A MATTER OF JUSTICE

Candace Tellamore—and nobody had dared to call her “Candy” since the third grade—woke at 5:00 a. m., like always. By six, she’d made and eaten breakfast, showered, dressed in her uniform, and was checking out the results in her mirror.
Which was, incidentally, one of those full-length four-foot swiveling ovals of maple and glass pivoting at the middle on two lathe-turned columns from a framed base. What can I say? Candace likes antiques.
She didn’t much like what she saw, but she didn’t much care either. There have to be round people. 5′ 4” and 193 pounds. 192 would have been nice, but never 192. Up to 203, but never lower than 193, no matter what she did, no matter how much handball and free weights and yoga. Yes, yoga.
You should see her doing yoga. It was funny, was what. But she did it.
192 was divisible by 96, 64, 48, 32, 24, 16, 12, 8, 6, 4, 3, and 2. It was an elegant number. But no. She was stuck on 193.
It was a good thing she was a four-star general. The first female member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, actually. The uniform looked pretty good on her, especially those four gold stars. She looked like a general and it was because she was a general. She knew they called her “cannonball” and “tank.” That was fine. That was the way soldiers ought to talk about their general. They also called her “chopper,” and she knew that was all that really mattered to them.
She had been one of the first female chopper pilots in the first Gulf War. She was famous for around the Pentagon—she made them nervous, actually—for referring to it as “The First Mistake.” She worshipped Bush the first, though, unlike his shit-for-brains namesake and the others, those tubby undistinguished losers. There was a man with brains, she thought. Brains and guts and principles.
Well, W wasn’t so much stupid as he was a playboy who had never developed the habit of thinking and now it was too late.
She had been a 25-year-old corporal, who became famous for never losing a man. A lot of it was pure luck, of course, it had to be. But when you were lying there with your leg shot off below the knee you could see luck.
She would go in anywhere. Once her door gunner took a hit just as she set down, and she bossed that big mothering fifty till they got all the wounded in and one of them wasn’t too bad to take over and she could lift off.
So the stories were there, and her soldiers knew the stories, and yeah, she looked pretty good to them. They did to her, too. They had guts and they knew right from wrong. That was important, that last part. Nobody talked about it, but it was the most important of all. If you didn’t know that, you knew shit.
But what the hell had her parents been thinking? Her daddy was 5′ 6” and had played fullback in his senior year for his state quarterfinalist division one high school. He’d put on a few since then. Her mother was 5′ 2” and hovered around 175.
They were delighted with each other. They pitied all those skinny people, always worrying about their weight. They liked each other just fine. But two cannonballs had a cannonball daughter. A cannonball four-star Joint Chiefs of Staff general daughter. A republican at that. You had to laugh, considering what ACLU liberal democrats her cannonball high-school-principal dad and her cannonball school librarian mother were.
But they were proud of her. You bet they were proud.
She shrugged. She was fine. This was the day. Time to get on with it.
She called the office before heading in, told her aide to line up the second lieutenants heading the platoons. One last call, just to bestow that last bit of confidence. Operation Pumpkin Down was a go. They would begin to execute at eight sharp, just as planned, just when the staff was getting in, before they could settle down.
Well, the platoon handling the Secret Service shift was an exception. It kicked off at 7:00 a.m., not 8:00. Necessity/
All in all, it was a risk she was taking, a big risk. Maybe if it worked she would get that legendary fifth star, be right up there with Eisenhower and McArthur. McArthur the idiot. God save us from generals playing politics.
Not that that wasn’t what she was doing.
She had wanted to call it Operation Turkey Buzzard Down, because she thought that was a more accurate description, but she had lost that battle.
Lose the small ones, win the big ones. Maybe.
We would see when it was all over. It had to go like clockwork. Not one casualty, not one shot fired. If anybody fired a shot, they had lost.
The other members of the JCS were on board. They had had to be. They all knew just how desperate the situation was. But none of them were willing to make the move. They let her take the risk. Because she was a woman, she knew that. It would go down better, if it went down, with a woman taking the lead.
So they would let her go. They had all agreed not to interfere. Not to say a word, not to do anything, for 24 hours. That was all she had. Then all bets were off. Everybody would do what they had to, and if she got caught in the gears and shredded, well, that was the risk she was taking.
Mattis, over at DOD, was, at long last, on vacation. That was their window. Everybody knew how he felt about North and South Korea, about Russia, about all of it. But he was a straight-up guy. So straight-up he might feel compelled to resist her. And he would be obeyed if he did. So they were cutting him out, temporarily.
Vacation was no real obstacle for his team, really. Somebody would be calling him within minutes. It was just enough time to let them launch, that was all. Everything depended on what happened next. But something had to be done.
Let’s get it all out in the open, and if it came to civil war, well, she was going to be a guerilla. That much was obvious.
What kind of creep would sell his country out for personal gain? She just couldn’t understand people like that. More importantly, she couldn’t respect them, and if there was one thing she had learned it was that obedience had to be based on respect.
It couldn’t be based on fear, or lies, or personal advantage. You might gain a temporary alliance that way. It wouldn’t last. It would break down, sooner or later. It would all come crashing down around your ears.

-0-

7:03
There were ten soldiers in the secret service locker room when the new shift hit. The new guys watched the soldiers, who were all carrying rifles, who didn’t move, who didn’t say anything. “What are you guys up to?” one of the incoming Secret Service shift said, but got no answer. “I don’t like this.”
He was one of the two on that shift who had been noted as having extreme right-wing views, a Trumpian all the way. He was from Alabama. The first shift had all gotten dressed, and had left.
Three of the soldiers surrounded him. One was a corporal. “That’s ok,” the corporal said. “You’re sitting this one out.”
There was another known Trump supporter. He was from Kansas. He liked to write threatening comments on Alex Jones’s web site, but nobody had found out yet. He didn’t look up, and he didn’t say anything, but three soldiers surrounded him too. Again, one was a corporal. “You too,” the corporal said.
None of the other Secret Service operatives would have taken a bullet for the big windbag. They had talked it over between themselves, off-duty. The soldiers knew it. The shift commander knew it, too, and he knew why the soldiers were there.

8:02
“You can’t do this,” said the woman sitting at the main desk in front of the door to the oval office. “You don’t have an appointment.”
The second lieutenant paused at the closed door, which he had been about to enter. “Matuszak,” he said to one of the three armed members of his squadron stand at ease along the near wall squadron, “take care of that.” (The other members of the squadron had distributed themselves to the various desks and offices of the permanent daily staff. In each case, one of the troopers carried a rifle. The other was the replacement, except for cases in which the staff member was glad to see them and agreed to obey orders. In that case, both soldiers remained, to observe and enforce if necessary, if the staff member was trying to be deceptive.
Matuszak grabbed the presidential secretary by the shoulders, and practically lifted her out of her seat. The secretary might have complained about the sexist treatment, except for the fact that Matuszak was female.
One of the other soldiers sat behind the desk, and immediately answered the phone. “The White House,” he said. Then, after listening. “I’m sorry. We’re busy at the moment. A few essential matters have come up. There will be a public briefing on these matters in the White House pressroom at 9 sharp.”

8:04
“You can’t do this,” said Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions. “I’m the Attorney General of the United States, and I can throw you in jail.”
“Shut the fuck up and sit down,” said the second lieutenant. He was black. So were most of the members of the squadron. Two were Latino. Eight were white.
Sessions sat down.

8:05
“What’s going on?” said Betsy DeVos.
“Your education begins now,” said one of the two soldiers standing guard beside her, keeping her from interfering. It was a good thing her lieutenant was out of the room at the moment, because he wouldn’t have approved of her wise-crack.
Another soldier, an unarmed one, sat at DeVos’s desk. She’d already done a better job that DeVos ever had, and she hadn’t even done anything yet.

8:07
When the kitchen workers threw open the doors to the supply entrance, they found twenty armed infantrymen waiting. The infantrymen brushed by the puzzled workers, all but four of them vanishing into the White House proper. Two of them stood on either side of the kitchen door to the White House dining room, and two on either side of the White House door to the dining room.
The guards in the kitchen smiled. “Just go on with what you’re doing,” one of the men said. “Nothing you need to be worried about. But you may be doing a bit more actual cooking in the near future.”

8:35
There had been a moment when the guards at the weapon-scanning station of the House of Representatives had looked the double squad over. Then, understanding, they nodded, lifted their hands, and stepped away from their stations. Two soldiers took the guard’s places, and the rest proceeded to Chambers, fifty men with rifles in quick-step.
Not a single Republican resisted, though many of them wore desperate looks, knowing the game was up. Paul Ryan attempted to be stern, warning the soldiers on either side of him, who had taken his arms and now were about to lead him away: “This is treason, you know.”
The soldiers looked at him. They looked at each other. They burst out laughing.

The Democrats were just as dangerous, though, as far as word getting out. But the squadron had drilled for a month on just this operation. It went like silk. All cell phones were collected, nobody even tried to phone out. All the members of the House were detained in chambers. When one or the other of the congress-people went to the restroom, troopers of the appropriate sex went with them.
Others from the squadron had been dispatched to all the representatives’ offices. Throughout the morning, as the representatives arrived, they were taken in hand and acquainted with the situation.
A similar scene occurred in the Senate at roughly the same time. The main difference was that it didn’t take so many soldiers. Mitch McConnell put up no resistance. He wasn’t smiling, though. He would never smile again.

8:47

Mike Pence said “What do you think you’re doing? Has something happened to the President? If something happened to the President, I’m the President now.”
“You’re wrong about that,” the lieutenant leading the squad said. Trump is illegitimate, and that means everybody he brought with him is illegitimate. Besides, we have the goods on you. You didn’t really think the F.B.I. and the C. I. A. would be just sitting there on their asses ignoring you, did you?”
“What are you talking about?” Pence said.
“Never mind. You’re in custody now. Just sit over there and shut up.”

-0-

And so it went, all over the place. A squadron had been dispatched to every single Cabinet office, larger ones to the ones that seemed more likely to be problematic, like the office of the Attorney General. They got there just as the offices opened for business, and in moments, in every case, they had either supplanted the cabinet officer and that officer’s staff, or had allowedstaff members sympathetic to their take-over to remain in place, though under constant watch.

A squadron each to the House and the Senate. A squadron to the Secret Service, whose head had been alerted an hour in advance. McConnell was taken into custody and not allowed contact with anyone else. So was Ryan. He was heard to expostulate to those arresting him. A corporal said to him, “You know, buddy, I’m a republican. I would normally be on your side. But you know what? I’m also a maraton runner. And I have known what a lying creep you were since you lied about your best marathon time. You’ve told some whoppers since, but that was the one that told me what kind of person you are. Who lies about something like that? Something that’s so easy to check? A born liar, that’s who. Now shut up and get in the vehicle.”
The essential thing was controlling the story, and that meant controlling the phones. There were no more cell phones circulating in the buildings. There was almost no resistance. In many cases, there was a huge sigh of relief, as if the workers were glad that someone, finally, had ended this charade.

And by 9:00 a.m., just in time for the presser, the apparatus of government had fallen, like so many dominoes, into Candace Tellamore’s hands. Trump himself was led out in handcuffs, taken into military custody. He was talking to the soldiers beside him. “So I’ve always been a big fan of the military,” he said. “Nothing I have more admiration for than our marms in en. Men in arms. Tell you what, you look like a really good guy. I’ve got an opening on my staff. I need a guy like you. What do say?”

The soldiers escorting him didn’t say anything. Trump kept on talking. Working the room, he would have called it.

There were others being led out in handcuffs. Miller, for example, and such others of the Trump brigade as seemed necessary. It would have been smart to assume that Mattis had heard the news by now, but whatever the reason was, nobody had heard from him. He was on vacation. Probably out in the woods for a walk and forgot to take his phone.

And finally, 9:00

They all were all quiet, all the journalists. Quiet except for a low murmur of people comparing notes. Nobody knew what was going on, but something was definitely going on. Nobody was answering their phones in the White House. Nobody’s contacts were answering their phones. There was nobody up front, not Trump, and not Huckabee-
Sanders. (Thank goodness: They were used to being lied to by politicians, but SHS managed to do it in a particularly insulting way, as if they were the liars and not she.)
Finally a trio of men in uniform walked out and took their places on the stage, one to the podium, and one to either side of him.

“I’m Second Lieutenant Raymond Torres,” said the man at the microphone. “The man at my right is Corporal Arthur C. Douglas, and the woman on my left is Corporal Amy Shandy. We will answer your questions as well as we are able to. Corporal Douglas is an expert on staffing and assignment of expertise. Corporal Shandy can address any questions about funding, salaries, taxes, and other such matters. I ask that you withhold all questions until I’ve made my preliminary announcements.

The United States government, as of this moment, is under martial law.” A forest of hands shot into the air. “I said please hold your questions until I am through.” Whether it was because the man was clearly military or because the journalists had suddenly discovered the value of patience, I will not attempt to say.

“This has been considered a last resort. It has been obvious for months to all except the most credulous that the man in the office of the President of the United States is a criminal. No member of the armed forces is obliged to obey the orders of a criminal, especially a dangerously insane one. Neither is anyone on the criminal’s staff, and none of the criminal’s appointments are legal. This is simple fact.

We have waited and waited for someone simply to take the initiative, to step up and say, you know what, this fellow is a beast and a fool and I refuse to accept his legitimacy, and I refuse to accept that any of his orders are legitimate.

No one did so. We waited, but nothing happened. Nobody seemed to have the nerve. An entire arm of Congress obfuscated and obstructed any investigation into the criminal, as if it were legitimate for a criminal to disband the investigation into his own activities. At long last, it was decided that this step was necessary. This entire administration has been taken into custody, and will not be allowed any further contact with the machinery of government. Now: With any luck at all, this will be the shortest episode of martial law in the history of the planet. Those who are capable of their positions and who are not resisting martial law are allowed to remain in their positions. In cases where rank incompetents or outright crooks are occupying staff or cabinet positions, we have replaced them with trained officers.

Otherwise, most things will proceed as usual. You are free to report of this, and will be not be hindered or prevented from leaving, no matter what your party or political preferences may be. We are not infringing on the rights of any citizen as guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and its amendments.

Speech remains free. The press remains free. We simply do not accept that it is proper to allow a traitor and those who have given the traitor aid and encouragement to continue to pervert the course of justice by taking over the reins of power.
It is not the military’s aim to remain in power. In fact, my superiors urge me to tell you, we are extremely uncomfortable doing so. It was the lesser of two evils: When it became apparent that Trump was willing to using the machinery of justice to pervert justice itself, taking it upon himself to interfere with classified information and with the operations of the FBI and indeed the Justice Department itself, it became impossible to stand idly by and watch the travesty unfold.

One more point, and then we will answer your questions as well as we can.

Even now, a committee is being put together to repair and restore the proper offices of government. Obviously, this committee must be composed of the most honest, capable, and intelligent people available. Obviously, there is a short supply of such people available in the world of politics, but we have done what we can. In some cases, committee members have been chose from the ranks of those who are not professional politicians. To the degree possible, the committee will contain equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, although no Republican who has lied or has been convicted of breaking the law, or is known to have fully supported the illegitimate administration of Donald Trump, will be on the committee. As soon as that committee announces its readiness to proceed, a legal civilian government will be sworn in, martial law will be suspended, and control ceded back to the civilian government.

Now we will take your questions.”

The press room exploded into a familiar turmoil. Lieutenant Torres officiated the question-and-answer session, either taking the question himself or delegating it to one of his colleagues for an answer. Answers were short, clear, and to the point. There were no evasions.

Lieutenant Torres wore a smile all through the rest of the proceedings. He knew that, whatever theoretical resistances this or that journalist might have, he or she had, by joining in the process, implicity accepted the military’s authority.

And although she didn’t know about Lieutenant Torres and his smile, General Candace Tellamore was wearing a similar one. It was working. She realized, in retrospect, there were three main reasons: 1) It was a fait accompli. Most people preferred not to get all tangled up in the hassle. Present them with a fait accompli, and the odds were, unless it was vastly unfair or cruel, they would, at least for a while, go along with it. 2) It was clearly right. Yes, there was a large portion of the electorate who had been swindled, or else who were so much like Trump they rejoiced in his election. But it was only a fraction, and not a big one, either. Most people recognized bullshit when they heard it and knew cruelty when they saw it. Most people have a conscience. When you did something so clearly right, deep inside themselves, they knew it, and would not fight it. 3) They did not have to give up any of their rights or privileges. Things would go on pretty much as they had. This was a robust civilization.

It was ironic, she knew, that Trump’s initial appearance of success was based on the same principle, the fait accompli. But he had neither honesty nor peacefulness on his side, and that was why his fait accompli was not going to last.

The only thing she had to worry about was the Nazi true-believers, the white supremacists. Some of them were crazy enough to start shooting. And there simply had to be no shooting. This “coup” would not work if there was any shooting.

It wasn’t really a coup, of course. It was actually just party magic, just misdirection. You look here instead of there, and when you look back you have a real government in place again. No way that Candace wanted the real power. She just wanted the real power back in the hands of honest and principled people.

She was just going to have to ride that out. Most of them were probably asleep when it happened, anyway. And they were bullies. They liked to talk big, but they came up short on true courage. True courage was defending the weak, not attacking them.

9:00, 24 hours later

And so it went. There was a lot of yapping and yelling, there were newspapers and websites and television channels raising a continual ruckus, there was the usual barrage of crazy from the right-wing deep-staters—this would probably convince them they were right, which was too bad—and the usual harangue over the violation of “civilized” behavior, as if anything the Trump flim-flam constituted civilized behavior. She wasn’t worried about that—when you saw a bully using a whip on a starving man, the civilized thing to do was knock the bully on his ass and take away his whip, not form a committee to protest his behavior.

But here it was, twenty-four hours later, and it was holding. She was meeting, even now, with the head of the hastily-form Committee for Genuine Democracy, ready, as she had promised, to cede power back to the civilian branch.

“Listen,” she said to the Committee’s head and representative, “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but all I want is to be a general. You guys can have the power and welcome to it. I just want to go back to doing what I was doing. There’s two kinds of people. One kind doesn’t trust anybody, thinks everybody is just as nasty as they are, and so wants to tell all those other people what to do. The other knows there are people out there who can’t be trusted, but believes most people can be and has no interest in running things. That second one is me. I’m a boss, but I have bosses under me and over me, and that’s the way I like it. I know how to handle my job. Government is not my job. I just want my Commander-in-Chief to be a Commander-in-Chief, not an ignorant and traitorous fraud. Government is the job of you people. And if you have any sense at all, you will realize, actually realize, that the people are your boss. It may seem idealistic and foolish in this day and age. We all seem to think we’re too sophisticated to have ideals now, that real-politik is all there is. (Damned Kissinger is your friend, and I’ll never understand that. ) But, me, I’m idealistic, and I’m willing to bet that most Americans are if you scratch them.

“Nobody has ever proved there was anything to the crazy charges against you, and it’s impossible for that to be the case if you really were guilty—unless of course, all the right-wingers and Republicans are totally incompetent. But the thing that actually persuades me is the foundation the two of you created. Neither of you has ever used it for political benefit. Which means you mean it.”

“Thank you, General,” said the head of the Committee. “All we need now is for you to sign here.” She indicated the top of a sheaf of papers (a thin sheaf, and one Candace had read through several times, carefully). “And here, and here, and here. And initial that.

Chopper sighed. She looked the other in the eyes. “Silly, isn’t it? Me signing away power I never really had to you, who won’t really have it either, not without the will of the people. It was all an illusion. A necessary one, maybe. But I believe in the words, so here goes.”

She wrote her name four times, her initials once, and dated the signatures. She looked through the brief document quickly, one last time. She shuffled it and struck it against the desk-top until it settled into a neat stack. She handed it over.

“This is all I have ever wanted,” she said, “a legitimately-elected chief executive. Legitimate elections in the country I love. It’s all yours. I’ll be watching you, of course, but it’s all yours now. Yours and the people’s.

Take it away, Madame President.”

The Eleventh Commandment

 

THE ELEVENTH COMMANDMENT

I ‘d had the idea of this essay before the Aurora, Colorado, shooting. But that shooting makes it seem even more immediately necessary for someone to float the idea, regardless of his or her personal moral stature. I imagine that a lot of people act on the principle intuitively, but perhaps it should be stated as clearly and plainly and absolutely as possible.

The effort is to enunciate a principle that all can agree on in good faith, whether they are followers of a distinct creed or complete nonbelievers.

The principle is this: No matter what your spiritual convictions—whether you associate yourself with an organized religious group, whether you are individually religious but not keen on institutionalized creeds, whether you are agnostic, or whether you are atheist—you agree that no belief, none whatsoever, justifies killing or even injuring another human, or destroying anything beautiful (as a man, thinking he was Jesus, once took a sledgehammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta). If you think God or the nature of existence is commanding you to kill or destroy, you are wrong. Just flat wrong.

That’s it. No matter what you fear or feel, your convictions do not justify damage to another human or to the beautiful.

There are a number of facile arguments people use to get around the principle, and those arguments should be addressed.

By “beautiful” I do not mean merely what you yourself argue is beautiful. I mean what a great many people consider beautiful. I am not much moved by Bach, though many lovers of music are (and many physicists and mathematicians especially. Whether this is a flaw in my own appreciation or not, I have no right to attack his music. (Actually, I never would attack it, since I mildly enjoy it, am just not transported by it, except to memories of Vacation Bible School in Southern Baptist Churches. But even if I were to develop a conviction that I was a fated actor and that Bach was the devil, I would have no right to attack it. That’s my point.) With regard to the concept of “the beautiful,” some might argue that the blown-apart body of a perceived enemy is “beautiful,” but that’s pretty obviously self-serving, and is not what I’m talking about at all.

And by damage, I do not mean putative or theoretical or syntactical damage. Argue as meanly as you wish to, and live with how you are seen as a result. Words don’t count, no matter how vicious they are. (I’m speaking of strictly of physical damage. Of course words can do terrible damage, and I’m not excusing abusive or dangerous or misleading speech. I’m just saying that it’s impossible to devise an absolute code of conduct for argument which will not eventually prove to be as harmful as the damage done by the nasty words themselves. This is why, in my opinion, the writers of the Constitution of the United States described free speech as a right, and did not try to circumscribe that right with law. We must each, on our own responsibility, decide what sort of language we will allow ourselves.)

There are also plenty of situations in which it might be argued that this principle does not hold. I will not discuss war, in which the whole point is the slaughtering of other humans and the destruction of what they hold dear. I will not discuss it, in spite of my own horror at war, because I don’t want the issue to be muddied with sophistical debate., the pretense that the existence of war implies that how we treat our fellows does not matter. I will not discuss the eating of meat, although I feel strongly that those humans who are capable of empathy for other humans are much more likely to feel empathy for other creatures, and that to damage any living creature or the Earth itself is wrong. I eat meat myself. I’m not saying I ought to. I’m just describing my own actual behavior.

It’s my sense that if we could agree, perhaps just in civilian life, and just with regard to humans, that violent and damaging behavior is never permissible, we would do ourselves a great deal of good.

We could also help soothe the fury-ravaged minds among us if we would simply adopt this practice, adopt it on the level of truth and commandment.

No exceptions.

It is not permissible to argue that other humans are trying to infringe on your rights or destroy your government and that therefore you must take pre-emptive action, that you must defend yourself by killing others.

No. We must agree that such arguments are not sane.

If you are under direct and lethal physical threat from another, you may of course defend yourself as necessary, and keep your honor.  I’m not talking about a law.  I’m talking about a species-wide way of looking at things.  Only by accepting such refusal to cause harm as a norm of behavior will we survive.

That’s the key. I call it a commandment, by the way, only by analogy with the Ten Commandments. Actually the idea has no force unless we accept it as individuals. It isn’t really a commandment, then, but in the word I have already been using, a principle.

We must refuse to engage in supersophistical theoretical dilemmas, from pretending that the imagined dilemmas of philosophy can excuse the actual behavior of individuals. The Joker is not acceptable. The fact that he thinks he is exemplifying philosophy with his murders is not proof that our moral underpinnings are false, but proof that he is wrong.

For a long time, in our culture, some of our artists and writers and philosophers have allowed themselves to imagine the horrible as defensible, under the illusion that they are exploring the profound paradox of morality.

It is true that artists and writers and philosophers (and preachers) cannot and should not be barred from an open look at horrible facts.

But really that excuse applies to very few works. Are we really arguing that our best-selling fiction, every single book of it, is conducting a profound investigation into the depths of human nature? Isn’t it obvious that the violence in our movies and stories and television is there almost entirely for entertainment value, that it vaunts itself as serious stuff merely as an excuse?

Dexter is not just like us. He’s wrong.

So the high school chemistry teacher on Breaking Bad shows what terrible deeds any of us are capable of. So? Is that the whole of the effect we receive? Are we not actually identifying with him, enjoying the frisson?

Our “detective stories” have become bloodier and bloodier. The detective stories I read, the Reacher novels and the Prey novels among them (I like the Letter from the Roman Alphabet Is X books a lot, too) have become hardly more than flimsily justified explosions of gunplay, the reader enjoying a momentary release of apparently justified blood-lust: These hard men are only being so murderous because we need them to, because there are terrible people out there, and those terrible people deserve killing. That excuse is endemic.

I love the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels, a sort of fiction it’s no longer possible to find. I need to read what I used to call “mysteries.” (They’ve all turned into gunfests now.) It may be a poor excuse, but I would not read the bloodier stuff if there were any sufficiently intelligent writing of another sort.

Surely it’s obvious that in a story an author can arrange cause and effect any way he or she wishes to, and thereby appear to “prove” his or her case? Oh the hero is so violent because he or she is “haunted.” Doesn’t matter by what. Drink or the murder of someone beloved or war. Oh, well, then, that’s okay.

The question is not how things go in stories, but how we want them to go in life.

“Red Mist” has become such a joke that the villain’s son in Kick-Ass adopts it for a name when he pretends to be a super-hero. It seems to me many think to prove how much sturdier their perceptions of reality are, how tough they are, by laughing about the corrupt and the horrible. I keep coming back to our artists and writers and philosophers, who seem to be outdoing each other in how far they will go, how much more and how much nastier slaughter they can portray.

Sort of like an aesthetic arms race, and with the same inevitable spiral to unbearable excess and destruction as its ultimate result.

Who do you think you’re proving things to? Do you not know who you are and what you stand for? Do you really think, somewhere, on some level, that by creating such violent characters and giving them excuses, you are partaking of the “toughness” you portray? Do you think we readers imagine you as the hero?

Really?

There is a famous Batman story in which a “good” guy does one totally evil thing, assassinates Batman with a long-distance rifle, and then goes back to live his “good” life. The point, I think, is that our labels, “good” and “bad,” are arbitrary. (And that the author is a deep thinker?)

In actual life, however, there are no such characters. The kind of being who can commit such murder is not the kind who can otherwise live an entirely blameless life. It will not happen. The assumption is specious, and can occur only within the bounds of a narrative.

It has become common to put on philosophical airs, to imply that you are a serious and unconventional thinker by embracing wholesale brutality. It has become fashionable. As with happens with most philosophy, the attitude has percolated gradually through the awarenesses of even those among us who are least capable of or least fit for philosophy.

Yes, morality is provisional. Nothing in nature demands it. That does not make it a less useful way of looking at things. It is a provision we make in order to have civilization, in order to benefit each other.

Since morality is provisional, we must be very careful what we represent to ourselves as acceptable behavior. We say what goes into it and what does not.

My suggestion is that as many of us as are capable adopt what I am referring to (though I am unlikely to be its initiator, am merely attempting to be one of its conduits) as the eleventh commandment.

It isn’t covered by the already existing commandment not to kill. That has gotten tangled in our concepts of war, and everyone makes far too many exceptions to it in their personal behavior. It’s also identified very strongly with a single type of religious behavior, which makes it very difficult for agnostics or atheists to accept. They may not reject the idea, but they do reject the source, and so the idea comes across as truism, preachiness, cliche. It’s implied that you must accept the system that created the commandment if you accept the tenet.

What I’m proposing is a way to limit the damage done by murderous beliefs, whether philosophical or the result of self-absorbtion (not that philosophers are immune to self-absorption). We must say, Such behaviors are not acceptable. Not for ourselves, not for others. For individuals, the “commandment” is a way for a mind to test the quality of its belief and thought. If the belief and thought urge to killing or damage, they are wrong. It’s that simple. No conviction, no matter how intense, is justified if it urges damage to another human or to the beautiful.

The “eleventh commandment” doesn’t address thorny questions like what level of force the police may use in what situations. In such matters, we are dependent on our laws, on the justice of our system. But most of us are not police officers, and do not want to be. Why pretend that our moral behavior depends on an impossible general answer to such specialized questions?

No one is trying to regulate thought or art. I’m just suggesting an individual standard that we may each use to judge our own notions. A standard that’s absolute, but absolutely voluntary.

No matter how angry you are, how frustrated, how passionate, or how convinced you are that you are in the right, If you kill or injure other humans, or attack the beautiful, you are, quite simply, wrong.

 

A Letter to the Rulers of the World

(This essay appears in my book, Practicing Zen without a License, but I decided it needed exposure here.

A meme is an idea, but an idea with a difference.

We normally think of ideas as creations of individual minds. Some modern thinkers have engaged in a viewpoint shift (ok, paradigm shift, if you insist on the word) in order to see if there are productive results. They see ideas as independently-existing entities, and our minds as the cultures in which these ideas grow. They call such ideas memes, by which they mean to imply a genetic quality to the propagation of ideas. That is, there are ideas which can reproduce. These ideas have built-in structures to ensure their survival and propagation, much like viruses or other invading organisms.

It is not necessary to demonstrate whether or not memes “actually” exist. It is sufficiently informative to assume their existence, and see whether this method of analysis yields good results.

It develops that the meme approach is very fruitful. Nothing about it tells us whether a given meme is beneficial or harmful, but once you begin to look at an idea in this fashion, you remove all its emotional coloration, and you begin to be able to see the functional structure of the idea.

Any idea may be viewed as a meme.

How do you stop a bad meme? This question occurred to me while I was imagining myself the ruler of the world. My ministers came to me and described the intolerable situation with a certain bloody religious sect. This sect had instituted cruel punishments for trivial things, including widespread capital punishment. This sect felt itself persecuted, though the leaders of the sect were among the richest people on the earth, and though their internal politics swayed all the world. This religious sect fostered a murderous fervor on behalf its believers and directed against all those who did not believe. Clearly this sect was a cancerous meme.

(Note: the foregoing was written before 9/11, and is intended to describe what I perceive as a universal human condition, not any one group.)

As ruler of the world, you understand, I had responsibility not primarily to individuals, but primarily to the health and well-being of the species, and only secondarily to individuals and groups of individuals. It is plausible to imagine but not possible to demonstrate that the greatest possible health for the species entails the greatest possible health for each contributing member in most conditions. (Questions of absolute survival may overrule this attitude in moments of crisis, as when the mountaineer sawed off his own arm.)

As ruler of the world I imagined saying, Kill all the males who will not renounce. I was not being Old Testament, I was minimizing the damage. This particular meme was much more virulent in males because it appeared at first to reward their systems preferentially. I thought I could let the women live, and those males who would renounce. That way I would not be obliterating a race. I would be like the surgeon removing no more of the organ than I had to in order to be reasonably sure of having gotten all the cancer.

But we all know that if I had really been ruler of the world, I would have said no such thing, I could have said no such thing.

Why? Because I’m a nice guy.

No, seriously folks, because we can’t be sure it works that way. We can’t prove that the health of the species entails the health of its individuals, but we can’t disprove it either. It might actually work that way.

And since it might, we can’t take any chances.

We can’t find a moral justification for genocide, even partial genocide such as I in my benevolence would have imposed.

You got that?

We can’t find a moral justification for genocide.

Which is to say war.

There isn’t one.

The only conceivable moral justification for imposing harm on individuals is to foster the well-being of the species, or of something greater than the species but which includes the species, such as the many-branched and highly-contradictory Will of God. Most meme-gone-cancerous beliefs however include just such a moral justification. It would have been ironic. As ruler of the world, I would have been engaging in the same behavior as the religion I sought to stamp out. The meme would have conquered me.

That’s a hell of a strategy for survival–to make death and propagation identical. Burst the cell wall of the bad-meme belief in order to kill it and you spray genetic copies all over the place.

It’s a good thing there are no rulers of the world. For our species, that would be like having a one-celled brain.

So how do you stop a bad-meme belief (a BMB if you will)?

Friends and neighbors, you laugh it out of court. You just refuse to take it seriously. And why not? Nobody says you have to take it seriously. Do you take nuclear physics seriously? Ok, I saw the hand over there in the third row, but the rest of you, you see what I mean. Nuclear physics can turn you to vapor in a millisecond, but you don’t take it seriously. So who says you have to take a BMB seriously? Oh it can make you roast in hell forever. Oh really?

You let the professors of the bad meme prattle on, but you don’t listen long. You excuse yourself politely because you have some interesting things to think about. You invite them to the parties, but you know they won’t feel easy, they’ll be self-conscious and defensive and mean if they get drunk.

In other words, you don’t shut them out, quarantine them. They do that to themselves. They have special products only the faithful can use, special observances that “prove” their faith, usually by means of spectacular oddity or uselessness or actual difficulty. Why else would somebody do this?

You may feel pity and you may try to help, but in essence you’re letting the disease run its course, knowing that in the long run it weakens those who have it and that eventually the species will develop resistance and throw it off.

You can do all this because you’ve got a resistance to the bad meme. A natural resistance. Perhaps we are beginning to develop workable inoculations as well.  Education appears to help, at least when it contains some information on how to think for yourself.  Cleansing the individual in a bath of love has shown some good results.   Encouraging the physical well-being of the individual, ditto.  None of these methods are sufficient in themselves, and the difficulty of application has so far interfered with treatment for a good many people.

We all know that as a matter of practical fact, we do, each of us, all the time, make decisions that balance the well-being of the species against the well-being of the individual. Each of us as rulers of the world.

We continue to save lives with antibiotics even though we know that we are breeding stronger disease organisms and, by failing to let natural selection take its course, weakening the resistance of our gene pool to those diseases.

We continue to take dangerous people out of circulation by means of prison or execution. It isn’t a very good solution, and our methods of evaluating danger are all screwed up, but we haven’t figured out anything better yet.

And so on.

Fine, as a matter of practical fact. What else can we do? But not fine as a religion, gussied up with orthodoxies and threats. That’s like letting the knife decide what to cut. BMBs exist, and we need to quell them.

I suppose there’s one other question we ought to deal with.

How do you tell a bad-meme-belief? Aren’t all beliefs equally valid in the scheme of things? Oh come on, folks.

Use your brains.

Addendum: On further reflection, I would say that all BMBs contain hooks–structures that attempt to damage the host if that person attempts to remove the bad idea. Usually the hook is in the form of a prohibition–you cannot question the the idea itself, usually on pain of being sentenced to hell, frequently on pain of being ostracized by other holders, and not infrequently on pain of mental trouble, since the idea has invaded your self-esteem and restructured it as cancer cells organize a blood delivery system within your body.

The simple rule, then: All bad memes have hooks.

GENIUSES, HEROES, WARRIORS, AND SARAH PALIN

 

 

This was written some time ago, in the election of 2008.  I’m trying to get back to this blog, which I have been neglecting.

No doubt because I’m a writer, I first noticed the trend on book jackets.  Suddenly every flyweight scribbler who showed the least flash of talent was being hailed as a “genius.”  Well, no.

Geniuses are rare. The very root of the word implies someone of extraordinary and inexplicable abilities, someone who can do what no one else is capable of. Geniuses are people like Buddha, Jesus, Shakespeare, Renoir, Einstein, maybe Alan Moore. They seldom occur as often once a century. Quick wit and a modest flair are estimable, but do not a genius make.

Maybe it began as a marketing ploy. Reassure the customer that the item in question is not merely a flashy expo of the latest fashions, but a work of enduring genius, and maybe you have the next summer blockbuster on hand.

However it began, the style percolated rapidly through all literary strata. Contemporary poetry has become the most solipsistic and monumentally boring enterprise possible to a wordsmith, read by none and practiced by thousands, but if you believe the blurbs (akin to believing Goldman/Sachs on finance or HCA on health care), these poets are, each and every one, geniuses.

The next inflated term I noticed was “hero.” Suddenly all you had to do to be a hero was enlist in the military. Of course there are heroes in the military, as there are in almost every human endeavor, but surely even the most hawkish of generals will concede that not every enlistee is heroic?

My standards for heroism are perhaps less stringent than my standards for genius. Heroism is attainable for almost all of us, whereas genius shows up capriciously. It is, in a sense, unfair. It cannot be acquired by means of any amount of earnest effort or any degree of sacrifice. (Though it may certainly be developed to highest effect or shamefully wasted.)

But my standards are nevertheless stringent. The hero, according to Joseph Campbell, ventures into unexplored territory and brings back something of value to the tribe, an idea or freedom from the dragon’s depredations, usually at great personal cost, always by means of enduring forbidding difficulties. Often the tribe initially disdains the hero’s achievement, only later realizing how magnificent the gift has proven to be. Martin Luther King, for example, was a hero.

At first I thought this degraded usage was confined to home-town newspapers, boosterish forums eager to foster local pride in the way the pep squad pumps up the high school for the big game. Every returning enlistee, no matter whether he or she had spent his or her enlistment stateside in the motor pool or as a mess hall cook, was hailed automatically as a “hero.”

(I do not look down on enlisted service of any sort, incidentally. But isn’t this a bit much? No action required, much less courage under fire.)

Later I began to see it everywhere, in wide-circulation papers, on television, on the internet. “The troops” were “heroes,” simply by virtue of wearing the uniform. No doubt there have been many brave soldiers in our (necessary and unnecessary) wars but surely there have been as many thieves, cowards, bullies, and butt-lazy jerkwads as well. Are they all “heroes?”

Do you see the common thread? Achievement has been replaced by the label, in the way that “organic” foods may contain corn syrup, in the way that no one posts a personal romantic ad who is not “sexy,” “creative,” and a lover of long thoughtful walks by the ocean.

The next inflated term I noticed was “warrior.” Perhaps because I read too many graphic novels, I attribute the term’s current popularity to Frank Miller. The Nietszche of the comics, he is to them as Harlan Ellison was to science fiction. (I’m strongly against cockfighting but might pay money to watch Miller and Ellison in a pit together.) His Dark Knight shrugs off heart attacks and various broken or dislocated limbs by means of sheer willpower, is more muscle-bound than Arnold but capable of incredible acrobatic feats even at the age of fifty, and crashes his speedster in flames but wins the race anyhow.

My son-in-law and I tried to watch 300 on video the other day. We were prepared for death and mayhem and a ceaseless display of sixpacks (apparently no male in Sparta ever wore a shirt) but the constant flatulent oratory defeated us. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Athens, that city of boy-lovers, as Leonidas snidely refers to them, whip the Spartans’ butts a few times? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Sparta more about Conquest than Freedom?)

Whoever originated the usage, it’s everywhere now. I don’t know whether the burgeoning of the martial arts in the U. S. is cause or symptom, but I do know that samurai have become the contemporary models of perfect warriors. The myth-making may be seen at its most preposterous extreme in the two Kill Bill movies (which could have been one if the dialogue hadn’t been so comically portentous and slow). I enjoy Ken Chi as much as the next fellow, but surely the disaffected samurai are our latter-day equivalents to the lone horseman, incredibly quick on the draw, who rides into a lawless Western town, and, though he despises gunplay, shoots all the bad guys dead?

Let’s take a look at those samurai. Warriors they were indeed, superbly trained in swordplay, taught to eliminate fear from their reactions. But as models of human behavior? The very same virtues that made them fearsome made them morally neutral. They fought for whichever noble they served. If we are to believe the romance of the samurai (which I’m no more inclined to do than I am to see Billy the Kid as the embodiment of the noble gunslinger), their code was the code of honor. Self-described warriors are always keen on “honor.”

The samurai, in essence, transformed themselves into weapons. The weapon may be beautiful, the weapon is certainly deadly, but the weapon has no conscience. The “honor” of the warrior is like the curving gleam on a samurai sword. Everything depends on the character of the person swinging it.

The romance of the warrior is that the true warrior is invulnerable. Even a brief glance at history shows this to be total fallacy at best and more probably total lunacy. In a video game you may trounce all the bad guys (unless you have chosen to play the bad guy). If you get “killed” while you’re learning, you can resurrect the character and try again.

It ah, you know, it doesn’t work that way in real life. I would guess that at a minimum a hundred wannabes must die for every surviving true warrior. Somehow I don’t really like those odds.

Okay, fantasy is fantasy and reality is reality, and most people can tell the difference. It wouldn’t matter except for the rhetoric. Far too many personal and policy decisions treat this “warrior” nonsense as genuine thought. We have the spectacle of self-described “warriors” who instigate wars though they themselves fled from any possibility of exposing themselves to battle.

Again, perhaps because I am a writer, I locate the common flaw in the inflation and degradation of the language. Quite a few good people have referred to Orwell’s warnings in this matter, and rightly so. The basic principle is less seldom mentioned: The proper function of language is communication. We use it to convey information from mind to mind.

The fine and underappreciated poet James Whitehead had a character in one of his poems declare, “The end of style for honest men is clarity.” (By way of full disclosure, Whitehead would caution that the man on whom the character was based wound up in a mental institution.)

Dissimulation is a perversion, not a function. In the same way that an invading micro-organism will destroy the health of its host, evasion and deceit destroy language. Dishonesty has a characteric and unmistakable sound, and doesn’t take much training to recognize. Hemingway, himself quite a purveyor of bovine ordure, famously stated the necessity for having a good bullshit detector. Anyone who listened to one of Nixon’s campaign speeches knew without a doubt, long before he swore to the contrary, and regardless of whatever arguable virtues he may have possessed, that he was a crook.

When a dissembling politician (I will entertain the notion there are other kinds) emits clouds of obfuscation and double-speak, phrases lose syntactical connection, grammars go haywire, and words lose their meaning.

How could it be otherwise? The speaker does not respect the language, but views it as merely a tool to further his or her own devices. If you do not respect the instrument, you are unlikely to master it.

There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in this country, as if the choice were between education and honor. I remember an equally misleading choice being offered in previous elections. The candidate, we were told, was the kind of fellow you would like to have a beer with. Are there no intelligent and principled people to have a beer with, I wondered?

More often than not, this rampant anti-intellectualism (someone more cynical than I might suspect the existence of wide-spread inferiority complexes) has taken the form of disdain for true eloquence.

 

 

 

 

 

THE STORY I CANNOT NAME WITHOUT GIVING AWAY THE PUNCHLINE

This is the best version of the story I’ve ever done, I think. I took it from a letter to a friend, though I usually try not to mine my letters. Makes one too cloyingly self-conscious. Hope you’ll forgive me this time. I’m including a few poems that relate.

Once, when my daughter Lynnika was about three, I was a brokish lowly poet in the small town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas, serving as poet-in-residence at the two colleges in the town and as Clark County’s on-call poetry-in-the-schools guy.

What the poet-in-residence bit meant was that $2500 of my $10K annual grant was billed by the colleges as providing me office space.  Which meant a desk and a chair in a room without windows, that I never spent any time in at all.  We were living down in the Ouachita River bottoms outside Arkadelphia.  Then my grant went belly-up.  We had been paying a mortgage on ten acres out in the Oauchita Mountains west of Arkadelphia,(and Hollywood, Arkansas).  I’d decided to build a cabin on it for us to live in.

Getting back to nature’s hard.  I did build the cabin, and we did live in it.  Briefly.

But back before all that, before the grant folded, we used to go camp on the land overnight–Lynnice, whose husband I was, and our daughters.  Lynnice was pregnant with our second daughter, Sarah.  So we were more or less going out and dreaming.  Very enjoyable.  There was no structure except a falling in old corn-crib, and there was a lot of punk pine on the hillside we thought of as ours.  Dead and fallen trees, grown soft with decay.  The gravel road looped around our ten-acre tilty but with a relatively flat top piece of rocky topology carpeted with pine and oak and gum and plum and so on.

Anyway, so we one morning we drove out to our place and camped that night.  This was a day in early spring.  Buds were coming out.  That wonderfully luminous but just a bit icy light when we arrived, then afternoon, evening, night.  When night came I constructed a huge fire that threw big flapping shadows on the corncrib and the trees, and underlit the trees, and threw off a rising tornado of sparks (because of the punk pine I’d used).

That morning, Lynnika had wanted the word for “minnows.”  It was one of the more wonderful periods of my life, witnessing my first daughter come into language.  It was entirely magical, how it started so simply with the names of things, and then, supposing things, supposing relationships between things, and then relationships of relationship, but all as beautifully ordered, as greenly exfoliated as any growing tree.

We say people learn their language.  Not exactly.  Language grows in people, is a living being.  I’m talking about something I actually saw happen.

I was Lynnika’s dictionary.  She would come to me for the names of things. That’s what “To a Young Man Working His Way through College” is about. This kid on my doorstep trying to sell me a “dictionary” for children—another one of those condescending constructions in which children are treated as stupid and requiring that the subject be dumbed down–when already, in her, language had attained such power and spendor that such a trivial little collection was laughable. This happened after the events on the land I’m telling you about. In mere weeks she would be constructing elementary sentences and then all of sudden it happened so fast we couldn’t keep up with it.

But this day I was still primal word-giver.  So at her question I gave her minnows for the little silvery flashing swimmers in the sheer thin shallows and swells of our WPA pond (its translucent green dusted and discriminated with a fine powder of yellow pine-pollen) and fish for the category.

As I say, then the night and the big fire flapping.  Over us in perfect clarity if we stepped away, the lucid stars.

And the fire throwing off its torrent of sparks.

And Lynnika had never seen sparks before.  But this time she couldn’t wait to get the word from me.  This time she needed a word right now.

She said, laughing happily, “Look at the fire-fish, Daddy.”

I think most people think language makes poetry, that it’s a refinement, an artifice, a purification.  I saw as clearly as I could possibly see that it went at least exactly the opposite way.  It’s poetry that has made language.

That moment, that creation, that spark of naming.  I became convinced that it is born in every one of us (not to say there are not varying degrees of innate ability), which if it were true would be at least astonishing and maybe miraculous, and that most of us, even the poets–and by poetry I mean to include all writing, possibly all language (Lynnika has found a different way to love language–she’s a linguist, a scientist of language, ABD from U of AZ)–become from frequency and habit inured to the astonishing innate human behavior I see as a sort of goddess in the species.  I became convinced that what genuine poetry does is restore the potency, the freshness that language had when we were first learning it.

The poems (the first one is there to set the time-frame roughly. It happened after Lynnika was born but a year before we moved to Arkadelphia).

 JANUARY 27, 1973

Dear Lord, as if by plan it happened:

All day long, the soul-dulling rain,

but by sunset the cloud-cover opened

here and there gaps, and let a stain

of lemon dawn on building walls,

and trees were crooked light again,

and the gaps widened, and fiery halls

opened in sunward clouds, and umber

glowed on the underbelly shoals

of clouds running eastward to slumber,

and just at six the porch-lights lit

all over town and starlings past number

flocked overhead, and watching that,

I heard the sirens announcing peace,

and people honking in the street.

All the last clouds blew off like fleece

and all the western branches flamed,

leaving the sky a polished piece

of onyx-blue. Let blame be blamed,

let who wants credit take the credit,

let it be as it has been claimed,

a bitter debt till we have paid it—

I say all the sober should get drunk,

and the celebrators celebrate it

in drive-in church and honky-tonk,

and all the car-horns honk honk honk.

 

 

No Title

 

My daughter sits jabbering.

I lean around the corner to look at her.

There she is tilted to the wall

in the mirror I have not yet made time to put up,

pretending to read.

She pulls the pages anyhow apart.

The main thing is to get them separated and make some noise.

Time enough for fine distinctions later.

Come on, typewriter keys,

she’s

catching up.

BLUES FOR LYNNIKA AT TWO

You gone blue write?

Darn right I gone blue write, blue girl

at such a sleepy loss

at my armchair’s arm.

I gone take this yellow pencil (why

did you say blue?),

I gone write you,

I gone blue write all right,

blue like stars

come out in deepening blue

over the bare black

over the sharp black

ideograms of trees,

untranslatable—raw oak sorrow, perhaps,

dotted gaities of gum?

Oh but blue, blue,

like blue going down

undone in puddles, thinning in water, dissolute, gone,

no least tinct like taint of salt, no ghostly hint, none,

but gone, blue,

You gone blue write?

I gone blue write,

like sleep is blue, pure blue, and you, you,

where do you go,

let go, to?

And what, oh blue, are blue fathers to do,

to think, helping you

let be, let go, let blue

be blue be blue be blue. You do

it so well, so simply,

let die your day, lay down all color, color

by color, singing:

Up-up-up a worse a high,

ha I wunner whatcher are—

you do it.  Ah blue, it

is so blue, you, how you are

not afraid, so love will lie by you

in the blue dark,

not afraid, blue, not afraid

to be blue, less, bluely, bluelessly

dispersed, timelessly blue

past blue past all blue blues blued

till yellow Jesus day bang open.

 

HOW MY DAUGHTER GAVE ME THE WORD

I find it impossible to speak

without music any more—

as if all language had finally

become poetry. And why not? Why not?

What is a word but a spark

somewhere in the brain, in the flesh therefore, a white-hot

leaping, a plasma so faint, so tinily

schooling with fellows,

and how they swerve in a manifold flashing,

the whirl of a mood, a thought, a hushing . . .

Like minnows spinning in shallows,

one silvery host in reversal,

flaring with sunfire, diffracting the scales of color,

moment beyond rehearsal.

Say in 1974, the spring,

early, when we stood on a cold hillside,

you and I and your mother,

you in my arms and prompt as the sunlight

spilling its differentials. You never denied

surprise but wanted always to know

the name of the never-before-met,

why rain was rain and water was water,

and water was always wet,

but water wasn’t always rain, but rain was always water,

and why the pond below

was not water, but a pond with water in it,

and those minnows, those fish flashing and schooling,

What do you call them? Quick as a minute,

I called you, and gave your mother a glance—

that archaic woman, so supple, so clean in her bones—

Oh things had names which were songs which were

a springing of item and light. This was before

I raised us a roof with my own hands, and named your sister

for the treetop blossoms of running yellow

jessamine, open for solstice.

This was before the sound of my restless

hammer, the singing of driven nails in a gridwork, a halo

of hopeful space.

This was before I began to build, but it was ours,

the land, the pond, the place—

the late afternoon in shallow,

in jade-lucid water . . .

All of it ours. And later

we made our night camp

beside the old corncrib falling in and useless,

but an architecture nevertheless,

the shadowy starpunctured frame and stamp

of the human, of the desire

for form, for mastery, for kinship, for the warmth

of a fire. And you knew fire,

its leonine pounce, its agile blue tongue—

but this kindling went whoomph!

like the big bang.

I had dragged punk pine from the undergrowth,

the jackstraw halfrotten aftermath

of starved-out seedlings, so that against a thick black smoke

a vortex rose, a host that went

almost to the starfixed sky, and broke

to meteors, the children of the arc.

And you were too excited this once to wait

for the father-word,

the old slow story of the spark.

Grace jumps before we’re ready,

before we can plan or fail. And so occurred

the ionic, the shellstripped fresh,

the radical made flesh:

Look Daddy, look Daddy–

firefish.

BLACKBERRIES

for my father, Jack Butler, Sr.

1.

The formal ocean has its watery hooks,

and here, far inland,

the water has gotten its hooks in me again.

Oh primocane and floricane and dead old sticks, oh thirst

for tantalant polyhedrals,

leaf-hidden, glimmering–packed purple beads

my eye can cull from wrangle of shadow

somehow halfway across a road!

For here, in the thrumming of a summer morning,

I’m making like a country boy,

picking blackberries,

thinking of fatherhood and childhood

and lost time like form–

My father, I provide, provide (my fathers)

with a rolling of wrist, a trained mumble

of palps to fat clusters, a dropping

of plumpness to palm till palm brims,

must dump in a bucket: Enough moral here

(for a preacher’s boy with a child of his own

twenty years later) in how

the one-too-many, greedily plucked-at,

will tumble a dozen out of the hand,

or how the outventured arm, drawn suddenly back,

will make the barbs clamp, close inward together—

Oh I am one to praise the very

thorns of the blackberry,

rose-cousin and edible tart fruit.

My mind drifts like a child’s, in visions of floating order,

my body attentive, sweat-beaded, mosquito-haunted . . .

These green canes, lashes,

sprung up limply on the wild rolled bramble,

the stiff, persistent stuff

of its own past history—I hardly need

to say like a wave, processions of vanishing structure,

there and not-there,

there at the corner of the eye,

to be gathered . . .

2.

I aint said nothing about chiggers of course, horseflies

in relentless whizzing precession,

the possibility of copperheads or moxicans

somewhere under the interthreaded

honeysuckle and greenbriar: Those forms that threaten invasion,

that are not merely there to be taken

but do their own taking.

Almost mathematically

one may mutter and permutate: sumac,

blackberry brambles to bind it,

sumac and greenbriar, greenbriar and blackberry,

honeysuckle (its flowering spent) and sumac,

honeysuckle and sweetgum, whose stars,

immediate and thick as weeds,

appear in the ditches just now, greenbriar

arresting the flowering elderberry–

And what of the triplets or the white dragonflies

with electric black wings

or blue slender naiads and the dark blue blur

of their whizzing wings, the orders of lizards, rabbits,

all of blue fulminant itchy summer

in one groined prehistoric non-tree,

sumac groaning with bees, heavy-blossomed, in heat,

and me under it with ringing ears looking up

at the branch-vaulted blue,

glad of the sweat-sodden weight of my denim,

at loose in the wild, uncomfortable, happy

to have made my escape,

for once, from breakfast.

3.

Vine, bee, bramble, shrub, tree, and flower

in their tangled communion and trade create

a world, whose verity

is not a function of pain exactly,

though I have come back

with hooks in my face, a sunburnt nose, and later,

ankles nubbled with redbug bites

a man will scratch bloody to make quit itching: Not a world

whose harsh truth poetry cannot enter,

but a world poetry must follow a man into—

let the barbs snag me, let me shit seed,

bite down on a stinkbug

hidden in a handful of winedark fruit.

4.

Lynnika loiters at the pick-up,

the game gone dead for her

after the first few roadside fruit. What are we for,

growing older,

but to learn persistence in the right directions,

the useful stubbornness

no child can manage, the pains to take

for the sake of the story.

I think now of my father’s sermons

in all those backwoods churches, hard seats and dragged-out hymns,

two-week revivals he had to get it up for

after a hundred

two-week revivals, scratching a living and knowing himself

a sinner as bad as any he scolded,

his children troubled. And I was the fat

unpleasant eldest, lazy and book-ridden,

swearing by dreams and wrong-headed,

itching with sleazy and sexual ignorance.

The hardcore faithful to prayermeeting came

on Wednesday nights, the rich midweek,

the church close-grained with pews,

spilling a yellow radiance to dust and sparse grass

as the deacons smoked on the porch and talked

and crops and spiders and kingdoms

rose in the talk and crumbled away, and, as I wrote

in a fragment that has long since crumbled, mosquitoes rose

like angels in the darkening wood, and sang.

Those roads, my daughter, we lived down,

those gravel trails with a church

or store with gas-pumps,

or a little town

at a drowsy focus, way back, the back way,

haunted with wooden bridges and tree-shadows—

I thought we brewed the New Jerusalem,

the world’s own change

and new meaning. I didn’t know.

It has been hard to lose those meanings

and keep my own, but the rest of the world

does exist. I am not much

of a country boy. Except. The fat fruit

seems always to shelter under cool leaves.

Bend over, twist your head, look up.

I’m sorry about the mosquitoes, the dust,

the blazing sun, the hard sharp rocks of the gravel,

the stink of dead animals.

Your father’s a poet and not a preacher.

Not much difference. You roll your own, that’s all.

Like cobwebs

a man walking through trees

breaks with his face,

those lost roads

are broken and gone

on the face of the round world’s present. But

what poetry has had for me

more beauty or order or mystery

than that we thought of in wooden churches

late at night

under the stars, our odd harmonic cries

troubling the owls?

The other night, out at the place,

the new place,

the one we own in two years, our first,

alone,

preparing to sleep

in the moon-barred corncrib (its logs unchinked),

exhausted and solitary,

spooky,

putting in time

to make it our home, this scrap of land,

the chuck-will’s-widow

whipping its call.

the cat snoring,

I thought of my crimes: Imagined monsters

were loose in the woods,

and I could feel the Methodist cemetery

across the road,

its bodies gathered and packed and crumbling,

and thought somehow

of that whole chambered boneyard,

from which I had conjured moldering skeletons,

vengeful and grinning with their own lost crimes,

to come at my scalp

through the moonlit door,

as a fruit like a blackberry, rich with form,

composite. And slept.

 

THE LOST ANIMALS

Barbara from Truchas came into the room radiant

with cold air, to say how

the horse at the fence, suspicious, had taken at last

a slice of sweetness from her naked fingers.

Once a hummingbird

stirred in my palm, uttered a single high note,

and took the winter air.

In Jayme’s hand, its stunned mate woke, sang, went.

Why is it we want to talk to animals?

None of the animals want to talk to us—

except, of course, those we have kept beside us

all these years: Miaow,

they say, or Wunf. Wunf. Wunf. And mean, See me.

All of our animals

are strays—the wounded, forgotten, misplaced, cast out:

A scrap of kitten with a rotted haunch

howling at ditch-edge, now a fat and happy

three-legged tom. Or our latest, Lawsted,

a mewling in the dark

arroyo last Christmas eve. We spent an hour

scrambling through sand, chamisa, juniper,

persuading her to our help,

persuading her not to become coyote-meat.

But she had called out to us. Lost as they are,

they have developed the syndrome,

self-awareness, have thought to themselves, I exist,

and then, inevitably,

but I will vanish unless they see me, see me.

This is our blessing, the fruit

of the tree of knowledge—of what? Of anything.

Ah, we are the species with questions which we disguise

as answers, we are the true lost animals.

My brilliant friend, the saint of smoking genius,

Big Al Varo on the twelve-string says

it is essential loneliness: We would

cry out to stones, Oh speak, because we are

alone. Perhaps. And perhaps also, of all

creatures most generous, we wish to transmit

the gift that stars our genes and makes us dream God,

we wish to touch as we have been touched,

to say that loneliness

may not be forever or at the last:

Our oldest, Abigail,

in morning, shut out, cries Mama at the door,

the only time—I swear it—

she makes that sound. And Jayme

rises from a warm dream to let her in.

THE MOTHER TONGUE

On the occasion of the Faulkner Conference, New Orleans, September 1999, with deep gratitude to Rosemary James and Joe DiSalvo, and particular appreciation for Richard Katrovas, Mark DeFoe, Peter Cooley, and Janet Turner Hospital, fellows on the “Meter and Musicality of Literature” panel—

I don’t know what my father is—

my mother is this tongue.

I see a many-branching tree,

forever young,

forever aging. Or else a river,

or else a fractal of light,

blooming for an instant in

hallways of night.

I have become that tree, that water,

exploded with that fire.

I’ve spent myself on poetry,

not on desire,

so honor all those vanished singers

who shaped the words I say:

I host their breath, and with it sing

all poets today.

We ask for heritage, for spirit,

we ask for sacred flame,

and the burning past spills from our lips

name after name

unnoticed. She moves unseen, the goddess,

she makes us kin, and ken.

What are we but monkeys, for all

our science and zen?

What are we but tricky bastards, upright

by means of continual will,

teetering from balance to balance,

so seldom still,

so busy with continual talk

we hear what isn’t there,

the footstep of the imaginary

on the living stair.

No longer animal entirely,

a tribe of voluble clowns,

we are what the mother has made us: Let lions,

let leopards pounce—

we will die pronouncing incredible arias,

we will die singing our fathers,

our mothers, the sun, the moon, the stars,

and all of those others.

And what are poets of any tribe,

however we differ and quarrel,

but wilding fools, enchanted to music?

—Ghostly, amoral

but holy stuff, almost familiar,

strange music that isn’t

quite music, but is, surprisingly, not

at all unpleasant—

no, no, in fact quite lovely,

in fact the fact of existence

hissing so sweetly across our beings

into blue distance.

What are poets but spirit-talkers

who make the dream-world visible,

as lightning wakens the night river

with an impossible

chaos of pathways, a branching of fire?

Talk dirty, talk mathematics,

talk trash, talk hip, talk tall, talk cardboard

boxes in attics

full of old photos. Talk turkey, talk sense,

talk straight, talk terms, talk to my lawyer,

now you’re talking, you talk the talk

but how do I know ya

can walk the walk? What are humans

but poetry-spouting apes,

changed animals who do strange things

to woids and grapes?

So lift a glass, Popeye and Olive,

hoist up your long-stemmed flute:

With a high and a ho and a hey-derry-do,

down the old chute!

—Here’s one for the language, not as a goddess,

but as a goddess might be.

—And here’s one for beauty, and here’s another

for just you and me.

 

THOUGHT

Thinking About Thought

Thought must consider thought itself.

Our consideration does not require an a priori definition of thought. In fact it is better if we do not have a definition to begin with. Useful definitions are usually arrived at as a result of well-managed consideration, and not in advance of the consideration. This is such a basic of good thinking that I am amazed so few take it into account. In particular, many recent discussions regarding consciousness, artificial intelligence, and the nature of reality appear to me to begin by presuming the fundamental character of the phenomenon they would ostensibly describe, and to proceed by means of argument, pro and con. This is not thinking, but the short-circuit of thinking.

The method of prior definition, argument, and counter-argument is the inevitable method of politics, and perhaps that is why it has become so prevalent in those fields that are supposed to value clear thinking: Perhaps it is because so much of our thinking has become politicized.

This method may show occasional partial successes, when the prior definition is a lucky hit, but it is an especially weak method for discovering the character of an uncharted phenomenon and one that is most probably polyvalent. Even simple logic, that limited hand-child of thought, teaches us that the disproof of one contention is not the proof of its opposite.

So we see that we may think freely about thought without first considering its ultimate character, insisting on its sources, or creating a pre-emptive inventory of its uses and productions.

When we speak of thought, we know on a fundamental level what activity we are speaking of. All we are seeking to do in thinking about thinking is deliver that fundamental awareness into the realm of thought itself. We do not have to raise linguistic questions, or questions as to whether computers are “thinking” in the same sense we are, or questions as to whether thought itself is merely an illusory by-product of the brain’s “software.”

All we really have to do is observe thought, and see what it does, and see how it moves, and see what it spends itself on. If we do that well enough, and long enough, I am sure that we will understand thought more deeply.

And here I see that I do entertain at least one prior assumption about thought. I assume that the purpose of thought is understanding. Understanding, not the display of expertise. Understanding, not statistics. Understanding, not the catalogue of a ramifying hierarchy of facts.

Why do humans seek to understand? Some might suppose it is to gain mastery. I suppose it is to create harmony. At the deepest level, perhaps harmony and mastery are the same. But if so, it is at a level that only harmony can reach, that mastery alone cannot touch. But what sort of harmony?

Many people appear to feel that the function of thought is to lift us out of the physical realm into the reaches of “higher” existence—the ideal, the abstract, the spiritual. I am beginning to feel that its function is actually to apprehend those “higher” modes of being, and return them to the body.

Why do we seek harmony? Well, what else is there to do?

You may well disagree with my assumption that the purpose of thought is understanding. I mention it here in an attempt to be as clear and honest as possible. I don’t intend to argue the assumption, because I do not wish it to function as one of those prior definitions. I wish this essay to be not a persuasion, but an invitation to observe. So you may safely trot along beside me for a while and see if you think any genuine observation is occurring.

 

The Mathematical Model of Thought

It is currently impossible to speak of thought itself without reference to mathematics. I love mathematics, and have had some degree of training in the subject. Mathematics is a valuable tool of thought. But I do not feel that it is identical to thought, or that it is the essence of thought.

Thought is prior to mathematics, and is the more fundamental behavior. Thought created mathematics. Mathematics did not create thought.

This would seem to be a perfectly evident statement. Yet in almost all contemporary fields of thought or research, the mathematical model predominates, even in those fields for which it is ill-suited.

We have the spectacle of physicists and mathematicians writing books presuming to explain, in more or less mathematical terms, such matters as the origin of the universe or the nature of consciousness, when we have no assurance, in either case, that these matters are mathematically treatable.

(A proviso: I am aware that when cosmologists speak of the “beginning” of the universe, in a first Planck interval and Planck distance, they are speaking of a description that seems to fit most of the facts and that is mathematically consistent. In fact, I accept their model (provisionally). Nevertheless, we have no assurance that the beginning they model is the “actual” beginning. How could we know, unless we were there to compare it to our model? Please note further that I do not maintain these questions will never be mathematically treatable—that would be as great a presumption. I am simply saying that we have as yet little indication.)

We have the further spectacle of thinkers in fields which are resolutely a-mathematical imitating the mathematical model—as when a French literary philosopher misconstrues the meaning of i, the square root of negative one, as some sort of universal phallic quality; as when the painter speaks of the uncertainty principle; as when the poet writes “experimental” work.

By “mathematics” I mean to include, for the time being, all of those deeply mathematized branches of science which give us so much conceptual trouble. Has no one ever observed that it is precisely in the mathematized branches of science that we do begin to have conceptual troubles?

Developments in biology in recent years have been as amazing and far-ranging in their effects as those in physics, and actually now promise (or threaten) to bring greater transformations into our lives. And yet, although developments in biology have certainly upset many of our earlier and long-held notions, they have never posed us the paradoxes regarding the fundamental nature of reality that developments in physics have posed.

I am sure that many would assume this is because physics is the more “fundamental” science, the science that pushes closer to the limits of the knowable. We typically create a neat little hierarchy running from physics at the extreme through chemistry then into biology, treating each successive discipline as “fuzzier” and therefore less fundamental. (The categories themselves get fuzzier after biology—which science comes next? Anthropology? Ecology? Where does psychology fit in, how far down the line?)

But is this hierarchy of fundamentalism in fact an accurate description? If it is, how do we know it is? Mightn’t we just as easily assume that the arrangement describes no hierarchy at all? That it describes nothing more than the relative ease with which mathematics may be applied to the given disciplines? That it is, in short, a mirror of our own assumptions?

Why do we assume that the paradoxes of physics are the paradoxes of nature? Is it not possible that they are the paradoxes of mathematics? Is it not possible that when we come up against Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or against the four-slit photon experiment, we are simply meeting Goedel’s Unprovability Theorem in yet another guise?

Please observe that I am very carefully not saying two things: (1) I am not saying that the universe is ultimately knowable, and (2) I am not saying that only our stupid mathematics is getting in the way of knowing it.

Mathematics is a powerful tool for understanding, and we would be fools to abandon it. On the other hand, I at least would be deeply surprised if the universe (or multiverse) were fully knowable by any of its denizens.

What I am saying is that mathematics is only a method of thought, and has limits which thought itself does not have. (Thought has its own different and I think somehow larger limits—but I will discuss that in another place.)

In our age, because of its manifold successes, we have forgotten the limits of mathematics. That is, although we are all aware of Goedel’s Theorem, we treat it as a special result, of interest only to mathematicians, and almost universally fail to draw the implication that, in our study of reality, mathematics can never be a completely adequate tool.

There are many subjects worthy of genuine and rigorous thought which however may not be treated effectively by mathematics. In our culture these subjects have become marginalized, and assigned to the weaker thinkers. They are frequently treated as having no real existence whatsoever.

An example is the question of the existence of divinity. The fact that we cannot run an experiment on God or gods does not mean that we cannot think clearly and powerfully and usefully on the subject. It merely means that we cannot mathematize the subject. But because most strong thinkers today can only think mathematically, the question is usually dismissed out of hand.

Or worse, the question is assigned to theologians to chew over, so that it may become hopelessly confused, buried under a debris of ill-begotten concepts, and eventually completely useless to most humans.

Wait a minute, some might say: We have already had powerful thinkers going over the question of divinity. It happened in the late European middle ages, just prior to (and probably instrumental in) the various renaissances. And look at all the nonsense and folly that came out of that: angels dancing on the head of a pin, the perfection proof of God’s existence.

Not so, I would say. You’re looking at it the wrong way round. Your example in fact supports the point I am making.

What happened in the middle ages was that scholars discovered classical logic, and promptly went around applying it to every theological question they could come up with. Of course the result was absurdity, because those questions were not amenable to the application of logic in the first place.

Mathematics, as has been adequately demonstrated for many years now, may be understood as logic. The operations of mathematics are the operations of logic. They are the operations of logic on a selected and carefully defined set of concepts, but they are the operations of logic.

It is easy to see in retrospect that what the medieval theologians were doing was foolish and wrongheaded. Perhaps they were simply intoxicated with the beauty and potency of this new, to them, method of thought. It was such a powerful method, perhaps they thought it was powerful enough to do anything.

What is harder to see is that when we today dismiss such questions from all rigorous thought because they are not amenable to mathematics, we are committing a very similar, if reciprocal, error.

The question of the existence of divinity is a fundamental question, a very important question. It matters intrinsically to the life of every creature. We may never be able to resolve the question. But we are surrendering far too much territory to thoughtlessness if we do not consider it.

I believe it is possible to think productively and powerfully on such questions, even if we may not think entirely mathematically. I believe we may think with clarity, honesty, and precision, corrected but not ruled by logic. We may at least get rid of nonsense. And while we may not be able ever to settle whether there is a divinity, we could probably come to some reasonable concurrence about what the nature of that divinity might be if it did in fact exist.

We could create, to put it another way, a theoretical model of heaven.

“Not as a god,” Wallace Stevens says, “but as a god might be.”

The question of the existence of divinity is only one of many questions which are important but about which we no longer allow ourselves to do any serious thinking. We do not allow ourselves to do so because it is patent that we cannot yet think about these questions mathematically.

We have, then, a situation in which we either address extremely important questions in a spuriously mathematical manner, or do not address them at all. Surely this is not acceptable. Surely we can find a potency and efficacy in thought that does not depend entirely on mathematics.

 

The Limits of Mathematics

In order to discuss a sort of thinking which does not depend entirely on the mathematical model, it will be useful to first describe the limits of mathematical thought. Mathematicians and logicians who are familiar with Goedel’s Theorem, the Liar’s Paradox, or Russell’s set-of-all-sets paradox may already have a very good understanding of these limits.

I would like to present a more generally accessible description.

No system can fully comprehend the system of which it is a part—in chaos theory, this means sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Descriptions of reality are systems. They may be thought of as emergent phenomena, and therefore by any approach they are parts of larger systems which themselves are parts of reality.

In human terms, no mind can understand itself fully. In cosmological terms, no model we create can approximate more than a portion of reality. In logical terms, no system can be both consistent and complete: paradox.

Quantum zero.

All logic and all mathematics, to put it another way, are discontinuous at the singularity of paradox. If we have no taste for paradox, we shall be unhappy creatures, for our existence is not only beyond mathematics, but beyond imagination.

 

Analysis and Synthesis

To think most powerfully and fruitfully, you must think more fundamentally. The most powerful tool of thought is not analysis, which after all is always only logic, but the ability to make connections.

But not all connections are equal. Some are indeed rich and deep, at once evocative and explanatory. Others are merely amusing, although there is frequently genius and passion in the merely amusing. Others are frivolous, a waste of time, like the artificial categories of information on Jeopardy. Still others are perverse, persisted in for the wrong reasons and against all harmony.

If connection is the most powerful tool of thought, how do we select, as individuals and then as tribes, and—one hopes—eventually as humans, those connections which are the most valuable?

We assume an identity between valuable connections and fundamental connections. Anyone may argue this identity does not exist, but we are free to posit it, use it as a working hypothesis, and see whether our results encourage us to continue with the hypothesis or abandon it.

The question then becomes: How do we identify the more fundamental connections? The answer is very simple: root and branch. How many roots (how many antecedents, and antecedents of antecedents) feed into the connection? And how many precedents and precedents of precedents radiate from it? And one further question: How fundamental are the rootlets and the branchlets themselves?

This last question of course brings the task of evaluating a connection into a sort of unprovable circularity. But we are not after proof, remember. We are after better and more useful thought. And we find ourselves in a world in which our attempts to estimate value must always be somewhat circular and self-referential. Only the self needs value. It needs it because it conceives of itself as distinct from everything else. Rankings arise with identities.

There is an interesting question regarding the way in which values arise in any thinking system. On the internet, there is something called a “driver” which powers search engines. The way this driver works, apparently, is to keep count of the most frequently used sites or clues and to strengthen those connections in proportion to the frequency with which they occur.

Such a system is probably a good model for how the human nervous system (or any other intelligence) has evolved. Such a system is also notably self-referential or fed back, and feedback, we have learned, is the hallmark of chaotic systems—in economics, for example, the theory of increasing returns.

 

Thought and Wellbeing

The essence of strong thought is not in tricks of memory, or in the ability to manipulate increasingly high-order abstractions. These in fact are what computers are so far capable of doing, and all they are capable of doing, and they are not the primary strengths of the human mind, though there are certainly sports out there with fantastic memories, as well as English professors who can deconstruct mathematics and mathematicians who can prove poetry doesn’t exist.

In the same way, though we admire LeBron James or Clayton Kershaw very greatly for their gifts, and for the perfection they have brought to those gifts, we do not mistake for overall good health the ability to jump vertically four feet in the air from a standing stop, or the ability to fling a baseball at a hundred miles an hour at a dime-sized target 60 feet 6 inches away.

Good health is the vigor of a body, any body, with reference to the whole of that body and not its exceptional abilities. So: a strong mind is not so much a mind with unusual abilities in certain arenas as a healthy mind, a mind that uses its own potential to the maximum. Any non-damaged human mind is capable of remarkable feats of thought, given its maximum health.

We may train our bodies to health, barring accidents and illness, and we may likewise train our minds to think powerfully. It’s a rigorous training, unless we happen to be one of those born with the ability. There are such physical sports, born with a constitution of such innate well-being that ordinary living can hardly damage it. There are such mental sports.

I consider health of thought to be the first requirement of thinking. It is a discipline little understood as a discipline—that is, as a path—and as a result, there are few masters to teach us, though there are all sorts of partial masters who may train us to produce prodigal results in a narrow arena.

And what is health of thought?

It is characterized by flexibility, connectivity, clarity, and the willingness to recognize preconceptions and surrender them. Thought is a gift of the being, as nimbleness, coordination, efficiency, and freshness are the gifts of the body.

Objectivity is an ideal, not a fact. Honesty is the only science.

 

IN SEARCH OF A GOLDEN EGG

It occurred to me that one ought to be able to fit a circle to any parabola, thus creating a smooth two-dimensional shape more or less like a plane section along the long axis of an egg. In fact, the resulting graph is not merely smooth, but continuous, which makes it interesting, since the continuity derives from the seamless fusion of two functions.

I decided to work with the basic parabolic equation, y = x2, since all of the others are transformations, and similar principles would apply. Besides, the curve I was most interested in was parabolic at its small end and circular at its large, and I wanted the bottom of that curve to pass through (0, 0). (It’s possible to construct a closed curve circular at each end and parabolic on the sides by calculating a smaller and a larger circle for each parabola and replacing the bottom of the parabola with the bottom of the smaller circle.)

In order to make the fusion seamless, it would be necessary to join the two curves precisely where they had the same slope, or tangent—in other words, where the derivatives of the two functions were equal.

Since the absolute value of Dx for the function y = x2 is always rising but never reaches infinity, and since the absolute value of Dx for the general equation of a circle can only reach infinity when x = the radius of the implied circle, the fusion of the two curves must always occur before that point. In other words, no matter how great the absolute value of x, you can always close the loop of the parabola by fusing it to a circle.

It develops that a circle fused to a parabola at x and –x will have its center at (0, x2 + ½ ) and a radius of (x2 + ¼ )1/2 (absolute value). From this it’s obvious that the radius of the circle can never be equal to or greater than the height of the center above (0,0), which verifies the assertion that one can close a parabola of any size with a circle. The single exception occurs when x = 0. When x = 0, the parabola disappears completely, leaving only a circle of radius ½ centered at (0, ½ )—the bottom of the curve still passing through (0,0).

The greater the absolute value of x, the larger the circle surmounting the parabola, obviously enough, and the more elongated the egg shape. I had been thinking all along of rotating the curve on the y-axis to generate a more or less ovoid three-dimensional surface. Now I wondered what the most pleasing proportions for such an object would be—in other words, what two-dimensional closed curve would produce the most pleasant proportions when rotated.

I appealed to the Golden Mean, and decided to find what value of x would produce a curve whose major axis (along the y-axis) was approximately 1.61803399 times the length of the diameter of its surmounting circle (twice the radius)—in short, a curve approximately 1/.61803399 times as tall as it is wide at the “shoulders.”

It turns out that to produce the desired curve, x must = approximately 2.05817103, the radius of the circle = approximately 1/.61803399 + ½ (or 2.11803399), and the major axis = approximately 6.85410197.

One could argue whether those are indeed the most pleasing proportions, but regardless, I got a good title out of it for this discourse.   

SMALL MATTERS

How much reading can you possibly have done if you consistently get the “it’s/its” distinction not merely wrong, but exactly backwards? The people who screw it up always use “its” where “it’s” is the right word, and “it’s” where “its” is the right word.

How is that even possible unless you’re deliberately clinging to the wrong notion? I’m not talking making your B in your boring old grammar class. I’m talking your observation and your deductive reasoning.

“Its” is the possessive form of the pronoun “it.” “It’s” is the contraction of “it is.” That’s it. That’s the rule. No exceptions.

I see the error not merely in online comments, but in articles by people who consider themselves professionals. To me it’s like not having your head in the game, it’s like not being able to hit a hanging curve.

Surely a professional ought to pay better attention?

The subject, supposedly, is what counts. The disastrously incorrect meme is that if the subject is important we shouldn’t nitpick. What does it matter if the writer can’t spell?

One way it matters is that“small” errors can have big implications to the reader, implications concerning the quality of your intelligence and attention.

Just tell me how it’s possible to “tow a line”?

Or “hoe a road”?

Well, I guess you could hoe a road, if it was a dirt road. But I have no idea why you would want to.

How is the reader supposed to be impressed if you can’t even be bothered to get the cliches right?

It’s not just written grammar. Even pronunciation makes a difference. Two examples, one from a movie, one from Shakespeare :

The Big Lebowski—how do you say it? Almost everybody says it with the stress on the second syllable of Lebowski: The Big LeBOWski.

But it isn’t your movie about winning your bowling award, an award called The Big LeBOWski. It’s about two Lebowskis, one of whom is your larger. In other words, it’s about The BIG Lebowski.

Every sentence is a tune. If you get the music wrong, even by so much as one note, you’re messing with the message.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet says to Horatio at one point, “There’s more to Heaven and Earth than is found in your philosophy, Horatio.”

The line is frequently quoted.

But when it’s quoted, most people put the stress on the word “your,” as if Hamlet were scolding Horatio for having the wrong “philosophy on life”: “There’s more to Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in YOUR philosophy, Horatio.”

I think this is because nowadays everyone is assumed to have a “philosopy on life,” which usually turns out to be pretty much identical to their neighbor’s philosophy on life, especially if the neighbor is a successful pro football coach.

And most of what passes for the individual’s “philosophy on life” is not philosophy at all, but attitude. The difference is that genuine philosophy requires thought.

Considering that the Elizabethans (of whom Shakespeare was one, and humanly vain though they certainly were) did not pretend that just any Joe Blow could attain the lofty heights of philosophical reasoning, it seems to me the stress should be on the second syllable of the word “philosophy,” not on the “your”: “There’s more to Heaven and Earth than is dreamt in your phiLOSophy, Horatio.”

That was a common way of referring to an entire discipline. It didn’t mean the discipline belonged to you. It meant instead that whether or not you were individually capable, the discipline belonged to the species: You had your science, your mathematics, your courtly love, your politics, your blacksmithing, your finance, your schoolteaching, your archery. Your philosophy.

Southern Baptist Zen

This is a stand-alone essay, but wound up included in Practicing Zen without a License, my fifth novel.  I call it a novel because it’s fiction, and it’s as long as a novel.  A short novel.  And I don’t know what else to call it.

It purports to be a 25th-century collection of original writings on a form of zen called Easy (for Early American Zen). Worse, it purports to present itself as a computer interface, since nobody writes or reads any more except with the help of computers. The “collection” has editors, all of whom I’ve invented.  The gimmick is that the “original” writings are from the U. S. in the late 20th or early 21st century–our period, in other words.  Which allows me plenty of room for satire and parody, including satire and parody directed at the “editors;” some of the “famous” gurus I’ve invented (as I have invented the koans, anecdotes, and sayings, except for the MU koan); current U. S. social, political, and religious behavior; and many another topic, including how we babble on about zen in order to make ourselves feel profound and wise.

I tend to think that even the masters are human beings, and that humans are inevitably silly.  I suspect even the masters compete to see who’s the farthest off the wheel of existence.

I do not consider myself an expert, by the way.  I’m an amateur, always will be.  Lately, for example, I’ve begun to suspect that the admonitions of those who practice zazen are not so much doctrinal as practical.  Maybe sitting zen is the only way that really works. But I love the stuff, and couldn’t resist writing about it; and I decided long ago not to correct the opinions of my earlier selves, however ridiculous some of them may come to seem.

This preface is partly to say that I plan to start placing all or most of my other stand-alone essays, none of which have so far been included in any books, on this blog.  Some of the essays, especially the ones on math, physics, and the philosophy of science, may strike you as too dense to bother with.  Just ignore them if so.

In case you’re interested (against all odds?) in reading more of this sort of zen-humor, you can buy the novel. It’s listed by  Amazon, and won’t cost you much.

 

Here’s my favorite Southern Baptist joke: Do you know why Southern Baptists don’t like making love?

It’s too much like dancing.

In high school they called me Jack the Baptist. Well, okay, only a few people did, but one of those few was the best public school English teacher I ever had, Lois Blackwell. She smoked cigarettes, which was scandalous for a woman in Mississippi at the time, and she was Catholic, which was weird.
She taught us “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which I hated. It was the single most famous example of that “obscurity” widely held to be the problem with modern verse. I came to love it later, and it no longer seems obscure. We were witlings, untraveled in words, and like the ignorant everywhere, located the fault in what baffled us rather than in the puny scope of our own learning.

Her claim to fame was that she had published a poem in Poetry. As I remember the first line, it went, “What fabulist writ these pages . . . .” Something about fog, I think. Strikes me as lame now, but I was impressed then, though the archaicism bothered me (and the poem was a bit obscure).

I got the moniker because I had been foolish enough to express doubt, within her hearing, that Catholics were Christians. It was a witty derogation and fully deserved. True, the opinion was common among my fellow Southern Baptists, but it was idiocy and I had accepted the idiocy without skepticism.
Mrs. Blackwell disliked me for other reasons as well, which I will not go into here, but which were also fully justified. I’m the better poet, but she was the better person. One hopes my character has improved since.

It has been my lot to be seen as a rebel by the people who raised me and as a reactionary by the more radical strangers I’ve encountered. I sustained long bitter arguments with my preacher father over racism and the Viet Nam war, and have found myself contending just as passionately with PC intellectuals in Santa Fe that, despite its glaring faults, the U. S. is NOT the Great Satan.

My father himself was neither racist nor sexist. It was clear he and my mother thought all people were equal, and thanks to their example, I have always known that bigotry and misogyny were nonsense. I thought of my father as a rigid fundamentalist then, but he preferred caritas to hellfire and damnation, and I think now he sought God in the only way he knew how.

Similarly (if with less exculpation), I point out that the Southern Baptists of that day were not the Southern Baptists of this. Now they are (predominantly if not entirely) a fattening tribe of slick-haired selfrighteous suburbanites, masters of architectural monstrosity and money-grubbing televangelism. Then they were a ragged band of country faithful, rude and unsophisticated, and, as I came to think, disastrously mistaken, but nonetheless honorable.

My father was the youngest of nine. The Butlers, sharecroppers turned landowning cotton farmers, were Methodist, but when I was six Dad began attending the little Baptist church founded and built by my grandfather, Doc Niland (called, naturally enough, Niland Baptist Chapel). Soon Dad had converted, and by the time I was eight, he had, as we put it, committed to the ministry.

Doc was half-Irish, a former Catholic whom I suspect had become a Baptist for love of my melancholy grandmother and then become apostolic in his fervor. Like mother like daughter. Mom, who was a beautiful young firecracker of a Christian, probably had more than a little to do with Dad’s transformation from hard-drinking harum-scarum wild boy into sobersided preacher.

But after all if we were to try to disentangle the ways of God from the ways of romantic love, we would end in utter confusion.
From then on, we were Baptists. Regular attendance at the Methodist church in Alligator had never seemed necessary, but the next decade and a half provided enough churchgoing to last the rest of my life. Suddenly I was obliged to attend a minimum of five services a week—on Sunday morning, Sunday School and preaching until noon; on Sunday evening, Training Union and more preaching; and on Wednesday nights, prayer meeting. This count does not include the frequent two-week revivals, choir practice (usually held just before Training Union), long sessions in summer camp, or Vacation Bible School.

Speaking of the latter, I still cannot abide sugar cookies or Kool-Aid, and it was decades before I could throw off the pall of somber organ-music amid the dark pews and begin to enjoy Bach and other classical composers.
Church was monumentally boring. It was supposed to improve us somehow, but mainly it hurt my butt and drove me wild for sleep—children were not allowed to sleep during church, though deacons were. We worshipped a God of love with glumness and mortification, and though we professed every word of the Bible to be immutable law, we refused to make a joyful noise or to praise His glory and His mercy with harp and psalter and dance.

There were the usual logic-choppers, who insisted that if we had the proper devotion, being in God’s house would be the highest joy. They also swore by once saved, always saved, a strangely comfortless doctrine when combined with the principle that if you had really been saved, you would have given up your sinful ways, so maybe you hadn’t been saved after all.
Children know bafflegab when they hear it. It’s only adults, becoming accustomed to double-speak, who can no longer tell the difference. Our theology demanded behavior completely at odds with human nature, and justified the demands with circular argument: The fact that nobody could live up to such impossible standards was proof of “original sin,” and the fact that we were born in sin explained why we couldn’t live up to the proper standards.

I had other conceptual problems, which were invariably glossed over in our Sunday School classes. Fornication was evil, but it was okay for Jael to seduce the enemy captain so she could drive a nail through his head while he slept—an act which frightened me more than any forbidden horror comic.

And what about spooky old Abraham, who would have butchered his son to please God? Was he the ideal father? Made it hard to sleep at night.

Why did the God of love command His people to kill all the women and children when they took over Israel (and all the cattle too)? Was “Song of Solomon” really about loving the Lord? It sure didn’t sound like the way a person would talk to God: “Thy belly is an heap of wheat . . .”

I believed the reported words of Jesus wholeheartedly—among other things, they made sense—but could not help noticing that very few church members ever actually observed them (especially with regard to race).

I loved reading and thinking big thoughts, but imagination was suspect and asking questions was heresy. Science fiction thrilled me, offering incomparable vistas, majestic speculations, but it was taboo of the worst sort.

So I stifled my doubts, repressed them, tried to be obedient to my elders. By the age of sixteen, thanks to Shakespeare, I knew I would be a poet, but I followed through on the creed anyway. Outwardly, I was Jack the Baptist, went to Bible Club, did supply preaching. I felt guilty for not wanting to be a foreign missionary, our equivalent to Jack Armstrong or Alan Quatermain.

They licensed me as a student preacher, and then I became, when I was a mere twenty-two, an ordained Southern Baptist minister with his own half-time church. But the theological energy had been steadily failing. My stewardship of Bethlehem Baptist, near Sedalia, Missouri, represented the last few ergs. In 1966 I quit the ministry and gave up my ministerial deferment.

It was a matter of principle, I thought. Why should I enjoy the protected status of believer when I could no longer honestly believe?

Then, too, I had developed a taste for beer.

Plus which it was obvious I was not cut out for shepherding the flock or visiting the sick and afflicted. And I hated coming up with sermons. The last sermon I remember preaching was based on the exhortation to love our neighbors as ourselves. I had had a late-night brainstorm. What good did it do to love our neighbors as ourselves, I thought, if we didn’t love ourselves?
That was the burden of my message the next day. In fact, that was the entirety of the message. I repeated the theme in as many ways as I could think of and concluded. All my sermons were short, but this one was really short.

Afterwards, in the traditional if unwritten Southern Baptist ritual, I stood by the door and the members filed past, shaking my hand and murmuring “Good sermon, Brother Butler, Nice sermon, Brother Butler,” and so on.

But one of them had decided the youth needed correcting, even though I was pastor and therefore the nominal authority. She was probably younger than I am now, but I still remember her as a little old white-headed lady. “Good sermon, Brother Butler,” she said, “but”—and I could see the resolve gathering in her eyes—“but I really don’t think God wants us to love ourselves.”

I had performed one wedding and one Baptism, the latter of a three-hundred pound redheaded giant who was later to sling a strap around a small refrigerator and hoist it on his back up a cramped stairwell to our new apartment.
Within a year of resigning, after thousands of lesser efforts, I finally began to write poems I thought were good enough. Within two years I was in grad school working on an M. F. A. in writing at the University of Arkansas. Maybe it helped not to have to devote so much creative energy to the contradictions.

I held on to the ordination for a while, though, long enough to perform the wedding, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, of my first girlfriend (and ex-wife of my best friend—this is a Southern story) to her new husband. By then I was a longhaired pot-smoking war protestor, but I was registered and the ceremony was entirely legal. I remember closing: “By the authority mistakenly vested in me by the state of Arkansas, I now pronounce you man and wife.”

I thought I was funny at the time. Now not so much.

I suppose I am still ordained, since the denomination doesn’t have a synod or council of elders to declare excommunication, but I haven’t registered anywhere else, and that ceremony was the last time I acted as a minister (which should be a relief to any Southern Baptists reading this, I would think).

Shortly after surrendering my deferment, I was told to report for my physical. We were three hundred young men bunked overnight on cots in the basement of a Kansas City church. What I remember is looking around at all those young men in their underwear and dreading the next few years. I couldn’t imagine how living without the company of women would make a man of me, or how unquestioning obedience would teach me character and independence.

Late in the next day’s examination, a bored doctor asked me the usual medical history questions, including the one about epilepsy. As a teen-ager I had suffered a half-dozen or so unexplained seizures, none of which I remembered and each of which had visited me with a strange euphoria, but I had hated being susceptible, and in spite of my mother’s pleading refused phenobarbitol because it made me sluggish. Now the memory dawned like salvation.

A letter from the doctor who had treated me, and I was out of the draft for good. I’d had scruples about the ministerial deferment, but felt none about being classified 4-F. One glimpse of the military life had been enough.

Just for the record, because I see the lie repeated endlessly: I protested the war, yes, but neither I nor anyone I knew blamed the grunts. Maybe you were a vet and you got spit on, but I didn’t do it and neither did anyone I know.

I remember only two experiences from grad school that may have influenced my gradual turn from “Western” to “Eastern” spiritual thought (and never mind that both democracy and Christianity began in the Middle East).

The first was that I took karate, briefly, from the poet Frank Stanford. He was an undergraduate whose talent had catapulted him into the graduate creative writing program. He was supposedly a black belt. I had read a bit about karate and was taken, in a Tom Sawyerly way, with its mystique, especially the proposition that when two opponents of equal abilities sparred, the aggressor inevitably lost. Suited my lingering New Testament notions.

Before each session Frank took us through a set of stretches which I remember as excruciating, but which now, after years of yoga, would be child’s play. Then he had us assume sparring stances one by one. When my turn came he shoved me in the chest and I fell over backwards. I was outraged in the manner of the fellow clocked in a street fight who jumps up spluttering about the Marquis of Queensbury. This wasn’t the noble art of karate!

Soon afterward he broke my toe with a downward block against an attempted front snap kick, so I left to develop my own martial art, which was never get in a fight. I had enjoyed tackling a fullback twice my weight in football practice in high school, and in basketball was never afraid to take a charge or drive hard into a moving defender, so it wasn’t that. It’s just that intelligence was far more effective than empty-handed combat. Adherence to a few simple principles will improve your odds enormously: Don’t frequent bars full of angry drunks, for example. Resist the urge to make fools of the bellicose. (After all, they do a fine job of it all by themselves.) Why attempt to cultivate, through machismo, the admiration of those whose opinion you do not otherwise respect?

The second experience was a course in Chinese and Japanese literature taught by a man who became my hero and the chair of the University of Arkansas English department (in that order). Ben Kimpel was rumored to speak twelve languages and had done intelligence work during World War II. He was a globular fellow who lamented to me once that although science had performed many miracles it was apparently incapable of producing a chocolate pie that was a real chocolate pie but had no calories. He had been a slim fine dancer as a youth, chainsmoked unfiltered camels, possessed a devastating wit, and knew everything. Years later Johnny Wink asked his spiritual beliefs, and he said he was a Confucian. The course required a term paper. I submitted a mustard seed in an envelope. He took me aside and began, “About your paper . . .”
I caved, expostulating nervously about my intentions, about my desire to show a zen simplicity of understanding, blah blah blah.

He told me later I would have gotten away with it if I had shut up.

Next came the almost obligatory sixties freak-out. Details are not useful here, but mine was spectacular. It may have been precipitated by the marijuana or the few tabs of reputed acid or mescaline I had ingested, but if not for profound fault-lines in my psyche or the terror-engendering theology which I had ostensibly rejected but still clung to, it would never have happened.
I tried getting back to basics. I moved to the countryside near Jasper, Texas, where my grandparents and immediate family had relocated, and became a member of my father’s church. I told myself there was great virtue in these salt-of-the-earth types, that my mistake had been thinking myself superior to their moral code because I could poke holes in the theology. (That was not my trouble at all, but even apostate Baptists have a weakness for self-castigation.)

There were good people there, but there are good people in San Francisco and New York and Uzbekistan and Tehran too.
There were good people, and good things happened: Lynnika, the first of two beloved daughters, was born. I continued to write and publish, placing several poems in The New Yorker and Poetry. I returned to fiction. We lived in a ramshackle old farmhouse, walked the woods, and swam in B. A. Steinhagen Lake. On the church bulletin board I saw the mimeographed notice of a meeting of the Judo for Christ club, which triggered the narrative speculations that eventually became my first novel. (That and the episodes with Stanford.)

But there was nobody to talk to. The local preoccupation was bass fishing. And no way around it, the level of spiritual understanding was not high. Upon the untimely death of a young man, the funeral speaker based his eulogy on the story of Zaccheus climbing the sycamore. In his version, Jesus looked up at Zaccheus with “the bluest pair of eyes” Zaccheus had ever seen.

Many years later my father’s own funeral was held in the church he had pastored for so long, its current pastor doing the honors. The terrible events near Waco had just occurred, in which Koresh and a number of his followers, including women and children, were killed. Fundamentalist sensitivities were inflamed. The reverend seized on the occasion to declare that any government agents who showed their faces in Texas were in danger of being shot. I’m no defender of the FBI—they bugged Martin Luther King, remember?—but my father would never have masked such personal malice as the will of God. What kept me from marching up to the front and punching that sorry son-of-a-bitch in the face was he was a favorite of my mother’s, and she would have been embarrassed.

No epiphanies occurred in the decade and a half after we left Jasper. Following the jobs, we moved first to Arkadelphia and then back to Fayetteville, where I finally finished the M. F. A. I had bailed on earlier. The marriage (my first and probably best) came apart. An ill-advised second marriage flared into brief existence and exploded. I began raising Lynnika as a single parent. (Sarah, the younger daughter, stayed with her mother.) I fell for Jayme Thomas, and Lynnika and I moved to Little Rock so I could be near her. I entered upon the nine-to-five phase of my career (eight-to-five, more like), employed, in sequence, as an actuarial analyst, a depreciation specialist for the Arkansas Public Service Commission, the assistant dean of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and director of creative writing at The College of Santa Fe (now defunct).
After a couple of years, Jayme and I married. We moved to Conway when I got the position as assistant dean five years later. Hendrix is Methodist. Every summer it sponsors Governor’s School: selected high school juniors from all over the state come to gain exposure to the heady world of ideas, science, and art. Many of the faculty are passionate defenders of free thought and civil liberty (and as such are given hell by rightwingers). The school has been responsible for some of the finer minds in Arkansas business and politics.

I respected it tremendously, but there were problems.

We lived in a pleasant little permastone across the street from the girls’ dorm. I threw a birthday party for Lynnika, inviting her boyfriend’s band to play, as a result of which I can claim the distinction of being one of the few deans in the history of the U. S. whose students called the police on him for loud music.

It became apparent Hendrix felt every waking minute and each least scrap of devotion belonged to the college and the college alone. Anything less was unforgivable. Employees were expected to attend every single basketball game (and cheer enthusiastically when they did).

All of which and more led me to the opinion that Methodists, southern ones anyhow, tend to be socially liberal and personally tight-assed.

After five years, I was looking around for a more suitable job and had begun, without realizing it, the next stage of my quest.
I had had a few lucid dreams. You probably have too. Dreams in which you realize you’re dreaming. Sometimes joy overwhelms you. You know the world around you is entirely imaginary but it’s as intense as waking life—frequently more so, since for most of us most waking life is tedium and stupor.

Now I read a book on the subject, Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LeBarge, and was fired with longing. I began a dream journal, as LeBarge recommended, in order to remember my dreams better and to increase the number of lucid episodes. (It works. Write in the early mornings, before the dreams fade.) Takes a lot of time to set down even a brief dream, though, so I developed a shorthand, keying on the scenes and images, yes, but trying to get at the way those scenes and images felt, the evanescent sense of their importance. I wanted a record that would trigger a vivid memory of the dream even years later.
Soon the journal began to serve a purpose LeBarge had not mentioned. It helped me to inhabit my dreams more fully—to be there. After the first flush of excitement wore off, I continued studying dreams for my own reasons. LeBarge’s book had struck me as too boosterish, too full of cheerleading, anyway, like all the other books that promote a fad as if it were finally THE answer (Omar and the Howlers have a wonderful song on the subject, “The Next Big Thing”). LeBarge had implied that the most significant aspect of lucid dreaming was power and control, the ability to do anything you wanted.
He was no Freudian but had this in common with the doctor: the assumption that the purpose of dream life is to serve waking life. I came to disagree strongly, in the way that I later disagreed with the conventional assumption that the purpose of spiritual awareness is to make sense of mortal existence.

More on that later.

For me dreaming (and not merely lucid dreaming) was instead a way to explore the nature of awareness, the nature of identity, and therefore the nature of existence itself. I read everything I could find. I read Freud’s huge dense tome on the subject, The Interpretation of Dreams, which struck me as resembling literary theory more nearly than science. (It skimped on evidence, relying heavily on precedent and declaration instead. I swear, the man must have cited everyone who had ever written anything about dreams, no matter how nonsensical.)
In the meantime, we had relocated to Santa Fe, where I had taken a position as director of the creative writing program at The College of Santa Fe (a serious mistake, but not one that is not particularly relevant here).

Santa Fe might seem at first glance the perfect environment in which to explore higher consciousness. After all, the city is supposed to be extremely spiritual, the capital of New Age sensibility. One of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo is nearby, and the locale is thickly populated with alternative practitioners, yogis, latterday hippies, wannabe gurus, UFOlogists, and in general the wildest variety of mix-and-match religious outlooks available anywhere on the planet. Hard not to feel exhilirated at such altitude, in such incredible light, and I did. You will not be surprised to hear, however, that the meme of Santa Fe as an Aquarian mecca is about as accurate as any other popular cliché.

What actually happened, in spite of my intensifying dream research, among such a horde of uncritical thinkers, for whom apparently anything was credible, the more outlandish the better, was that I relied more than ever on fact.

I had always had a powerful interest in science and math, which are supposedly antithetical to creativity. (Yet another popular cliché. In my experience imagination and rigorous thought are complements, not antagonists. Be wary of that which sums reality too conveniently, splitting it into neat polarities and simple opposites. Cold is not the opposite of hot. Women are not the opposite of men). I had gotten a Bachelor’s in math as well as in English, and reason had saved my sanity after my flame-out. It had taught me that some fears could not possibly be true, no matter how they urged to panic and despair.
(Most people oppose faith and reason as well, but I see strong similarities: Reason is quite often, for example, the evidence of things unseen.)

I had developed a fiery distaste for fundamentalism (not, I hasten to say, for the Bible, whose books, by many authors of widely differing outlook, were never intended as physics manuals). It was and still is incredible to me that there are people who believe this Earth is only six thousand years old.

It was not so much the famous Question of Evil: How can we come to terms with the fact that right now hundreds if not thousands are dying in terrible pain and millions more suffer the starkest injustice? How is it conceivable that in the very same universe, possibly as next-door neighbors, there can be someone ecstatic with new love and someone else desperate to the point of suicide? Our culture is handy with a sort of glib reassurance which is as about as helpful as instructing cancer patients to think positive thoughts and whose actual purpose, in my opinion, is to allow nonsufferers to avoid the pangs of empathy.

Is it even humanly desirable to comprehend such disparity? God told Moses he would die if he beheld the Lord Himself. Krishna warned Arjuna that he did not want to see the terrible majesty of the truth. Every now and then someone suggests that there is a “superior” morality, in which the existence of evil is seen as somehow necessary for the existence of good (Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, for example). Such constructions strike me as just more cockamamie theorizing. I suspect that evil coexists with good simply because there is nothing preventing it from doing so, and there is no way to tell what sorts of things can happen except by looking at the sorts of things that have happened.

There may be a way in which all things work together for the good of them that love the Lord, but if so the way is beyond my ken. For further mature consideration of the matter, I recommend Miller Williams in “The Question of Evil” or Richard Wilbur in “Another Voice.”

No, it wasn’t The Question of Evil. It was physical fact. Hell is not a lake of fire under the Earth (invisible fire presumably, since hell is also outer darkness). Heaven is not in the sky. Nearly all theologies command us to believe in impossibilities. Within the theologies those impossibilities can be rationalized, though only within the theologies. Until the creationists came along, I had thought that favorite of my youth was finished, the claim that God could have put the bones of the dinosaurs in the Earth when He created it. Yes, leaving aside the question of why God would want to play mind games with us, He could have.

The question isn’t whether anything is possible given a universe in which anything is possible, but whether we live in such a universe. I could find no basis for junking evidence and reason except the threat of hellfire. I remember the moment, soaking in the bathtub, when I decided that although I could not prove there was no such deity, I would never worship a god of fear.
The decision frightened me of course. But I’ve held to it.

Without skepticism, since nearly every theology claims to represent absolute truth, how do we judge the relative merits of any belief system? Are we not, without skepticism, without reason and judgment, condemned to live our entire lives inside of whatever system we happen to be born or persuaded to?

I agree that human reason and human judgment are limited and fallible. But are they more fallible than emotionalized credulity?

Sarah once described to me the formulation of one her fellow church-members: Faith, this person said, is believing in things that don’t make any sense. Believing that is pure insanity and miscontrues both faith and reason.

Science was important to me, but there were other influences. I doubted the Virgin Birth not so much because biology argues the unlikelihood of mammalian parthenogenesis, but because the story struck me as a familiar literary technique: an after-the-fact invention to “explain” a mystery weak minds cannot otherwise contain. The real mystery, I felt, was that someone could persist in love even at the cost of his own existence. That was all the God I required. (Some people still just don’t get it: Dan Brown, for example, locates the power of Christ in the bloodline, the gene plasm, rather than in the extraordinary spirit.)
Like I say, there were other influences. Jayme and I had met Alvaro Cardona-Hine and Barbara MacAuley when we visited Truchas on earlier New Mexico vacations. Alvaro is the greatest painter I have ever met, a genius on the order of Monet or Mondrian. You look into his paintings, into a world more real than this one, into spaces larger than imagination, into dream, myth, passion, whimsy, the majesty of true holiness. I cannot do them justice.

Alvaro and Barbara practiced zen.

I had thought I had some acquaintance with the subject. I had read the western popularizers, Watts-his-name and The-other-guy. I could talk Buddhism and Taoist roots and zen’s founding incarnation in China as ch’an. I could parrot “The way that can be told is not The Way.” (For the record, a Taoist dictum, however sympathetic it may be to zen.) I had read The Practice of the Natural Light, by Nhamkai Norbu, a dissertation on Tibetan Buddhism.

Maybe my impressions were a bit more intelligent than average, for whatever infinitesmal value such a comparison may have. But I suspect my understanding was still largely typical : Zen was that ineffable mystical awareness which grants its followers incredible powers. Woo-woo Eastern voodoo. Zen archery, zen tennis. Zen golf, for crying out loud. Be the ball.
But Alvaro and Barbara practiced zen, which is something else entirely. They rose at six and meditated in an unheated studio. Practice is the key. If I don’t practice zen, I don’t have it, however profound I may think my utterances are. In this it is like yoga. One doesn’t know yoga. One practices yoga.

From Alvaro and Barbara I learned that zen considers self to be an illusion created by the bundling of the five senses, a concept with striking parallels to the indications of contemporary neurology and cognitive research.
(Perhaps a tiny point, but I’ve come to dislike the word “illusion,” which I feel connotes deception. Human misperception is certainly involved, but I cannot imagine the holy wishes to deceive us. I prefer the word “appearance.”)

From Alvaro I learned The Diamond Sutra (also the title of one of his paintings): Form is emptiness, emptiness form. That sutra has meaning for me now on more levels and in more ways than I can possibly suggest, but herewith one tiny example: If you are instrospective and have a conscience, there are times when your life turns suddenly inside out, when what you had been thinking of as nobility appears cruel and selfish instead. The Diamond Sutra reminds us that both the nobility and the cruelty are interpretations.

In one of Alvaro’s novels, Frankenstein in Love, a character meditates on the Buddha’s declaration: This world is not this world because it is this world.

Because, the character thinks.

It makes sense. Deep sense. Just not immediately.

Okay, I’ll give a hint of how it makes sense to me: Have you ever had one of those moments in which you realize, intensely and immediately, not abstractly, that this is the way things are? The actual way, not somebody’s opinion or an item of theological dogma, but this, right now, this is what is?

That was apparently the Buddha’s insight. What is does not have to be justified because, well, it’s what is. Justification is after the fact.

If you have had such a moment, you knew immediately that it was holy. You felt an overwhelming joy and freedom and release from the world.

Like I say, there were problems. For one thing, I wanted to impress Alvaro and Barbara, a typical beginner’s mistake. You learn a lot faster and better if you drop the self-consciousness, the posing, but try explaining that to a tyro.
For another, I thought Alvaro insisted zen required abandonment of conscious thought (actually he didn’t), and I loved thinking and was proud of my intellectual skills. Now I would say there’s no more wrong with talent at math than there is with talent at singing. (Surely no zen master would declare that a mathematician cannot have zen?) The problem was the pride.

It is necessary to quiet the ceaseless brain-chatter, the meaningless mental noise so habitual we hardly notice it. The beginning of meditation is learning to hear that cacaphony. Eliminating it is one of the goals.
Thought, magnificent though some of it may be, does not explain mystery away. Theory, for me, is a subtle form of worship. The point is not to discover the final truth, which I think is meaningless delusion, and hubris to boot, but to see more deeply into existence. The more deeply I see, the more awe I feel.

A further difficulty was that Barbara and Alvaro were devotees of zazen. Zazen means sitting zen (as zafuton means a cushion for sitting), and any zazen master will tell you there is no other way. You have to be able to sit, just sit, for hours upon hours. Only by that means may one confront the essential emptiness of being. There’s no trick, Kosho Uchiyama says. Just sit.
There’s something to it. Sitting is hard, especially for people who have been trained to think their only value is in keeping busy (e. g., just about any current inhabitant of the U. S.). When I first entered grad school I realized that although I had grown up in open country, I had gradually became accustomed to spending all my time indoors. I resolved to recapture the ease and freedom of my youth. I went outside, sat down, and put my back against a tree. In a matter of seconds I got so anxious I couldn’t sit still. It took everything I had to stay for ten minutes and months to relearn a degree of peacefulness.

Though the certainty of the zazen masters intimidated me, I had resisted similar declarations from Baptists in my youth and saw no point now in trading that absolutism for one from a less familiar culture. Besides, I knew there were other approaches. (I might not have been so intimidated if I had been certain my unwillingness was honest doubt and not vanity.)

The realms of my various studies began to overlap. From dreams as well as zen, I was learning the insubstantiality of ego, what Buddhists call “the small self.” I thought of ego as the mind’s model of its own workings. We have internal models of the body’s workings. Why would there not be such a model for the mind? Ego was a virtual self, a “manager” created by the rapid repeated sampling and integration of sensory and intellectual reports. The same process, I felt, also created the appearance of locality and duration, so that ego, space, and time were a single inseparable phenomenon.

In that sense, ego truly would be appearance only, a construction (although useful for prediction and governance, the function of any model). Ego was not the self, since no model can be the thing it models. The problem was not that some people have “big” egos, but that most of us have mistaken egos—egos that don’t get the facts right, that don’t understand their own nature, that don’t function properly. The idea is not to get rid of ego, but to use it wisely.

Why is desire foolish? Why do Buddhists speak of nirvana as leaving the wheel of desire? In my formulation, what we desire is what we desire for the model, and since the model is not the self, desire cannot succeed.

The concept is easy. Perceiving the reality is far more difficult, training oneself to act on the reality more difficult still. Which is where practice comes in. One quiets the mind because the twitter of concept clouds perception. We look at our concepts instead of seeing what is. It’s a simple principle, but one which runs counter to most of the supposed wisdom of the culture.
In a similar way, most westerners treat yoga as a competitive activity, how many tricks you can do and how difficult they are. But the point isn’t impressing others or winning medals. The point is personal benefit.

It’s amazingly hard to retrain lifelong perceptual habits, habits reinforced at every turn by the culture. By comparison, quitting smoking is easy.

Zazen works. So does the asceticism of the Christian mystic. It’s almost impossible to train the mind without a rigorous training of the body (the two are not separate, after all). I don’t practice zazen, but I use yoga for a similar purpose. As far as I’m concerned, “Be still and know that I am God” and “Meditate on the blessed feet of Vishnu” are the same message.
What I oppose in any tradition is the zealotry which would declare that unless someone repeats exactly the “proper” words and behaves in exactly the “proper” fashion, that person is anathema. The only unforgivable sin, Christ taught, is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I think of the Holy Spirit as the living truth of existence, and consider blasphemy against it as “unforgivable” not so much because it offends God—if you’re God, are you going to be offended by some presumptuous pipsqueak mortal?—but because, in refusing to acknowledge it, we refuse to acknowledge the source of healing and forgiveness.

(A brief but related digression on karma: The way we typically conceive it is indistinguishable from the concept of sin. You do something “bad,” you accumulate bad karma, and you pay the price. But I suspect karma is the more profound and subtle concept, a spiritual equivalent to Newton’s law of action and reaction. Karma is the inevitable result of any action, “good” or “bad.” There will be results, and if you don’t think so, you fool yourself.)

When I speak of “the holy,” I refer to personal prediliction, by the way. Zen does not require a belief in God or the gods. It’s perfectly possible to be an atheist zen master (though I doubt there are many). I read recently online some blogger pontificating that the Buddha had said there was no God. He said no such thing. He said it would be a mistake to use his teachings in support of either the contention that God exists or the contention that there is no God. I have not said there is life after death, he told us. I have not said there is not.
As for me, ever since I was a child, it has been impossible for me to see the universe as anything but a living being, a glimmering awareness, the unmistakable mystery of existence itself. For a time I distrusted such perceptions unless I could provide an explanatory mechanism. I explained my mystical experiences away. Not the scientist in me, but the reductionist in me. Gradually I understood that my perceptions were themselves facts. (Just as dreams are real experiences: Have you ever felt a sudden wave of anger on meeting a friend, only to realize the anger came from last night and not from any waking dispute?)
This is not to say any old idea which comes into your head is as good as any other. Reason retains authority. Just not absolute authority.

(Here’s a handy principle: If you think God is commanding you to hurt another creature or damage something beautiful on behalf of His will, you’re wrong. I don’t know what’s in your head, but it aint God.)

All of which leads me back to the question of faith: I have faith in what I call “the holy,” not because I believe in things that don’t make any sense, but because the holy does make sense to me. I do not believe that which is contrary to evidence—as the Dalai Lama said, “If science contradicts Buddhism, Buddhism must change.” But I do believe there is that which transcends explanation.

It seems to me that faith must be, ultimately, pragmatic. What use is it if it isn’t? What use is a religion that exists only as a set of “noble” injunctions which have no practical application? As I’ve had a character say, “I don’t believe in ‘believe in.’ ” What you believe is what you do. Only the insane behave in ways contrary to the way they think the universe actually works.

As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.

By their fruits shall ye know them.

Existence is holy and eternal, I would say. It’s also terrifying, tedious, physical, embarrassing, mortal. Somehow it is all of this at once. There are not two separate lives, one for the holy stuff, one for all the other.

This is what I actually think. It’s the best conclusion I can come to. I could be wrong, but wouldn’t it be stupid to bet against my own best estimate?

One of the things that has occurred to me is that the very distinction we make between “existence” and “nonexistence” is a human concept and nothing more. Perhaps the universe is not obliged to behave according our notions. Perhaps God neither exists nor fails to exist.

Maha-Vishnu, the mother of all existence—and therefore the mother of the God of all Gods, Vishnu—is described as timeless blissfulness, as nonbeing. That would seem a deeper understanding than our customary polarities.
My conception of the holy got a transformative jolt on our first visit to Japan. It was 1998. We had been living in Santa Fe for five years. Lynnika had grown up, graduated from Williams, spent a year in Atlanta, and moved to the big island. She was teaching English to Japanese students in Nagaoka.

(She stayed in Japan for six years, became fluent, as she already was in Spanish and Italian—pardon a father’s pride—met and married the estimable Alex Navas of El Salvador, and is now ABD in linguistics with the University of Arizona and working with the Wiyots of seacoast Northern California, helping to preserve and restore the tribal language. It may interest readers to know that she is an atheist, though at least as moral as her mystically-inclined father.)

I’m not proposing the Japanese as the font of all spiritual wisdom. Those momma-charlies will run you down on their tinkling bicycles, sexism is way more pervasive than in the states, and the whole country is desperately polluted, especially the horrifying concrete-clad beaches.

But there are refreshing differences in perception.

On a trip into the mountains, we stopped at a country shrine. We passed through the red-lacquered wood of a torii (a sort of gigantic pi but with two horizontal bars, which traditionally marks the transition from profane to holy ground—you’ve seen them), and wandered up a winding road. There was a pool of water fed by a rivulet, and a path though a small canyon to a waterfall cascading from an unseen level down black rock over a small sacred statue in a niche. The water fell through layers of sunlit leaves as if from the blue sky itself.

It was impossible not to feel the presence of something greater than the human or mortal, and I saw that in our culture, we build structures of bricks or wood or steel and declare them holy. In Japan, they recognize the holy breaking through the mundane and build a shrine where it happens.

On our next visit, three years later (Lynnika was living in Yamagata with Alex by then), on our way by bus to the temple district of Kyoto, a straphanger told me that when he died he would be the Buddha. He also explained the difference between a shrine and a temple. A shrine, he said, was for the gods. A temple was for the ancestors, and might be as small as a cigar box.
During that same visit, we went into the countryside to visit Shigeyoshi, who was director of a blacksmithing factory, where all sorts of cutting instruments were made. (He himself forged and hammered a blade as a present for us). Shigeyoshi took us down the road to meet the priest at the local Buddhist temple. On the way, I asked him what his faith was. He told me he was one-third Buddhist, one-third Christian, and one-third something else. Probably Shinto, but since I didn’t remember, I reported him in a poem as saying one-third air.

The priest, who had a teen-aged son as lovingly disrespectful as I had been of my preacher father, and who apparently helped out around the temple in much the reluctant way I had once been obliged to mow the church graveyards, shared tea and rice with the gaijin, and explained the Buddha.

He stood up to demonstrate. “The Buddha steps here,” he said in his limited English, demonstrating. “I step here,” he said, placing his feet in the Buddha’s indicated steps. “I am the Buddha,” he concluded.

As I am so shall you be also, Jesus said. Even greater things than I have done shall you do. But imagine the reaction if you were to tell a fundamentalist that in following Jesus you became Jesus.
I remember wishing to communicate that I was no ordinary clueless westerner, that I understood a bit on the subject.

Like I say, try explaining to a tyro.

In the meantime, my life had begun to self-destruct, which may be what finally pushed me over the line from theorist to practitioner. The crash began in 1996, viewed from some perspectives, in 1998 viewed from others. Reading this, you may imagine me as a wild-eyed liberal heretic, but because I wrote formal poetry, my fellow campus poets regarded me as a hide-bound reactionary.

Academic politics. What more need be said?

I had a terrible bicycle accident, and after that my health got worse and worse. Soon every day was exhaustion, pain, nausea. The best I could do was retreat to a sunlit stack of bricks in the back yard and moan, over and over, “Jesus, Dios, por favor, ayuda me en mi dolor,” or distract myself by writing poems (which, since they were about my despair, no one wanted to read).
I was convinced I was dying. I went to specialist after specialist—osteopaths, endrocrinologists, serologists, neurologists (even to kinesiologists, acupuncturists, and people who claimed to be able to leach toxins from my body by immersing me in muddy baths)—but never received either relief or a credible diagnosis. I was tested for lupus, for arthritis, for fibromyalgia (which, by the way, is not actually a syndrome, but a collection of symptoms whose causes are not understood but are almost certainly not simple nor singular).

I was forced into early retirement, with my health as the excuse.

A publishing house that had contracted for my collected poems bailed, claiming they were closing (turned out not to be true, but I never heard from them again). I had, in my confusion and on bad advice, left the agent who had sold my last three books, and any success I had once enjoyed evaporated.

Then, for all of the above reasons and others, the longest marriage of my life ended in bitter divorce, and all my savings were taken.

Meantime I had concluded that dreaming, not waking, was the basic state of the mind (one contrary indication, I think now, is sleep paralysis, those moments in a dream when you cannot open your eyes or move your arms or legs). That is, dreams do not exist for the benefit of waking life, but simply exist, the mind in a freewheeling associative state, and waking experience is a special modification of those associations, a selected category: The category of those experiences which bear certain consistencies, certain invariables. We are always dreaming, I wrote. I extended the thesis: We are always dead, I wrote, from the perspective that life is an infinitesmal interruption of eternity. I studied the way my persona varied in dreams—or, just as often, did not appear at all, apparently unnecessary. I became convinced that zen was right, that ego was mere appearance.
I needed every bit of insight I could muster. There were hours, days at a time, when all I could do was endure till the next instant. And the next. And then the next. There were seldom any intervals of relief. I wound up alone in a downtown apartment, crippled by pain and near-total despair, unemployed, forgotten, broke, consoling myself with the thought that I was appearance only, that I didn’t finally matter, that however long it lasted, when it was over it would be over for good. I prayed that at least my misfortune might be mine and alone, that enduring it in some way allowed another to be spared.
(I still cursed God and prayed to Jesus. That persistent behavior was one of the clues that however fervently I might protest, I still believed.)

The story wasn’t over, though. I had fallen in love with Kirsten Mustain. She was not frightened away by what for a while seemed to both of us my imminent death. And she loved poetry and fiction and the holy.

Kirsten taught yoga not far from the apartment, in a place called YogaSource, and as her friend, I could get free lessons. I had been dabbling in what I thought of as yoga ever since my hippie days in Fayetteville, had learned a few poses, and had thought of myself as far more flexible than average.
Now I took classes and learned how much more there was to it than I had imagined. This stuff was hard, and it hurt. But it helped.

We endure a little pain now, she said, quoting one of her masters, in order to avoid worse pain later. To me, she herself was a master, capable of astonishing feats, but she steadfastly refused the notion: She was only a pupil.

I began to see yoga not as an exercise, but as a way of life: a practice. It was impossible to separate the physical from the spiritual. One did not change oneself piecemeal, as if one were a machine made of replaceable parts. We marveled at the blindness of those who wanted the physical benefits but sought to steer clear of what they saw as dangerous Eastern heresy.
In February of 2005 we moved to Oklahoma, to 125 acres of family ridge-land (her family) overlooking The Grand Lake of the Cherokees, and lived together in a dark and disintegrating house built by her grandfather.

It was an idyll of sorts, though we were desperately short of money. We wandered the woods. We went out at night for stars, the Milky Way a gigantic spill of splendor overhead, Venus lingering in the south above the headland. (There were no nearby cities, no polluting lights to dim the brilliant skies.) We walked up to the point to see the full moon rippling far below on breeze-blown lake-water. In the daytime I built flowerbeds and walks and patios. She weeded and planted roses and petunias and fed the hummingbirds and finches and cardinals and nuthatches. We had wonderful views of flocks of wild turkey, herds of deer (who ate the petunias and the peaches from the trees) wandering from the woods into the yard. We counted the new younglings both springs. A bobcat lounged on the hillside and watched us all one morning. We saw a mountain lion.

We lived together only seven seasons, but they were perhaps the most important seven seasons I have ever known. For the first time in my life, I lived with someone who was as much a seeker as I was—even better, she seemed to have found a few things. For the first time in my life I engaged in regular practice. We did yoga in the mornings three days a week. I was far less adept than she was, but she was patient. Her practice usually lasted two hours. Mine was shorter, so I would begin the oatmeal for breakfast. Oatmeal and blueberries, and tea for her, and coffee for me. Long talks at the breakfast table. Poetry, science (and the obliviousness of the sort of scientist who thinks animals don’t think), the mysteries of faith, marvelous occurrences, her demented beloved Schipperkee, Wolfie, the crippled and coyote-taunted stinky yellow pit bull, Clyde, whom somebody had dumped and who had adopted us and couldn’t understand why Wolfie was allowed inside but he wasn’t and who slaughtered any groundhog or cat he could catch, and birds, birds, birds—she loves birds, knows their names, their calls.
It was here that I first began to ask myself why anyone would imagine the purpose of faith was to justify and explain this existence. All religions agree that the world of the spirit is much larger and more majestic—more real, as I came to think of the matter—than the world we call the world.

Again—if it aint, why bother with religion?

But we persist in acting as if this life were the center of all meaning. As if the holy existed primarily for our benefit. Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Isn’t that backwards? Isn’t that vanity and hubris?
It was here, after a nearly a lifetime of supposed fealty to the saying “perfect love casteth out fear,” that I finally began to understand it. The very best way to escape the delusion of self is to fill your being with concern for others. This approach has the advantage of being positive rather than negative. Instead of attempting an impossible denial, you embrace a regenerating plenty. Fear is all about fear for the individual self. I came to feel there was no difference between enlightenment and perfected love, that God was God precisely because God had let go of selfish fear and given himself or herself or itself over completely to love.

It’s difficult to speak plainly of love without being thought an airhead. On the other hand, the point isn’t what others think of you.

There is this about love: It cannot be cheated. There are no off-the-book accounting strategies. You cannot stockpile it. You cannot get more of it by manipulating the market. You may temporarily deceive a few, but you will be doing yourself no good, and it will not be there when you need it.

Kirsten not only practiced yoga, but meditated an hour or more in the mornings. She had an altar with images of her gurus: Yogananda, Yukteswar, Jesus. She had been raised Methodist and still revered Jesus, but she was no tight-ass. Images of Krishna, blue and joyful, hung throughout the house. She had been to India, the source, had sweltered in 120-degree heat. Yogananda was her especial guru. For a present I bought leatherbound copies of his twin volumes on The New Testament and the Bhagavad-gita, and she studied them daily.

For her matters of the soul were matters of fact, not matters of theory. God was in plain sight and permeated all existence. Life itself was miracle. Enlightenment was the point of meditation, and in enlightenment there was complete love. The small self went through fear and doubt and suffering, but these things were to be mastered. They were your mind fighting itself.

She was careful to make it clear she was not a Buddhist (and she certainly was not a follower of zen, for all my chatter on the subject). She had studied the Buddhist masters, she had studied the vedic literature, she had learned a good deal of Sanskrit (we chanted in Sanskrit before our yoga, and I still do), but her faith was personal, not adherence to an existing orthodoxy.
Her example made me long to mean what I said as much as she did. I wanted to see as clearly. I wanted to treat myself as dispassionately, have done with delusion and selfishness. Because of her I took the final steps to trusting my own vision, understanding the limits of rationality.

None of which means that life was perfect. I was still subject to the sort of vanity that made me want to be as good at yoga as she was. I wanted her to recognize me as having significant spiritual status. I was envious of Yogananda’s certainty in Autobiography of a Yoga. My life had been lived in doubt, and now I felt accused by his very lack of that doubt. Most shamefully, perhaps, I was jealous of the boundless love she felt for her master.

Then too, I could not shake a certain skepticism. For her, Yogananda was a master, and you followed your masters in total trust. I couldn’t manage that. When Sri Yukteswar promulgated notions that I felt went against physics, I said so. When Yogananda declared that he had actually seen the actual Jesus in his meditations I was skeptical.

Then there was the fact all her gurus proclaimed the superiority of Sanskrit to any other language, but I was stubbornly proud of English.

And so on. I could iterate ten times as many shortcomings, but that would be as vain as proclaiming myself flawless. The point, I have finally come to think, is not punishment, not the fixing of blame, but abandoning behavior that simply doesn’t work. What other point could there be, really?

We separated eventually, though we have never quit loving each other. There were reasons and reasons. No doubt some had to do with my faults or even (though I cannot conceive such a thing) hers, but this is not soap opera. Probably the truest explanation is that we were different people and had different paths.

And so the latest stage of my development. I won’t say last, because I am still not entirely free of anger and fear and self-concern, and am certainly a long way from enlightenment and the perfection of love. I’m mortal, and as a mortal my only hope is to improve, to keep learning.

My health has improved dramatically, thanks largely to yoga. Kirsten gave me the gift, but I’ve made it my own now through years of steady and solitary practice. The asanas teach patience and self-discipline. They teach that fear is physical, can be mastered only by recognizing and relieving its manifestations in the body, especially the tightness of the breath. That it cannot be mastered by even the most powerful logic. They teach that no matter how adept one becomes there are always greater masters. Sometimes in the practice of the asanas one loses the small self and glimpses the infinities beyond mortal existence.

And I have gradually reverted to something I call zen. What is zen? One of the most accurate descriptions, in my opinion, is “Not that.” Whatever you say zen is, you can be certain it is not that. Perhaps it may be thought of as the difference between preprogrammed reaction to artifical categories and the response of unfiltered being, not to theories of the world, but to the world itself.

Maybe such statements are useful. But I call what I practice zen because I have no better word, and because I live, as well as I can manage, according to the four pillars of zen and the one principle I take as its moral core.
The four pillars are these: 1) Everything changes; 2) nothing exists independently (that is, everything that exists depends on the existence of everything else); 3) life is suffering; 4) things are what they are (as opposed to what we think they are). I won’t attempt explanation or example here. Explanation and example can be found in many places if you really want them.
No doubt the four pillars will strike many as highflown moral sentiment. To me they are simply the four most accurate statements ever made about the nature of existence. Some may argue that life is not suffering, though my experience conduces otherwise—even when I have succeeded, success has not helped me. But the other three seem inarguably factual. And if they are, once again: How does it make sense to live in contradiction to the way things actually work?

The moral principle: The purpose of zen is the end of suffering for sentient beings. Notice that sentience is not defined. Definition is left to your own conscience. Nor does the principle claim that you, acting alone, will be capable of ending suffering. It only declares the purpose. Fix your being on the purpose, not your own success in promoting the purpose, and a great simplicity ensues.

I must admit, finally, that there’s nothing official or authoritative about my approach. All of the various sects I have studied (and there are surely as many Buddhist and zen sects as there are Protestant denominations) emphasize direct transmission: Enlightenment may be transmitted only from master to pupil, from one who has it to one who seeks it. I revere the masters and have studied them earnestly but have never received such a transmission.

Which is where the Southern Baptist angle comes in, I suppose. One of the few youthful doctrines I still adhere to is immediacy. It’s in the creed. Jesus declared that after him the relationship between the mortal and the holy would not require intercessors, presbyters, or priests.

No human interpreters necessary.

Which is not to say there are not masters it would be foolish to ignore. Which is not to vaunt untutored individualism above wisdom and truth, above the experience of those who have spent their lives to learn The Way.
The way that can be told is not The Way: I once imagined that as semantic paradox, a warning to be wary of words and explanations. But perhaps it also means that nobody can tell you which way to go because you are the only you who has ever existed and must find your own path. You can observe the lives of others. You can study their reported sayings. You can get a general picture. But the map isn’t the territory and your life is not a formula.

You got to walk that lonesome valley. You got to walk it by yo self.
I still have doubts and fears, I still get the shakes. (Though not so often.) It seems obvious that one must live the life one has, not the life one may imagine or desire or envy. It seems obvious that regret over vanished youth or missed opportunities is just a way of wasting whatever time is left.

I continue to waken each morning, sustained not by my own efforts, but by life itself, justified not by my own achievements, but by the fact that existence still has a use for me. Pain is a more familiar companion, but more trivial. Aging and mortality are more obvious, but less frightening.
That’ll do. May not be zen exactly, but it will certainly do.

Researchers Hail New Grammatical Discoveries

Uttboro, Indiana: Grammatists at the famed University of Indiana at Uttboro Institute of Grammatically UnLikely Physics (UIUIGULP) have announced startling new discoveries in the farfetched realms of extreme grammar.
“The new discoveries may completely change the way we think about grammar,” said Dr. Klaxon Toodlehorne, Palin Professor of Experimental Linguistics at the famed University of Indiana at Uttboro Institute of Grammatically UnLikely Physics (UIUIGULP). “While theorists have understood the implications for decades, it is only now that we have been able to observe these new entities in, so to speak, the field.”
The new discoveries have been made possible by the creation of the Astonishingly Long and Lame Best Seller (ALLBS), a work of such prodigious extension that 123,000 copies of Ulysses could be fitted into it end-to-end.
“Theoretically speaking, of course,” says Toodlehorne. “If one were actually to bring Joycean material in contact with the exotic grammars achievable in the Astonishingly Long and Lame Best Seller (ALLBS), they would annihilate each other in a burst of nonsense radiation that would wipe all meaning from the face of the Earth. And don’t even think about Nabokov.”
Many of the new findings are counter-intuitive.
The grammatists at UIUIGULP say they now have evidence that all syntactical phrases are combinations of quirks in seventy-leven “odors,” or varieties, including the martin, the individual, the irresponsible, the smart-ass, the hot buttered, the doowackadoo, and the strange quirk of fate.
Even such familiar grammatical units as personal pronouns have been proven to have high-cacaphony counterparts. There are distinct families of pronouns for every human on the planet. My personal pronouns include ig, buk, gnoto, deludon, gark, and pheb. You can’t have them; they’re mine. I would tell you what they mean but that information is on a need-to-know basis.
Another example of the weird behavior of grammar at levels of incomprehensibility achievable only within the ALLBS is the prevalence of garbled sentences (sentences created when fragments with completely different structures collide). “Grammatists have wondered for a long time,” says Toodlehorne, “why most of the sentences in literature to date have made sense. Logic dictates there should be an equal number of sentences that don’t make sense, but where are they? It turns out they are observable only when conventional grammar is subjected to extraordinary stress in a thought-vacuum, the sort of vacuum which can be maintained for any length of time only within the ALLBS. Though,” he appended, “the fleeting occurrence of such extreme conditions within the minds of certain individuals, primarily politicians, lawyers, fundamentalist preachers, and financial analysts, has been theoretically posited.”
Grammatists now think that unusual conditions during the first micro-seconds of the Big Gabfest, when all of language originated, may have selected for sense instead of nonsense. “There’s no other imaginable reason,” Professor Toodlehorne expostulated, “that we should find ourselves in a primarily functional discourse.” Sentences composed of garble resemble ordinary sentences in every respect, he went on to say, except that they are impossible to understand.
“And don’t get me started on comma splices,” he commanded this interviewer. “Did you know that one comma can support the weight of ten thousand overblown sentiments?” As evidence, Toodlehorne cited a recent sentence-like element discovered in the ALLBS: “ . . . completely crapulous fandoogle, the weight of ten thousand overblown sentiments.”
“Just think,” he whispered dreamily, “what would happen if we could splice thousands of commas together. We would have the world on a string.”
The ALLBS was constructed by a team of grammatical engineers who mated John Grisham’s talent, Stephen King’s prolixity, and Michael Crichton’s politics with a supercomputer programmed to churn out unfathomable prose at rates never before possible.
“A new paradigm is upon us,” Toodlehorne chortled exultantly. “I predict even more incredible findings ahead of us in the future. The world we thought we knew is being replaced by the world we never knew we thought.”