vote for Montana.

It’s not as if I know a hell of a lot about Montana or imagine it doesn’t have its flaws. I haven’t got a clue where Montana stands on God or immigration or the Affordable Care Act or the Confederate battle flag or gun control or socialism or trickle-down economics or gay rights or faux (read Fox) news presentations.

But Montana has at least taken a stab at telling me what it’s for — which is more than I can gather from the candidates.

In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission that corporations, being people, have the right to “speak” about elections and that therefore earlier prohibitions against corporate financing within 60 days of the election were unconstitutional.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy asserted, “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

The ruling met with a resounding “hogwash!” from Montana, which let it be known that it would implicitly ignore the high court and stick with its own 1912 law that campaign financing should be regulated. Montana had lived through an era when political offices were bought and sold. The state had no intention of repeating that history.

But the merchants of political clout were not about to accept Montana’s nose-thumbing posture.

In 2012, the Supreme Court summarily dispatched Montana’s intransigence, ruling that everyone — Montana included — had to abide by the Citizens United decision.

Montana’s feisty insurrection had been quelled and for big spenders, it was open season at last.

But then, in 2015, Montana passed a bipartisan law that said in effect, “OK, we’ll abide by Citizens United, but ...” And the “but” turned out to be a law saying that donations and donors to Montana politics were required to provide their names and numbers.

Those wishing to donate to — or purchase — a political post could do so ... as long as they owned up to their activity. No more anonymity or what is sometimes called “dark money.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, “spending by organizations that do not disclose their donors has increased from less than $5.2 million in 2006 to well over $300 million in the 2012 presidential cycle and more than $174 million in the 2014 midterms.”

Last week, Republican candidate Jeb Bush announced that between his own campaigning and the help of super political-action committees, he had raised something close to $114 million in the first half of the year. The number eclipses his rivals and, from a money point of view, all but cements his first-place status in the Republican stable of candidates.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, announced she is on track to raise $45 million in campaign contributions in the first three months of the year. The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action hopes that with Clinton’s support it can rustle up between $200 million and $300 million worth of free speech.

Then there are the other candidates, most of whom have a super-PAC in the wings exercising their multi-million-dollar “free speech.”

Where does all this money go? What is it for? Are the candidates for whom it is intended immune to their generous donors and their desires? And do these dizzying amounts of money bear any relation to finding a thoughtful and principled leader for the nation?

Shall the skeptics among us surrender our doubts to Justice Kennedy’s soothing opinion that “independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption?” 

Maybe so.

But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I still think it’s probably a duck. Or, as I imagine Montana saying, “hogwash!” If corruption or the appearance of corruption is institutionalized, is it any less corruption?

Several other states besides Montana have laws or regulations relating to the purchase and sale of political office. But none has been quite so outspoken or confrontational as Montana.

And one of the strange parts of this tale is that the Citizens United decision leaves the door open to precisely the kind of transparency that Montana has decided to advocate. In the future, those challenging Montana’s latest show-and-tell law — those wishing to keep donors secret — may themselves be slapped down.

Over 40 states have yet to address the issue in their own backyards. It’s ticklish, dontcha know: “Transparency” is lovely to say but requires real grit to implement ... perhaps the kind of grit we might expect in a national leader.

Yes, I’m voting for Montana.

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