Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Friday, June 16, 2006

On the subject of metaphors (as being essential to poetry and as having both advantages and drawbacks):

Many of my favorite poems are devoid of metaphor. It is seldom used in haiku, for example. It would swamp them and overwhelm their simplicity. But nearly all poems make associations. Metaphor is simply a way to indicate likeness. The spectrum from identity through association to differentiation applies. In an engram, any datum can equal any datum, represented often as A=A=A. The dog is the man is the car is the tree is the sky is the smell of gasoline is the pain of a concussion is the voice of the man yelling something, etc. Along that spectrum, one could place metaphor, simile, allegory, symbol, juxtaposition and other devices that indicate some sort of likeness or degree of identity. In a way a simile is closer to differentiation than a metaphor, since it explicitly says that two things are similar, not the same.

In haiku, usually juxtaposition is used rather than metaphor. More is left for the reader to contribute. In some cases the juxtaposition is mainly between stillness and motion or what's perceived and a sense of the perceiver. That's pretty obvious in the poem usually considered the first haiku (old pond, frog jumps in, splash). I use no metaphor in the following:

It's even sadder than you think:
They were ALL good people.

I think it's one of my best poems. You may not care for it, of course. The poem does use devices, chief among them irony. And a vast omission that only becomes clear on rereading.

Use of metaphor is a two-edged sword: It allows compactness, multiple meanings interrelated with minimal baggage. It also invites reactivity. As Dr. Szasz points out, most of the illogic (and insanity) of psychiatry stems from the failure of psychiatrists to understand that "mental illness" is a metaphor, a way of saying that certain conditions are similar to diseases (illnesses). When one forgets that it is merely a metaphor, one gets in trouble. Similarly, Bush doesn't understand that "War on Terror" is a metaphor. He actually believes one can declare war on a level of the tone scale or an idea. Much metaphor-fraught poetry is similarly reactive. Sometimes the reactivity is the subject (getting us into a reactive viewpoint to gain insight), but just as often, the poetry itself is reactive. Metaphor is also the language of bigotry: Jewish swine, Commie pigs, etc.

So to me a metaphor is a responsibility. It's not something that makes a poem a better poem. It's something that may improve a poem or may ruin a poem. It's just another tool to be used wisely or unwisely.

by Dean Blehert, posted with slight corrections by his wife Pam

Monday, March 27, 2006

On Placebos and Poetry

The following was an email-letter to close friends of the poet, Dean Blehert, and is being posted here for Dean by his wife Pam as Dean is on an extensive and intensive study cycle and I thought there might be some out there in the wide world who would like this "essay."

(original date: 3/25/1999)

On placebos, not to put down any specific poet, but it seems to me that when one sits through readings of fairly well-written poems (or reads them in a book) and feels increasingly dull and sleepy and bored, there are only a few explanations: One is that one has gone past words one doesn't fully understand -- or the words don't make sense, so that they CAN'T be understood, because their use in the poem doesn't fit the definitions you (and the dictionary) know. In reading, one has a better chance to look back and clear up the connections that don't connect, look up words, etc. But even there, many poems disperse attention, and large sections of them slip past most readers.

The second explanation is that we've been taking placebos. Why else would we listen and think, yes, good poetry, even though we feel bored and sleepy, not enthusiastic, inspired, amused, instructed?

The thing is, if, on a program of poetry, no one really gets in communication with the audience and says things TO that audience that are really interesting to that audience, that (in very old-fashioned terms) amuse and instruct, or (in my own sense of how poetry works) evoke both surprise and recognition -- in the absense of any of it really reaching us or being anywhere near as interesting as the average TV sit. com., then what can it mean when we say afterwards that some of it was very good or very well written?

I've seen people in poetry groups with bored faces say to another poet who's just read a poem, "That was very good" and "That was great." It's obvious that the person saying this has not been changed in any way by the poem. No one in the room is moved by it, not one emotion in the room has been stirred, no one has a new idea of anything in his/her life, and yet people chime in about how good or even how great the poem is. What "That's an excellent poem" means in such cases is, "That's the sort of poem that a prestigious magazine accepts" or "That's what a poem is supposed to be."

If, in such a group or at such a reading, someone reads or performs a LIVE poem, the difference is immediately obvious. The poem won't necessarily be LIKED as much as some of the dead poems, but you can SEE the effects it creates. (I've seen very live poems -- mine and others -- lose at slams to poems that caused FAR less effect on the audience, but agreed more with what the audience and/or judge thought a winning slam poem was supposed to be.)

One of the tricks in testing is to use a placebo that causes some obvious effect, so that the people being tested won't know it's a placebo. Recent research showed that when sugar pills were used as placebos, many people KNEW they were getting placebos, because there were no obvious side effects.

[The full significance of this research has not yet been digested by science or made public: Most of the drugs now on the market were tested years ago using sugar-pill placebos. Many of the "miracle" drugs scored only slightly above the placebos, and sometimes that took some statistical tampering: For example, the drug companies or the FDA found excuses not to include studies where the placebos scored BETTER than the drug being tested, and this gave the drug a statistical edge. This applies to some VERY popular medications (e.g., Prozac). (No one even kept the test data on Ritalin, so there's no existing evidence that it's effective, and the FDA hasn't required new versions of it to be fully tested against placebos, only against the original Ritalin. In other words, if it works as well as a drug whose effectiveness is without evidence, it is ruled effective.)

The statistical distortion caused by some of the users KNOWING they're getting a placebo is more than enough to invalidate the effectiveness of many drugs now on the market. (Of course, there are other reasons to doubt their effectiveness: The tests are done by labs paid by the drug manufacturer; excuses are found to deem bad side-effects "not proven to have been caused by the drug" or to ignore them altogether, the drugs are tested for a few weeks, then prescribed for long-term use, etc.)]

Anyway, to get back to poetry, one way to make it harder to spot a placebo is to include ingredients that create obvious side effects (effects that have nothing to do with the purpose of the drug). People expect side effects from a "real" medication. So if the pill makes the mouth dry or creates a tingling or something, the person being tested is less likely to think it's a placebo.

Similarly, we expect poetry to create effects, so people are less likely to think something's a placebo if it creates a big effect, for example, shock. If a poet yells "Fuck!" at an audience loudly enough, many are fooled. And there are lots of other tricks. The idea is to create a SIDE effect and let US, the audience, contribute the poetry. Really, that's all a cliche is: something associated with poetry or that sounds like poetry because it's often used in poetry, in hopes that we'll provide the poetry or, really, the poetic-ness -- much as a dog salivates when hearing Pavlov's bell, even though he's not being fed -- whereas real poetry nourishes. It gets us to contribute to it, but we contribute, not the poetry, but our own real worlds, emotions, hopes, etc. We take the poetry, and use it to illuminate our own lives.

We can go on salivating for years at bell sounds and not realizing we are starving. Then someone actually feeds us and we remember what all that salivation was about, and that could be our salvation.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It's All One to Me

the West says we are each alone,
and the East says we are all one,
and they say the one same lie,
for you are you
and I am I
and we can communicate.

The dictionary derives "alone" from "All one." "We are all one" -- not a cozy thought. But you are not alone, and we are not all one. These are not alternatives, but the same thing. I am I. You are you. But we can communicate, because I am able to be whatever you are able to be and vice versa -- you can say my words and make them yours, see what I see, even be, for example, Dean Blehert, for I am not these or any things, but I am and you are and we can communicate.

Dean Blehert is a sequence of viewpoints I occupy -- or anyone can occupy. (One head, slightly used, to let.) To be is an ability. To be alone or to be all one is not an ability, but a misunderstanding of the meaning of "alone" and "one" -- to be one WHAT? To be alone with regard to WHAT? We are not alone. We are not one. We cannot be identical who are not our identities.

When we misunderstand each other, a blankness sets in, which we explain to ourselves (we being so accustomed to knowing, that the blankness following misunderstanding is intolerable; so we coat it in explanation) -- we explain it by saying "I am alone." Then we solve our aloneness by saying, "We are all one." But once we are all one thing (one VERY together thing), we are alone again.

We maim and harm and betray each other, and that's OK, because there isn't anyone else, and besides, we are all one. A sin against oneself or another is simply a communication that cannot easily be received because the sender knows the receiver is unwilling to be what is communicated. (Communication includes duplicating; one must be a mirror in the process, willing to accept an image.) No matter, for there IS no sender, no receiver. How can there be a sending (to whom?) if one is all alone or if all is one?

The West says we are each alone, and the East says we are all one, and they say the one same lie, for you are you and I am I and we can communicate.

Dwindling Spiral

The physical universe is as eternal as the two-minute race between Achilles and the tortoise. That is, it lasts forever if the speed with which we exhaust lifetimes accelerates proportionately to our approach to its limits. When there are only a billion human years left, we'll become ants and have another trillion ant years left, and so on.

To participate in that eternity, we need only concede that we cannot ourselves create new energy -- an easy concession in a universe so rich with pre-fabricated energy, so solid and agreed-upon.

Once in the game, we operate by using physical universe energy (it's a monopoly, our Standard Oil) to control physical universe energy and bodies and cars and planets (congealed energy -- previously used, but only by a very old God to drive to church on Sundays).

But the more energy is used and reused (as the physical, like a dog, licks up what it spits up), the less controllable it becomes. We cannot make fresh energy. That's in our admission contract, remember? Nobody gets into this universe without first waiving the right to create energy, because those who can create it, can also make it vanish, and that's dangerous, if we want this universe to last. So we chew over the same old ergs for trillennia until it's all amorphous gruel, no use to anyone.

The way out? We'll have to forget about hurling galaxies about, but if we make ourselves real small, within our thin gruel of galaxy, we'll find stars bursting with energy to play with, untapped Niagaras -- and when stars are exhausted, we can shrink again to be overwhelmed by yet more miniaturized explosions.

After a few millennia of bodies in machines creeping over the skin of a pretty blue planet-marble, fuel runs short. We can look forward (unless we remember how to create our own energy) to a 10-second aeon of jockeying electrons and talking in voices much too shrill for ants to hear (Quark Quark!), hoping for our terasecond of fame, hurtling round nucleii, whirled without end, Hallelujah, amen.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Memo to the Class of '59

Time stopped in the '50's. I was born in the '40's, which is where the REAL movie stars (Gable, Hepburn, Tracy, Cooper) are from (well, from the 30s, too), but I first noticed I was noticing there was a world in the '50's, which is a time period hard for me to distinguish from an artificially sweetened news magazine ("The Weekly Reader") for kids passed out in school with its photo of "the car of the future," all fins, chrome and cockpits, and articles about America, the good guy.

So I grow old from the 50's, except there's no growing FROM them, because the 50's won't go away, because they were "modern times." They were what the American Dream had been waiting for: cars like space ships and every home agleam with all the modern conveniences, just a few more diseases and racial and political unpleasantnesses to clean up (by explaining to Africa and India how silly and unmodern such things were and showing them the cars, lawns, offices and supermarkets) before we would all be Ozzie and Harriet and not have to feel guilty about it, because everyone else in the world without regard for race, creed or color (as long as it was nothing outlandish) would be Ozzie and Harriet too.

Time had to stop there, because where could you go after "modern." (Yes, now we say "Post-Modern", which is another way of saying "Damn it, it's still the 50's and it pisses me off!")Beyond "modern" lay science fiction, and no one really goes there. People keep struggling to understand the 60's. They find the 60's complex because they assume they already understand the 50's -- the insufferably bland and insular and bovine 50's, that we blame the world for not being like anymore.

But we're still there, even Generation Z or whatever we're up to now -- they're still in it, though they don't remember Marilyn Monroe, cowboy movies, or the Korean War. We make our future, decide it, agree upon it -- or we don't. The 50's was when America stopped creating a future, so we live there -- in the last future America created.

But what of the mad 60's dream? Nah, that's self-conscious stuff, like counting sheep to fall asleep, the effort to out-create the solid, easy 50's agreement that had settled hairdos and everything else in the world forever and to come. The 60s protested too much. The 50s just were/are. We live in an old dream that is falling apart, unless we can bully a bit of future into being with our art.

Maybe someday someone will understand the 50's so that we can stop living in them. I hope so: They're getting mean. Maybe they need our love.

If We Outlaw Dreams, Only Outlaws Will Have Dreams

Psychologists and psychiatrists like to warn us of the dangers of "Hero complex," "Delusions of Grandeur" and other delusional states they cannot distinguish from the real thing. Or perhaps, to a psychiatrist, all grandeur, all heroism is a delusion. (They never speak of "Delusions of Expert Testimony" or "Delusions of Glib Cynicism").

No, they warn: Beware the man who dreams himself a hero; of such are the fanatics, the crazed assassins of our day. (And yet, what child does not dream of being a hero?)

These students of the soul they think does not exist (for psychiatry means healing of the soul, and if you have one, they can cure you of it) -- they fear any who dare disagree. Those who dream their own dreams are not well-adjusted, nor do they need our fear to compel agreement with their dreams.

Those who imagine themselves heroes well enough, are heroes. Greatness is one's dream come true for all, all our dreams come true in one.

Beware those who fear dreamers. Beware those who cannot dream.

The real madmen can only borrow the dreams of others, overwhelmed by the agreement called the world, its solidity ever demanding "Just who do you think you are!"

The real madman is what the psychologist and psychiatrist try to mass-produce, with their ideal: The well-adjusted person, someone who craves agreement and dares not dream, not even for himself alone in bed, for to dream one must disagree. Isn't that what dreaming is about? -- disagreeing with what is, putting something else there?

Yet even the madman clings to his last desperate fragment of truth, that he is someone special -- for who is not a hero, having once decided to be? (And I think every child at some point decides to be a hero.)

Therefore, in the only world he recognizes (everyone's), he registers his specialness the only way he can: bombs, bullets, sloguns -- solid dreams prefabricated by others, flung or fired into a mob of gaping flammable faces, eyes wide with terror, pain and guaranteed recognition. No need to think: He gropes for his quick fix, the confirmation of his specialness by a world that swallows dreams and shits headlines.

What Became of Baby Doll?

Mama causes things. Little girl gets caused -- ears scrubbed, teeth brushed, dress and shoes put on, shoelaces tied ("...and don't get them muddy!") by Mama. Overwhelming, all that one-way causation, unless little girl is given a littler girl to scold, dress up, take places. Little girl can't be trusted with baby sister, but a doll will do.

At least that's how it used to be when dolls were mostly rubber and porcelain babies or cloth Raggedy Annes (little girls) or furry teddy bears (cuddly -- pets that can be handled, yet won't need to be buried in a shoe box beneath the bushes in the back yard because "I told you not to handle it so much").

Mama caused things to happen to her child, so her child caused things to happen to her mock-child or pet, child becoming mock-Mama. Later, in grade school, big girl snipped out Betty and Veronica from comic books, dressed them (Fold Tab A into Slot B) in cut-out clothes, wanting to be Betty or Veronica, because they could cause things to happen to boys, who specialize in causing things to happen to girls.

That's how it used to be. But tiny hard-plastic bimbo-Barbie (our Betty and Veronica) is all the rage with tots. Who is trying to be what? Who wants whom to be what? The child is mother to the nubile teen-ager? (Babies are, after all, unwanted.)

And Barbie is so small -- an adult doll, yet tiny compared to the long-ago pliable soft baby dolls that sat up and said "Mama!" and lay back and closed their lashed eyes.

Our dolls are aging, and so are our children. If we live again, a newborn baby is, after all, someone who recently died. Perhaps the next generation of dolls will be tiny old people, made of hard slippery plastic designed to be shoved up into the womb to entertain pre-natals and remind them whence they come.

Can You Feel Fingernails Growing? Whose?

I trim my nails -- they grow back.

But WHEN do they grow? While I sleep? I never catch them at it. Or maybe what I call "my nails", what I feel when I put attention on them, IS their growing -- the quick of my fingers against their slow,but steady; motion against motion, the earth against my feet, all motion: The earth and my body tugging against each other, the earth's slow internal magma convulsions, my body's tiny convulsions, more than one throb each moment; the earth's spin around sun dragging or pushing me along with it, and all that fizz of molecular motion -- motion against motion is what we can perceive, perhaps what we can cause -- Give me your hand.

My motion?...no, my body's motion, for I, feeling motion, must be no motion, stillness. Why? Because I do not change. Once, not long ago,I sat in a crib -- I remember -- and felt all these motions, and then, too, I was me, and before that -- I remember it, better than I remember all the fads of motion of those times -- then, too, I was me and could cause and perceive and mirror motion and remember and re-create it.

Surrounded by motion, the only show in town, I thought I, too, was motion, but when I know who I am and have always been, I see that I do not change, and all the illusory "was-ness" drops out, this succession of me's, beads on a string, becoming the one pearl of who I am only and always, unchanging, unsleeping (it is I who watch over my sleeping), this awareness of the awareness of my toenails growing or of nothing at all, here I am.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

How Fame Happens

What blocks the road to fame also eases the way: You go along, bouncing in your own estimation from "I am someone" to "I am no one," occasionally coming to rest halfway between at "Maybe...who knows? Does it matter?"

You know you are good at what you do, but knowing doesn't make it real -- that takes agreement, and you aren't even sure you agree with yourself. But your being unknown is what wins the day, when, finally, someone whose opinion counts happens to pass over your work and gets yanked back to it and says, "Hey! Who is this? It's terrific!"

To this eminence, you're no one -- the condition you've long cursed -- and that's your gateway to fame: To you you're no one...someone... no one.... To this someone you're simply no one, then someone, suddenly someone, pure someone. You don't arrive with all that baggage, the decades of self-doubt (this eminent fellow wasn't there when you were vascillating through the years), the skin of "small-time", "local", etc., acquired despite (or by) your efforts to resist it.

You are that "bolt from the blue." Your decades of effort got you no recognition worth mention, so you come from nowhere. You aren't even a recognizably "pretty good" or "reliable" poet. The road is wide open. Now you need only remember that fame is mere opinion. Your work is to touch individuals and make them more alive. Fame is only a way to reach individuals, only a way. Aren't you glad fame hid from you until you were able to use it without becoming infatuated with it...well, almost.

Hat's Off!

When I was little, and my Dad went to "the office", his presence in the house was strongest in the front closet, where, on the top shelf, like a row of conservative silent fathers, were hats, part of the uniform, like suits and ties, part, really, of the shape of a man's head in the 1930s and 40s, narrow-brimmed, felt, front-to-back dented. Fedoras, I guess, though I heard them called only "hats" -- where did they go?

They vanished before anyone heard of global warming. Why? They were hardly unmanly. Even now they don't look quaint on Bogart or McMurray or Mitchum. I read recently that the first dictator of Paraguay ordered every man to wear a hat (this in the tropics) so that respect could be shown to ladies by doffing them.

(What a good word, "doff" -- from "do off". Why didn't it become mob slang: "Vinnie, that asshole needs to be doffed." We'd have the Mafia Don and the Mafia Doff.)

So maybe rudeness or Women's Lib unhatted us.

But, by the way, how do we account for the passing of women's hats? They were never doffers, but always hatted, not just at banquets, but whenever they left the neighborhood (e.g., to "go downtown" to shop or see a doctor) and sometimes close to home, big-brimmed bonnets and tiny pill-boxes with bits of veil in front, all shapes and shades. These, too, are gone or worn to stand out, unusual.

But hats don't characterize Mom as they do Dad. Women were most often in and around the house, bare-headed. But men -- any day downtown, lunch hour, groups of suited men passing, heads brim-crossed and muffin-creased, silk bands out, leather sweat-bands in, hair or skin(fashion was kinder to bald men then) nestled in soft silky white inner lining, just enough brim to shade the eyes -- trimmed cowboy hats for crowded city life. If they'd lasted a few years longer, I'd have gotten my first one around age 17 (1959).

Were they expensive? Did blue-collar men own at least one, for going to church? I'm so ignorant. When I was a kid, a man was someone who went to an office. But I think they all -- even the tramps -- wore fedoras, though some were hand-me-down, frayed.

When hats vanished, how many hat makers went unemployed? (Were they all twitching-mad from mercury in chemicals used to shape hats -- mad as hatters?) And how masculine those hats were! What more seductively perverse than Marlene Dietrich in a man's hat? Did poets then wonder what had become of top hats? Derbies? (Imagine Abe Lincoln in a Fedora, Bogart in a Derby.)

OK, so times and styles change -- women's far faster than men, because, in a "man's world", fashion was one of the few things women were allowed to change (without consulting men) in their self-definitions. But this was so quick: It happened in my time, my Dad's time, I don't know when or how or why. There went Dad and his cohorts to work in suits, ties, overcoats and fedoras; then the same men went to work in suits, ties, overcoats and no hats. How do such things happen. Was it Eisenhower? I see Truman fedora'd, but not Ike. He was military. Fedoras were civilian.

Probably it was the return of all those soldiers (about 16,000,000 of them returning after WWII), not in a rush to replace one helmet with another, really in no mood for uniforms of any sort. My Dad wasn't accepted into the Army: Flat feet. Being a civilian in a fedora was not something he was proud of. In 1945 arrived a flood of demobbed, hatless heroes from the world's most informal army, known for slang, chewing gum and breezy postures. (Hitler hadn't expected much from such easy-going troops, officers who responded to formal invitations to surrender with "Nuts!")

It must have become young and heroic to be hatless. (But why didn't they do away with ties as well? What a sadly missed opportunity!) That's it. I'm satisfied. I'm sure that's the answer, so don't tell me about the felt mines drying up in 1946 -- I don't want to hear it.

Trust the Deserters; Victims are Always Dependable

The boyish, sincere network interviewer sympathetically invites horror stories from a living room full of victims of the CULT-Of-The-Week Club. Then, to be FAIR, he questions one of the CULT leaders, who denies it (we are given 20 seconds of his 30-minute statement), but official suited and neck-tied blandness can't compete with teary-eyed women telling how they were DRIVEN to slash their wrists and feel just terribly GUILTY -- and then, to be even more FAIR, a svelte newslady reads letters from obviously unsvelte people who claim to be HAPPY with the CULT, choosing only passages that are abstract and kind of JESUS-IS-WITH-ME-NOW-AND-ALL-IS-WELL, as moving as "Have A Nice Day" from a Happy Face.

They don't fill a living room with the letter writers and let them talk to us. Happy cult members are only shown in too-enthusiastic crowds, not in living rooms or one by one.

But we have to believe those who've LEFT. After all, they were there. They know. "It's a cult! They brainwashed me! They took away my money, my self! They ganged up on me! They all do whatever they're told!" (An army of fanatics prepares even now to snatch YOUR loved ones...).

Easy to believe them: They MUST be victims; who ever heard of a victimizer criticizing a victim? Why would murderer hate murdered? Why would swindler despise dupe? Why would a husband who beats his wife call her a tramp? Why would the guy who joined up and claimed to be one of the guys, then took off with the silverware and an emptied bank account or two want to put down the group he deserted? Why would a crooked politician accuse his enemies of being corrupt? (Are newspeople ever corrupt?)

Why would the meanest kids whine loudest about their parents' meanness? That would be crazy (and yet, who are the loudest whiners?), whereas these are just nice people who claim to have given their lives -- by mistake (whoopsie!) -- to a crazy CULT, then come to their ravaged senses.

We believe because they tell us that something we don't understand and don't want to understand, something whose truths don't wear their hair the way our truths do, is evil, insane -- meaning: Don't worry, there's nothing there to be understood, no threat to the certainties upon which depend our after-all-reasonably-satisfactory lives....

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

It's Impossible to Understand

When horrendous things happen, like the Holocaust or 9-11, we often hear people say that such things are beyond understanding. Actually they are easy to understand once one realizes that there's nothing there to understand. That is, they are acts of no-understanding.

Most of us, except those who like to implicate the hand of God and then torment themselves asking why - most of us know this when it comes to hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other "acts of God". That is, we don't try to understand them in the way that we try to understand human actions. We understand that they are not to be understood in that way.

Someone seeing odd marks on rocks and thinking they might be inscrutable ancient religious sculptures, might spend years puzzling them out, or, learning that they are typical of the markings made by glaciers, would feel an understanding. He would understand that they were not to be understood in that way.

Where we drive ourselves nuts is in trying to understand insane human action (for example, the Holocaust), assuming the understanding is there simply because human beings are the actors. But those who commit criminal actions are not there, are not the ones who act. A criminal will tell you, he didn't do it: his hands did it. The criminal's crime is not in the act, but in allowing himself to become less than he is, allowing forces no more human than hurricanes or glaciers to supplant him. Another word for this is "irresponsibility." A criminal is a person who is not responsible for his actions. And that means that the criminal doesn't do anything, doesn't cause anything. It is all done to him or through him. He was only following orders, whether from Hitler or from mysterious voices, compulsions, obsessions, needs, etc.

And, of course, to say "he couldn't help himself because he's mentally ill" is to validate this irresponsibility, to reward it. This is the main activity of psychiatrists in the legal system: To explain that it's OK for people to fail to take responsibility for their actions, and that this failure excuses those actions.

This passes for "understanding" in some circles: To understand bad actions is to be able to list the excuses for them. There's some truth to the notion that it helps to understand what a person has been through, but carried to an extreme, it amounts to telling us that we are all victims, incapable of taking responsibility for our actions.

When you look at insanity, you are looking at an absence of understanding. Trying to understand an absence of understanding is like talking to a chair or a table or a rock - or a hurricane - and expecting a verbal answer. Insanity is not difficult to understand once you realize that there is no understanding in it, nothing to be understood except that it cannot be understood.

That doesn't mean nothing can be done about it. It just gives you a starting point for increasing understanding. Once you know that the actions are insane, you know where to find the being (who understands...who IS understanding) - you know the being is not in that insanity, so now you can locate him and get in communication with him. How can you locate him, if you think he's the bundle of tics or stoniness right there in front of you. He'd like to be lost in his insanity - easier than confronting what he's done or allowed to happen. Our trying to understand it helps him stay lost.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

If you've been reading the news lately, you may have come across the new warnings the FDA is considering adding to ADHD drugs (Ritalin, etc.). You have to read the inside pages. The front pages are reserved for announcements of new miracle drugs. The inside pages tell us that the new miracle drugs may be ineffective or dangerous. Ten years later, when it becomes obvious that the miracle drugs have killed thousands, the news may make it to page one.

Over the past month or so, we've learned that ADHD drugs sometimes cause cardio-vascular trouble. (This has been known for decades, but until it hits the headlines, it ain't so.) We've learned that the anti-depressants so dear to Ms. Shields (and shame on Tom Cruise for objecting: What can a man know about such things?) cause birth defects when taken during pregnancy in a significant number of cases, cause other problems for child if the mother tries to withdraw from the drug during pregnancy and have been implicated in numerous cases where mothers killed their infant children. We've learned that the toxins in anti-depressants and anti-psychotics, excreted by users, are increasingly being found in the flesh of frogs, wild birds, etc. - and in tadpoles, lead to developmental problems: missing limbs and other environmental side effects. And these psycho-toxins get into our water supply - are not dealt with by the filtration systems now in use.

(You perhaps haven't seen those articles? Visit your nearest Google today!

I just wanted to pass on the good news: All sorts of bad things are happening, but it won't bother us, because we'll be getting slightly-used-but-good-as-new anti-depressants from our drinking water.

Or perhaps I'm just an alarmist. Surely the experts know what they're doing. Surely we're in good hands.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Exposing Evil

Yes, there are evil people who conspire, some behind familiar masks. Which are they?

You can spend your life searching them out, or just draw them from hiding by creating something beautiful.

Either the beauty moves them to come out of themselves, shaming their smallness, or it exposes them when they can't resist attacking or snidely misinterpreting it. Either way, you've improved the world.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Mr. Magoo

It gets worse and worse: First the quarks got blurry, then I couldn't make out electrons, then I started bumping into atoms, even heavy metals, then couldn't even make out molecules without my glasses, and so on, until these days without my specs, I can't tell one galaxy from another from across the room, but I'm too vain to wear glasses all the time, so I make do with blobs of light and shade.

I think there's a planet here. I see hints of it on occasion, since I'm required by law to wear glasses when driving, peeing, or dreaming.


Silent movies became talkies. Why not add sound to paintings? The Mona Lisa, for example, would say endlessly, "Ummmmm?" Munch's "The Scream"--that's obvious.

A landscape's hush, a still-life, there are the challenges. I don't know if we could make out what the fragmented voice of "Nude Descending a Staircase" would say; perhaps, "Oops!"

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Solving Other People's Problems

Other people's problems are the easiest in the world to solve. You look at this guy who's complaining of getting nowhere in life, and you see he's a slob, he's a blob, he's indecisive, he's not trying, he's... - well, you look at him, and you see all the obvious solutions: Take a shower! Get some decent clothes, exercise, DO something, be presentible, decide what you want to do, go see some people....

At first he seems hungry for your suggestions, even says "Wow!" a few times, but one by one, upon closer scrutiny, he rejects them. He can't do this because...and that's no good because...and he doesn't have time for that or money for this and he doesn't think that would do any good....

And as you persist, working it all out for him, showing him exactly what's needed, making charts, he begins to get upset with you, and when you leave, he thanks you stiffly and you know he won't do any of it.

(And you lie awake wondering what you did wrong. So now YOU have a problem.)

People get ornery when you try to take on yourself their misery. Often, it's all they have. Every problem is a dear possession, hard to relinquish. Before it became a problem, it was a solution to some other problem. That's why, when you look at this guy, you immediately see solutions: Because that's exactly what you're looking at - all of this guy's solutions.

Being a slob, for example - what could that solve? It could solve having to dress up and shave every day. It could solve fear of people, by making one so repellant that people are kept at a distance. It could solve the loss of Dad or Uncle or Grandfather, who loved him dearly and was a slob, so by being a slob one keeps that person alive. Who knows what it solves? He doesn't. He's not aware of what he's doing. It's all submerged beneath heaps of old discarded solutions become problems.

And those earlier problems - they, too, were solutions to something. How do you unravel this? Where does it end?

Normally, it never ends, life becoming a dwindling into ever more confining solutions to solutions to solutions. That's why so many are now on psychiatric drugs: They are desperate solutions. And people themselves move, gradually, from being the solvers of problems to being, themselves, problems (the homeless, the insane, you're pal who is pissed at you for trying to solve his problem or for failing to solve his problem...) that must be solved by others. Thus, problems are a contagion.

So how can you help another or even help yourself?

It helps just to view what is - not try to solve it, but simply confront it. It helps another if you can just get him to view what is. It helps a person rise above problems (actually the problems simply cease to be problems) if you can get him to look at things or touch things - you know, walls, furniture, sidewalks, trees.

Perhaps you've experienced this yourself: You had lots of problems spinning round and round in your head. You took a long walk in hopes of sorting them out, but they just kept going round and round, leading into one dead end after another. But meanwhile, it's a beautiful day and you start noticing things, and a particular slant of sun on some kid's bike beneath a tree feels good for some reason, seems to take you back to a happy time in childhood - or you start to become aware of wind sounds in the leaves or notice a cat hiding behind a bush, staring at you.... You walk for a long time, maybe traces of the problems flitting in and out of consciousness, but you are simply aware and increasingly aware of a larger and more detailed and luminous world. When you get home, you look for the problem, but isn't there any more.

What happened? Nothing much. You just stopped trying to solve something, and it vanished (and with it, the entire chain of earlier problems and solutions that held it in place).

Awareness dissolves the lies that create what we call problems.

How could you use this to help someone else with problems? Here's a silly example: George has a problem: He can't go anywhere. Why not? Because he's in his house holding onto a door knob (attached to a door). He can't let go of the door knob, so he can't go anywhere. If you try to help him solve this, you get nowhere and are tempted to dismiss George as hopelessly insane, though his reasons for hanging onto that door knob are probably quite logical. Maybe years before, George was in a tornado and was saved from being blown away by grabbing a door knob and holding on tight. A door knob attached to a well-anchored door was a great solution.

But this was long ago, and George doesn't remember it, prefers not to think of that painful time (lost his family and his house, nothing left standing but the door he clung to), and probably doesn't even realize he's holding onto a door knob. He just knows that when he tries to go anywhere, he gets yanked back, and this is messing up his life, because it makes holding a job impossible, much less eating or going to the bathroom. (Yes, George needs a lot of help just to stay alive.)

He's tried everything! For example, he had the door taken off it's hinges, so he could drag it around with him, but that, too, was awkward, the door too heavy and bulky and upsetting to others. He's also tried isomorphic exercises to bulk up his shoulders and biceps so that he could more easily carry the door or maybe pull himself away from it, but the stronger he gets, the more tightly he holds onto the knob.

How could you help George (who, apart from his being unable to let go of the door knob, is rational )? Well, you might have him look at the door, look at the table, look at the wall, look at the door knob in his hand, look at one thing after another for hours, until he realized there was a door there and a door knob there. He may seem to know these things already - after all, he's been told about them often enough. But are they REAL to him? Of course not.

Once they are real to him, you might ask him to hold on to the door knob as tightly as he can, and have him do this repeatedly (each time saying "Hold on tightly to that door knob", and when he does, saying "Thank you" or some other acknowledgement, so that each time he does it newly and knows when he's done it), and after a few hours (or a few hours a day for several days) of this, George will suddenly realize, "What the hell! I'm holding onto this door knob!" And he'll let go of it, just like that. (Maybe he'll realize at this point why he was holding onto it and start laughing and not stop laughing for a long time.) And that will be it. You didn't offer him a solution. You just familiarized him with what is - and as he confronted, increasingly, how things were, a lie vanished, and with it, the problem.

He didn't solve his problem. It simply vanished.

(I call drugs a desperate solution, because the way out of traps involves confronting them, becoming more aware of what is, and drugs are designed to suppress from view the exact things that need to be confronted, on the grounds that they are upsetting. So drugs are a good way to make it more difficult ever to be free of one's problems.)

A silly story? Or do our most formidable problems rest on foundations as fragile as George's? Do we have to work as hard as George did to maintain the problem keep it in place, keep it from vanishing? Do we hold on tight to our problems?

I've had the following experiences:

I had problems. I took my attention (somewhat) off them and concentrated on listing things I'd started, but never completed (including letters unanswered, housework not done, etc.). I took the easiest of these and finished it, then took another and completed it - at the start, some of these tasks looked forbidding, but as I got the easier ones done, the harder ones began to look easy too (I was on a roll); I completed them all or at least got them all well underway, and somewhere along the line, the problems that had occupied my mind for weeks vanished. Some of them had nothing obvious to do with the tasks I was completing, but they, too, vanished.

On another occasion, having attention on problems, I just looked for all the incomplete communications I could find and completed them, and my problems vanished. I answered my letters and e-mails, called some people I'd long meant to call or had been avoiding calling, told someone something I'd been avoiding saying, etc. And my problems disappeared.

The single most powerful thing I ever did to deal with problems (in 1968) was get into Scientology. In fact, since a particular session of Scientology counseling that year, problems have never since seemed as solid and desperate as they did before that session. At the time it seemed like magic, because I'd been a buzzing hive of problems, but I came out of that 30-minute session utterly free of them, able to view life as a game that included challenges, but none of the things I'd considered problems (stucknesses, MUST-have-CAN'T-have impasses) remained.

It was at that time that I worked out my parable of the man who couldn't let go of door knobs. It was the best thing I could come up with to explain what had happened to me. I'd seen exactly how and why I'd been clinging to the situations I'd called problems, and suddenly was able to let go of them. Not "solve" them, not "do something about" them, just let go of them and get on with the game of living.

Imagine a guy who keeps hanging onto the "problem" of not having the money he needs who stops having that problem. Does this mean he goes into apathy on the subject of money, gives up? No. That would be a "solution" - not caring. Letting go of the problem does not mean lowering responsibility for one's own condition. It means ceasing to fixate on some lie that prevents change. So if you are able to dispense with a money problem, that doesn't mean you won't have money. On the contrary, it greatly increases the likelihood that you'll prosper, since you're attention isn't hung-up in the "problem" of money.

The techniques used to deal with problems (and other basic traps of existence) in Scientology are not just applicable to individuals. For example, right now the United States has "problems" with terrorism, drugs, etc., and keeps trying to "solve" them, and, sure enough, the "solutions" (for example, invasion of Iraq) are becoming problems. Hmmm. Dear United States, what problem do terrorists solve for you?

(NOT as silly as it sounds. For example, we have "problems" with getting oil inexpensively and "problems" about finding excuses for moving into the Middle East oil countries and "problems" about the Arab countries accepting Euros as well as dollars for oil and this destabilizing the U.S. currency and economy and "problems" justifying the existence and expense of parts of our government that previously depended on exaggerating the might and evil of the Soviet Union for their existence and funding; and "problems" keeping the people of the United States in line as well-behaved consumers and "problems" moving an increasing share of the money of citizens into large corporations via the government - for example, right now the Bush Administration is making the argument that the FDA must restrict the right of citizens to sue pharmaceutical companies because the expertise and viability of these companies may be needed for the War on Terrorism. I'm not saying these are the reasons for the War on Terrorism. I'm simply citing possibilities. What I know for certain is that the "War on Terrorism" is a solution, and therefore has become a problem and therefore is based on lies. Enough aware citizens would cause the problem to vanish.)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Entertainment as Containment

To entertain: From "between" (enter) and "hold" (tain), to hold between, as when entertaining a guest between walls or thighs.

We amuse a guest, divert. Guest is stranger, stranger is enemy, enemy is to be killed. We make the guest at home: held lightly between. Even if the wine is poisoned, we amuse, divert, distract, come to think of amusement itself as entertainment, a holding (the suspension of disbelief), and when we hold an opinion between the whore-legs of the intellect, we entertain a thought.

When a thought, like the Man Who Came to Dinner, stays too long (well entertained, but enemy after all), takes over this little home, our mind, we have an obsession; we are held between, much to the entertainment of all.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

In Support of the Space Program

"Why can't we take those millions from the space program and spend them in our ghettos?"

But the space program is our only hope to build NEW ghettoes on other planets!

One Way to Write a Poem

You can start with a stroke of the pen, then make it some letter, say a "Y", then add more letters to make a word like "You", then more letters & words to make some sort of sense, something you might be saying to someone, some "you", for example, then--and some find this harder than starting-- say something that makes it make sense to stop.

Monday, January 30, 2006

And also to say "I told you so!"

We want to live a long long time, but we want to die while all our friends and lovers are still around to realize by our sudden absence how important we really were. Hence the attraction
of YOUNG friends and lovers.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Committees, Capacitors and Capricious Derivations

"Committee" derives from the Latin, "Com" - with, and "mittere" - to put or send. Thus, a committee is a group to whom one sends things or with whom one puts things. It is, in short, a storage facility, particularly useful for long-term storage.

If issues are charged, too hot to touch, you refer them to a committee, which, like a capacitor, is layered: the conductors (who conduct business or electricity) are separated from one another by paper, which, like the layers of waxed paper in a capacitor, are dielectric, a word that combines the words "die" - expire - and "lectric" - which shares the Latin origin of "lecture", "lectern", etc.: "Legere", to read.

Thus, as a capacitor stores charge, so a committee stores matters of importance, which eventually expire, lost in the many layers of papers which must be read.

A committee is also a com-Mitty ("Mitty" as in Thurber's story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") - a group of people who sit around a table and, together, dream unreal dreams of their own heroic statuses and capabilities. Sometimes, amid the sounds of paper shuffling and snoring, one hears them muttering in their dreams: "pocketa pocketa - queep! - pocketa...."

[Note: For the source of "pocketa..." -- see the Thurber story.]

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Much talk of the mystery of the spirit: The spirit is the spirit is what we are when we know we are it, know we are.

Those who think little of themselves demand, in addition, mystery, as if (like Groucho, ashamed to belong to any club that would have him) they cannot respect anything understandable by such as they, as if the spirit is that which knows itself only by overwhelming that through which it is to know itself.

These people, meeting God's messenger, wrestle him with words, hoping to lose. This is the mystery of the spirit: It is too simple for mystery. That's what overwhelms us: The complexity of mystery, the lie we believe when we believe ourselves less than we are, the mystery we then become to ourselves so as to have something to worship.

Am I speaking to a mystery or a solution? (I suppose you're all wondering why I've called you all

Friday, January 27, 2006


He idled away the day, thinking it would wait for him, found - too late to get anything done - that the day had gone off to play with others, leaving behind its dark, taciturn companion with a blunt message.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Discuss Among Yourselves

Talking about the Middle East, inflation, values, crime, talking about and about, not knowing how, simply, to talk to each other, how to see each other to talk to, so talking instead about the things we do, the things we suffer, to make life interesting, not knowing how interesting WE are, no end of what we must invent to talk about when there's no one to talk to.

If you and I could talk to each other, there'd be no inflation, since our dreams would be more important than the price of fish.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Use for Art

What is this craving for fame? We long for a dense texture of agreement, enough random intersecting of viewpoints to make a solid ball of thread, never to be disentangled, not even by a kitten.

Being known by 2 or 3 or 10 differs from being known to millions, differs in kind (we hope), not only in degree. We imagine there are fame thresholds, points of no return, points beyond which the agreement that we are something special is no longer agreement, but solid fact, like pigeon-spattered statues in the town square.

Profusion of viewpoints, multiplicity of agreement yield confusion: It becomes increasingly difficult to spot the source of opinions that "everyone" holds. When you fasten a button, if the thread passes through the material (and itself) enough times, it can no longer easily be extracted by tugging it back out the way it went in. Confusion, randomness give us the solidity we call "fact" or "knots". If the same message comes at us from all directions at once, we call it "reality". It's what "everyone knows."

We long for the degree of randomness that is just beyond what we can confront, the point where we shrug our shoulders, saying, "It's too complicated for me - no one could make sense of it", in hopes of a permanent knot.

But ah! there is no reality too solid and confused to have a loose end. The most permanent creation is the creation we knowingly and willingly continue to create. And even where most of a "fact" (an institution, an individual's fame, the greatness of a work of art, the solidity of a planet) is a knot of complexity for which no one takes responsibility, just a single thread of intended creation revitalizes weary, petrified fact and makes it flex and breathe and become again a living thing.

Monday, January 23, 2006

At Home

I go for a jog, moving through miles of space with no sense of entering or leaving, though in my house, doors and narrowings and other dividers celebrate my every few steps. Home is where each room (if not each step) is its own universe. If I could leave behind each instant as I enter the next, lightly, but not without ceremony, where would I not be at home?

Traffic Court (Abridged)

Traffic court. What odd things people do every day! A very serious place. People don't like to be punished, don't like punishing people. No one appears to be having fun.

I wish this many people would show up at my poetry readings.

Wisdom Over Wit

Wisdom beats wit. There's a larger market for wit, but also more competition. And when you can't sell or give away your wit, it doesn't help you dispense with self-pity and keep writing.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Note From The Forest

Getting here was not easy,
so I mark my path with poems,
that others may follow me.
No wild creature disturbs my path.
Even the birds know that poems
leave a bitter taste.

26 Characters in Search of a Play

This poem is self-explanatory:
It consists of English words comprised
of permutations of 26 characters
in search of play. It means no harm.
It comes from a brutal universe,
where nice people hurt and die.
It doesn't have time to say much.
It would like to be useful,
because if play can be useful,
it will be permitted to play.
It means well.
It can't help itself.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Bodies and the Single Spiritual Being

What's hard to understand about ghosts is not that they've lost their bodies, but that they can't seem to pick up new ones.

WE did it, so it must be easy.

But we don't know how we did it or how we'll do it again (which makes us leery of losing the body we "have"), any more than a randy teenager knows how he gets turned-on, except that it's easy, impotence inconceivable.


Though I find new streets to walk, it's always just the earth's surface, and if I could go to the center of the earth or to the stars, it would be just more points in space, and if I could leave space and time as we think we know them, It would still be just me, and, it being just me, I have decided my front yard is new and interesting, and it is.

Pappy Always Used to Say...

The first time I pulled my adjective on that cliché and backed him down, Daddy said, "Son, that were a damn fool thing to do. Thet thar hombre were out to kill yer language. Y' let him live. Son, never pull yer adjective unless y' mean t' use it."
Hell, Daddy," I said--"It weren't even loaded."

"Then use yer verbs, but finish what you start."

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Longish Riff on "What Is It About Judaism?"

Someone asked me recently why Jews were such a big deal -- why they seem to be and to have been so influential in history when compared to their relatively small number, why so often hated, etc.

This is far from a new question, and I'm sure if I had time to read a thousandth of what's been written on the subject, I could come up with a learned answer. I don't have that time, but I do have some ideas. They may be old hat. I haven't seen them before, but you may have. I'll summarize them here, and perhaps you'll find something fresh in them. They may also be wrong. For example, if I say that Jews were the first to develop something, perhaps there are cultural anthropologists who could tell me otherwise. But I think my ignorant opinions are as good as anyone else's ignorant opinions, and, hey, this is a blog.

First let's look at the phenomenon itself:

I remember a paperback I read in college with a title something like "Four Men Who Changed The World", and that all four were Jewish: Jesus, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Not to get into arguments about the many non-Jews who could have been among the four most influential (Buddha? Plato? Beethoven? Lenin? [But not John Lennon, who was part Jewish], Shakespeare?) or the obvious European bias of the book, the point is, given that Jews are 2 or 3 tenths of a per cent of the earth's population, it's surprisingly easy to name four Jewish candidates -- or ten Jewish candidates for high position on "most influential".

(Who else? St. Paul, Moses, David, Soloman, St. Peter, Matthew -- or more recently, Proust, Trotsky, per many scholars -- Christopher Columbus, Bob Dylan...)

Quick, name the world's ten most influential Methodists. Lutherans? (I get as far as Luther and Bach, then go dry. I know there are many others -- but I don't know who they are!)

There's also the fact (or illusion) that many professions (law, math, music, etc.) have a lot more Jews than would be expected from their small portion of the population.

In Hitler's day, there were about 18 million Jews on the planet (by most counts -- and I wish I could say "...but who's counting?" Alas, Hitler's minions were counting, with the help of IBM's German subsidiary, Dehomag, which provided all the Hollerith machines [punch-card sorters, etc.] that made it possible). By the time Hitler and much of Germany were gone, there were only 12,000,000 Jews left. But even at 18,000,000, Jews represented less than one per cent of earth's population. Yet Hitler was able to persuade tens of millions of Germans (and others) that Jews were running and ruining the world.

Of course, Jews did own banks and have high positions in various industries and governments out of proportion to their numbers, but not, typically, positions of crushing predominance. There were more Christians among international bankers than Jews, more wealth among Christians, etc. We tend to forget, when someone generalizes about Jewish bankers, naming, for example, the Rothschild family, that the Rockefellers, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, the Mellon family, the Vanderbilts, etc. were not Jewish. Someone pointed out to me years ago (and it was certainly true at the time - the '60s) that the two main areas most dominated by Jews in the United States were music and mathematics - NOT banking or commerce. I suppose some areas of commerce have long been Jewish or were until recent years: the Amsterdam diamond cutters and Jewish jewelers, the NY garment industry, the big movie studios. But large segments of commerce are NOT primarily Jewish. Tom Watson (of IBM - who supported Hitler logistically), Henry Ford (a noted anti-Semite) and other titans of industry -- not Jewish. Nor, today, is Bill Gates Jewish.

One can go back and forth on this. The point is that enough Jews hold high positions in Western society that it has been easy for demogogues to scape-goat Jews and hold them to be huge hidden influences on society. Freemasons have received similar (though far milder) treatment, and have, similarly, a disproportionate share of high positions in the world (George Washington and others of our Founding Fathers, for example). And, like Jews, Freemasons have a culture that is mysterious to outsiders.

And now 1.2 billion Moslems (or a significant portion of them) are focused on the tiny Jewish state of Israel (whose inhabitants include nearly as many Muslems as Jews) as THE enemy. Bin Laden justifies his attacks on the United States partly by citing U.S. aid to Israel. All the Jews in the world amount to about 1 per cent of the number of Muslems.

So the first obvious question is, how did this relatively tiny group (compared to Chinese or Arabs or Christians or Germans or Japanese or Buddhists or Hindhus, etc.) come to be so damned important? Why do they stick in so many craws? Why do they produce so many people of note?

The second question is, how come they're still around? Back in the days when Joshua was resettling the land of Canaan (Israel), there were lots of other peoples in the area. Where are they now? Can you point me to the Hittite part of town? Where can I hire an Emorite lawyer? In what industries are the Amalekites dominant? And where are the worshipers of Dagon (the Fish God) -- the ones we know as "The Philistines" and from whom "Palestine" takes its name, though the current Palestinians have little to do with the Biblical Philistines. Where are the Pharaohs?

I think there are still about 100 Samaritans in Israel. But Samaritans are a sect that splintered off Judaism (believing in the Five Books of Moses [The Torah], but not the other books of the Old Testament). So they're really Jews, in a way. No wonder they survive yet as a people.

Can you fix me up with an Assyrian? How about lunch with a Babylonian? Raise your hand if you're a Midianite...Chaldean? Are the Iranians the descendents (culturally? genetically?) of the Persians from the days of Cyrus and Darius?

Yes, peoples seem to have vanished. I know that arguments can be made to the contrary. Mussolini tried to persuade Italians that they were the Roman Empire ressurected, and there's a wild and grotesquely funny scene in one of the early episodes of "The Sopranos" where Tony Soprano and his henchmen are beating up the Jewish owner of some motels because he refuses to pay protection. The Jew, though beaten and in danger of being shot, will not submit. He tells them that Jews have out-lived one mighty empire after another, despite attempts by many to destroy the Jews, that Jews are still around, but where are the Babelonians, the Assyrians, the Romans -- gone! Tony Soprano, mafioso, replies (I don't recall the exact words), Oh yeah, I got news for you: WE'RE the Romans.

(Another argument I've seen, but with no documentation, is that the Delphic Oracle was an Assyrian plot to undermine the Greek's Hellenism. Hmmm. And I'm told that those who get very "significant" about Freemasonry or Rosicrucianism consider them cultural descendents of ancient Egyptian lore.)

But I think it's fair to say that it's unusual to find a group of people (even if we limit this only to the more observant Jews) still following the traditions and cherishing the language their ancesters spoke as long as 4,000 years ago (Abraham) and 3,500 years ago (Moses). Keep in mind that the "ancient Greeks" and Romans are relatively recent phenomena. Nor do modern Egyptians understand hieroglyphs (unless they happen to be scholars of Egyptology), worship the gods of the Pharaohs, etc. When Christianity came into existence (if we date it from the point where Paul began to splinter off from Judaism), Judaism was already about 2,100 years old. How many Christians today can speak Aramaic (Christ's language)?

So that's the second question: How come Jews are still around and still being Jewish?

The questions are connected, I think, though when we think of Jews being "Jewish", we are likely to think of observant Jews, whereas, many of the most influential Jews (for example, Jesus, Karl Marx, Freud and Einstein) were not particularly observant - with the possible - and surprising - exception of Jesus, most or all of whose ideas already existed in one or another Jewish sect that preceded him; as I said in an earlier essay, it was not obvious to his own disciples, after his crucifixion, that their group was to be considered other than Jewish; the decision by Paul to take Christ's teachings to the "gentiles" was controversial.

But I think when we look at some of the things that have made Judaism unusual, atypical of peoples on this planet, we'll see that the many prominent people of Jewish descent who were not observant were still greatly influenced by the Jewish culture perpetuated by the observant.

What makes a culture last? Mainly isolation. Language, for example, changes quickly in centers of commerce and development. The accent of educated Englishmen in, say, the 1760s was not much like the accent of educated Englishmen today. It was (according to linguists) more similar to isolated communities of Kentucky hillbillies, descended from English immigrants in the 1760s (or earlier). In these isolated communities, language has changed less than in modern, industrial England, influenced by all the other languages and dialects it came in contact with via trade and war.

But it's hard for a cultural group to remain isolated for thousands of years. Most groups get destroyed or otherwise assimilated into the dominant culture. Judaism and perhaps a few others are anomalies. The Gypsies (whose name refers to an old idea that they are Egyptians, though their language tells us that they hail from the general area of India) manage to be among other cultures without being of them. How? They don't usually settle down, don't usually live on farms or run taverns or run factories -- at least not in the past. They travel. They are always passing through. (And they, too, were targeted by the Nazis.) They were among the nations, but never of them. Thus they kept intact an ancient language and an ancient set of customs, being, often, more like the Gypsies in other nations than like the other citizens of "their own" nation.

Since their methods of surviving are their own and aren't much like the Jewish methods, I won't try to go into them. I know little beyond the stereotypes -- Gypsy roles as traveling fortune tellers, as thieves and con artists, as seasonal labor, etc. As I say, these are stereotypes; I have no idea how accurate they are. But the example of the Gypsies does indicate that for a people to last for thousands of years among other cultures, but separate from them and intact requires some unusual strategy for living.

Now, can you name 4 famous influential Gypsies? I can't name one, and I'll bet most of you can't either. So, though here we find another example of an ancient culture that has survived in and among other cultures, we don't have anything like the Jewish phenomenon. The question remains, how were Jews able to remain so deeply a part of the mainstream cultures as to play large roles in their development, yet keep their own culture largely intact during thousands of years of diaspora (being scattered among "the nations" -- the gentiles)?

The answer, I think, lies in certain oddities about Judaism from nearly the beginning -- and definitely from the time of Moses. When Judaism came into being, it was one among many Semitic peoples. It was a tribal culture. You were a Jew (or a member of Abraham's tribe) because you were desended from Abraham. "[Jew" came later as a name, because the descendents of Jacob's fourth son, Judah, became the dominant tribe of the remnant of Israel after ten tribes got "lost" (after the days of Solomon). Israel is a name given to Jacob, so goes back much earlier than "Jew" and "Judaea".]

A tribe persists by spreading its "seed". You get lots of Jews if Jews have lots of kids. But with small tribes, inbreeding works against survival. The American Indians avoided this by adopting women and children taken prisoner during raids or simply by intermarriages among allied tribes. The Jewish tradition seems to have allowed marriage outside the tribe. Ruth, for example, is a "Moabite" (I don't think I've met a Moabite recently.) Moses had two wives, neither from within Israel's people.

Also, the tradition that anyone born to a Jewish mother is Jewish means that a Jewish woman could marry a man from some other tribe, and the children would be Jewish. (But I think the man was usually required to be circumcized and thus become part of the "Convenant with God" that was said to define a Jew.) I don't know much about this, just enough to know that Judaism was tribal and stressed marriage within the group, but allowed enough exceptions to avoid the genetic dangers of inbreeding among a small group.

[At this point I could dodge the question and say that Judaism survived because Abraham and the other Patriarchs had a special personal relationship with God. Maybe so, but I'll see what I can come up with apart from that.]

There are hints early on that Abraham and his immediate descendants were a bit different from the other tribes. We get a sense, for example, that Abraham is humane when he argues with God, hoping God will be merciful with Sodom and Gemorrah. That's not a tribal view. These weren't Abraham's people (except for his kinsman, Lot, who was already to be saved). The tribal view is, typically, that the tribe's name means "the people" and the other tribes have names that mean things like "the enemy" or "the strangers" in "the people's" language.

We also learn that when the Sodomites tried to attack the angels visiting Lot, they were violating basic laws of hospitality. In other words, we get a sense that these Jews had some ideas about ethics that extended beyond "We're the people, and eveyone else is the enemy."

But where Judaism really begins to look like the Judaism we know today is when Joseph becomes a slave in Egypt and rises to be second only to the Pharaoh on the basis of his wisdom, hard work and honesty (refusing to be seduced by married royalty, for example). In a way, this is a new beginning for Judaism. The earlier patriarchs are either dead or out of the picture. Suddenly it's just Joseph, alone in Egypt, becoming what Hitler would call "cosmopolitan", a man of the world.

But then we are reminded that Joseph, through all this, has remained a Jew. And suddenly he brings his family back into the picture, inviting them to join him in Egypt (and forgiving his brothers for their little prank -- selling him into slavery!).

So how is it that Joseph, basically a shepherd boy from the boondocks, is able to prosper so quickly in Egypt? What did he have going for him? Something, obviously. Good looks? Brains?

No doubt, but I suspect he was already literate when he got to Egypt. Can't prove it, but he certainly knew something about how to learn and what to learn.

More basically, a culture (even if viewed in just a single representative, like Joseph in Egypt) is likely to survive such a contact if it is superior in key ways to the larger culture. I suppose the belief in a single immaterial God (whether a "true" belief or not) confers a certain superiority over people who worship statues. For one thing, God, not being a large statue, can more easily be felt to be with you anywhere. But I'm just guessing. I really don't have an anthropological explanation for Joseph's success. I'm simply stressing that the Jewish story is encapsulated, in miniature, in the story of Joseph -- and in the sad result: Envy, and his family's descendents becoming slaves in Egypt.

I conclude there was something different about Judaism that kept it intact as an extended family, that helped Joseph succeed in Egypt, that led to envy and enslavement. The enslavement itself is one of those things that, if it doesn't kill a people, may strengthen it. In any case, it forbids the mixing of Jews with Egyptians, so leaves the separateness of Jews intact.

We tend to stress "enslavement", but the Egyptian experience was more than the experience of slavery. It was also a bunch of shepherds forced to live for generations in crowded cities. I wonder what this sequence taught Jews: Moving from being roaming sheep herders to being among the foreign elite of a wealthy empire (when they joined Joseph) to being slaves in urban slums?

What I'm seeing dimly is an odd pattern: A people that adheres to ancient tribal forms while developing ethical values that have some universal aspects I don't associate with tribal values -- which is not to say that a tribe (say the Dakota) doesn't hold complex and spiritual values, but simply that certain so-called modern ideas of how different peoples should live among one another are not usually associated with tribal values -- which depend largely on having lots of space for relatively sparse populations. Also, a people that is non-urban is suddenly forced into an urban life, and a people with generations of relatively isolated and insulated traditions and language is plunged into a cosmopolitan life, led there by Joseph, who has become a wise man (who interprets dreams) , a healer, an organizer of production, etc., while keeping intact his sense that he is not an Egyptian, but an Israeli. It's as if a great Apache (Cochise, for example) had been taken prisoner, shipped to NY (remember, Joseph came to Egypt as a slave), and risen to be one of the top officials in the U.S. Government and in U.S. industry, all the while remembering that he was an Apache. (Sounds unlikely. Makes me think all the more that Joseph and his family were already literate.)

Generations later, they move out of Egypt (led by Moses, who was born Jewish, but not raised Jewish! He was raised Egyptian.). Now, the book of Exodus would have us believe, there are 600,000 Jews (still numbered by tribes). That figure may be exaggerated, but one of the effects of being heavily suppressed is, often, lots of children. When there's no future for individuals, they try to put a future there by creating children.

Now here's the point where something arises that seems to me crucial: In the desert (says the Bible) the "Children of Israel" receive the law from God. And it's in writing. (Those "tablets" were not medication.) Every people has its laws, traditions, etc. But few tribes in those days had their laws in writing. Few had writing. At least that's my impression. Yes, in some great civilizations of around that time (China -- and in Hammurabi's Babylon -- around the time of Abraham) there were written systems of law. But those were exceptions, and they weren't among the tribes of a non-urban sheep-herding people (the vinyards of Israel were yet to come).

So that's one point: They had written law. Moreover, this law covered all aspects of life: What could be eaten, how to treat an adulterous wife, what fabrics to combine or not in clothing, what animals to sacrifice at what times of year, how to deal with epidemics, etc. The 613 laws enumerated in the Old Testament deal with religious matters AND secular matters, both civil and criminal. AND ALL OF THESE LAWS ARE SAID TO COME DIRECTLY FROM GOD.

Do you see the various anomalies here? They pop out at me:

Rule by law (rather than by fiat of a ruler who is above the law) is one of the advanced ideas that has made nations like the United States possible. Here it is part of a tribal culture.

Written law that covers all aspects of life and behavior and must be followed exactly because it comes, not from man, but from a God who opens up the earth to swallow up those who do not obey him (which happens immediately after Moses first returns with the tablets of the law, hint hint) - so you have the idea (an ancient one, that seems the antithesis of modern - at least to most of us) that all law is from God, that God is, as it were, a totalitarian God -- this combined with the very advanced idea of written law. And the law is elaborate, yet must be understood so that it can be obeyed. The result? The need for many Jews (if not all) to be literate, the "People of the Book". There are simply too many laws, and it is too vital to obey them, lest one incur God's wrath and God lets one's enemies devour one - too vital not to be able to read and understand these laws. (It's not like Catholicism, for example, where you can break all the rules, then go to the priest, confess and be shriven.) So we get (and I think have had at least from that time, if not earlier -- as with Joseph) the Jewish tradition of literacy.

And with literacy comes another anomaly: If each Jew (or at least most male heads of family) can read the law for himself, he begins to rely on his own understanding. This is something tyrants have always understood: If you want to have slaves, you keep people illiterate. Literate people begin to have opinions. Among Jews, there has long been a tradition of wrangling (even the wrestling with God for which Jacob was named Israel - one who wrestles with God). There has always been the right to reason with others about religion, law, etc. So we get this odd combination of a people, more or less theocratic (God-ruled) - something we Westerners are inclined to consider a backwards quality - that cherishes reasoning and the individuals right to learn for himself and form his own opinions -- qualities we consider advanced.

Also, since the law is presented (by God himself, remember - that's what the Bible says and what Jews appear to have believed) as complete, with everything that's needed, we end up with a nation of lawyers and fine reasoners. Why? Because times and conditions change, and laws must change to fit the new conditions. But these laws CANNOT BE CHANGED because they're from God.

We need to look at this "from God" point, because it's stranger than it may at first seem, at least to Westerners. It may be familiar to Muslims, if their "Sharia" is as comprehensive as the Torah. Imagine if Christians had been given by Christ a complete compendium of all the laws, religious and secular, and told that they were all God's commandments and that they were all the laws we'd ever need? But that didn't occur. In fact, Christians were specifically excused from adhering to all those laws by one of Christ's statements in the Gospels (at least that's the usual explanation of why, though most Christians accept the Old Testament as "God's Word", they consider themselves exempted from, for example, keeping Kosher). Many Jews, too, have tried to reset priorities over the years. Rabbi Hillel (not too distant in time from Jesus) , asked to explain what one must do to be a Jew while standing on one leg, said that the key principles of Judaism were two: "The Lord is God; the Lord is One" and "Love thy neighbor as thyself".

But the main line of Jewish history has involved a massive intellectual effort to interpret the law, because the law is from God and is said to cover everything needed, so it can't be "changed", but must be "interpreted" and "explained" so that it will continue to make sense under changing circumstances.

This law was (says the Bible) given to the Jews 3,500 years ago. Orthodox Jews today aim to follow it totally. You're not supposed to light a fire on the Sabbath. Today we don't need to light a fire. We just turn on the lights or the electric stove. So scholars have to work out whether or not that's allowable on the Sabbath. Changing conditions require new interpretations. Or the Bible gives a broad statement, but there are many particular applications of it to be worked out: Two people each grab hold of something and each says "It is mine". How do you decide who gets it? If there's no other evidence, you give half to each. What if it can't be cut in half? Sell it and divide the money. What if one says "It's mine" and the other says "it's half mine and half his"? Give the first one three fourths of it, the other one fourth. And so on. In the chapter from the Talmud (18 huge volumes of Jewish law and commentary on that law and commentaries on the comentaries, written over a period of far more than 1000 years) that I'm paraphrasing (Baba Meziyah, which means "The Middle Gate" -- and I've forgotten why), the Rabbis having this discussion keep posing scenarios and coming up with the answers, citing evidence from the Bible, but then, suddenly there's a long list of special circumstances (things that make you wonder, "How did they come up with that?" and the chapter ends with the statement (or the initial letters in the words of the statement) that means "These questions will be answered when the Messiah comes."

I say "the Rabbis discuss", but you must understand that when the Talmud (a word derived from the Hebrew word for learning) says "Rabbi Meir says..., but Rabbi Akiva says..." and so forth, the first Rabbi may have said his piece in 300 BC, while the second Rabbi's reply came 800 years later.

Getting back to my point about anomalies: Because it's a "primitive" tribal people with a "primitive" idea that all its laws are absolutes, God-Given, but this is combined with it being a "modern" written law with a literate people encouraged, in a "modern" manner, to reason and discuss and required, by the very fact of it's being a supposedly absolute law that must be applied in changing conditions (a very "primitive" idea) - required to become masters of close reasoning, exegesis (finding evidence in Biblical and earlier scholarly texts for later conclusions), developers of the Talmud, one of the most complex and highly developed legal systems of its time -- though today, I suppose, the laws of most nations fill many more volumes than the Talmud. But when you consider that much of the Talmud was already there 2000 years ago and that it was added to until the 13th Century, you are looking at a remarkable compendium of legal and religious reasoning.

So what we have, just looking at this one phenomenon, 3,500 years ago, is a bunch of anomalies from the viewpoint of most of our ideas of what's primitive and what's modern:

1. The Jews are primitive: Tribal, held together by family lines (whereas a modern nation is held together by language, law, etc., but can rapidly expand beyond genetic boundaries).

2. The Jews are advanced: They support rule by law and include in their laws ethical precepts that include ways of dealing with other peoples that are far more sophisticated than the usual tribal view.

3. The Jews are primitive: A bunch of nomadic shepherds.

4. The Jews are advanced, with experience of both managing and being slaves in sophisticated urban socities.

5. The Jews are primitive. Their laws are all Divine fiat, absolutes, requiring religious adherence in all sorts of everyday matters we moderns consider secular (diet, for example).

6. The Jews are advanced, promoting literacy among most Jews long before this was common -- in fact, long before anyone else, I suspect. China had lots of literate people, but many more who were illiterate. The Jews may be the first people in our history books for whom literacy was, if not universal, at least encouraged for all or most levels of society (male society, I suppose).

7. The Jews are primitive, trying to take a set of detailed laws from 3,500 years ago and apply it to modern times. (Are we really going to stone homosexuals and adultresses to death? But wait - that, too, is interpreted by the Talmud to permit more humane resolutions.)

8. The Jews are advanced, encouraging reasoning and producing what may be the most sophisticated and most closely reasoned legal system of its time. (Actually, TWO such systems, since there are two separate lines of development, the Babyloninan Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, but that's a longer story -- and besides, I've forgotten most of it!)

Aren't these odd combinations of characteristics? I think they are unique among peoples. In a way, the Jews are the perfect BRIDGE from primitive to advanced, being (by current Western ideas of what's primitive and what's advanced) far ahead of others in some ways, far behind in other ways. When a more advanced culture encounters a less advanced culture (for example, England in the 18th or 19th Century encounters African tribes), the less advanced culture is overwhelmed, tends to sicken, perhaps die off (and get assimilated). This may be because the more advanced culture uses military superiority to destroy the less advanced. But that's not necessary. Just the contact, even if friendly, will suffice. How do the village elders handle the kids once they've seen blue jeans and rock and roll?

But what happens when two cultures collide (for example, Roman and Jewish during the decades of bloody rebellion in Judaea preceding 160 AD) where one is clearly superior in many ways (Roman military might and commercial strength and probably finer sculpture -- maybe many other things) and clearly inferior in other ways (I think at that time the Jews had a higher literacy level, more dedicated fighters -- they held off the Empire far longer than the Romans had believed possible, perhaps a more sophisticated legal system, as rich a literary tradition, a religious belief that was superior to Pagan Rome's -- enough so that far more Romans moved toward Judaism and to its offshoot, Christianity, than went the other direction, toward Paganism). (Speaking of literacy, the best Roman history of the rebellion is by an assimilated Roman Jew, Flavius Josephus.)

What happens is, I think, the anomally we call Judaism: A people that survives among the nations, often barely tolerated by them, keeps its culture more or less intact (both by intention and because forced into separateness), yet exerts a powerful influence on that culture, far more than, for example, Gypsies; with a literacy level and tradition of study that enables those who break out of the ghettos to master professions quickly (for example, the great Jewish doctors of the Middle Ages), with a reasoning ability and legalistic mind and attention to fine detail (part of the requirements of Talmudic interpretation) that carries over into commerce.

Nearly always there was this balance of cultures: The Jewish culture was seldom overwhelmed by the cultures it inhabited, because the Jewish culture had strengths, points where it was superior, based on its internal rule by law, some fairly sophisticated ethical ideas, it's tradition of literacy, it's urban background, etc. The Jewish culture seldom (contrary to Hitler's assertions) overwhelmed the host culture, being in some ways inferior to it (no Jewish army, not allowed to farm, constrained by tribal ideas of membership - making it hard for the Jewish community to expand, theocracy, etc.)

Here's where we connect up to the many great names in Western culture that are Jewish: When Jews move out of the ghetto and start to assimilate, they have the best of both cultures: They retain the love of learning, the literacy, the ability to live in cities, the ability to reason, perhaps many of the ethical precepts. They typically move away from the idea that their lives must be constrained by the details of the law or that they must remain part of a tribe that wears odd clothes and speaks with an odd accent. In other words, when they assimilate, they take with them all the points of Judaism that we would tend to think of as advanced.

This leads to envy, persecution, Jews frequently having to flee to other cities, other countries. That leads to a stronger sense of being different, of having to keep the culture intact, so that the success of the more or less assimilated adds to the preservation of Judaism's separateness - ironic.

So now we have a whole culture of people that, unlike Gypsies, are tied to stable communities. They are not nomads. But because of frequent attacks, they must be ready to move at any time. Aha! That's one reason Jews pioneered modern commerce and finance. Here are a few examples:

Because they might be forced to leave a country or city with very short notice, Jews developed ways to transport wealth quickly and secretly. They converted their wealth to forms easy to transport. Thus they became expert jewelers (jewels could be sewed into skirts and underwear and were valuable everywhere). Because a Jewish money lender might be exiled (all property seized) by some king or lord who owed him money, Jews developed international finance to the point where a ruler who reneged on a loan in, say, Vienna, would be pressured to pay up by, say, a ruler in England who hoped to borrow money from the English branch. That was the genius of the Rothchilds: The family created branches in all the major capitals.

Another part of quick transport was the development of credit based on deposits "elsewhere" - somewhere secure, and all the modern modes of wealth (stock, etc.) that consist of paper, not gold or property. Jews developed a great deal of what we think of today as having always been around - modern concepts of credit, banking, etc. - because they had to in order to survive.

(Brief historical digression: In ancient Israel they were mainly farmers. In Europe they were mostly not allowed to own land, because to own land, one had to take an oath of loyalty to the ruler and to Christ - something like that; and Jews couldn't take the "Christ" part of the oath. So Jews were in-keepers, traders and money lenders. Jewish law forbids the taking of interest on loans, calling it "usury". Christians also considered usury a sin. This delayed for centuries the development of a workable banking system, since without collection of interest, banks found it hard to be profitable. The non-Jewish Medici family of Florence rose to wealth and power as a banking family because they figured out tricky ways to make interest on money they loaned that was not "technically" interest. I don't know the details, but this shows how much the economy NEEDED some sort of incentive for bankers.

In most of Europe the solution was to have Jews be money lenders. The idea was that it was sinful for a CHRISTIAN to take interest from another Christian, but not for a Jew. Some Jews disagreed, but others said the Jewish prohibition applied only to fellow Jews. (And of course, many Jews were just a little annoyed with their Christian neighbors after centuries of persecution.) This was popular with the ruling classes, because if they became too indebted to a Jew, the Jews got skimpy protection under the law. It was easy to stir up an anti-Jewish mob or find some excuse to confiscate Jewish property. And, of course, being literate, attentive to details and able to reason (and that includes ability to work with figures), Jews were often good at it.

That's the background that led to Jewish bankers and much hostility to Jews as Shylocks. There were many non-Jewish bankers as well, but it was the Jewish bankers who had the incentive, indeed the necessity to develop the means to make wealth easily transportable and international and who pioneered much of our current financial system.)

In summary: What has allowed Judaism to survive where so many cultures died or disappeared has been its odd combination of weaknesses and strengths that kept it, simultaneously isolated from its host cultures (isolated enough to ensure preservation of its culture) and intermingled with that culture in a unique balance of strengths and weaknesses (or primitive aspects and advanced aspects).

This goes back to the odd phenomenon of a tribal people with a written law that, because it covers all of life and is said to be directly from God and is complex, makes for a literate people, proud of their independent opinions and reasoning, and a need for legal skills to keep that law relevant over centuries.

This also creates the situation where, particularly when Jews become assimilated, they have a likelihood of prospering, doing well in professions, etc. The details I gave about Jews in finance are just one example of this.

How did the Jews come to have their law in writing? I don't know. A literate God? A people who happened to have a genius named Joseph who set something in motion? Or does it go back to Abraham (whom someone will say, was really an exiled Babylonian high priest or something?).

And, of course, some would just say "It's because God chose them." Whether or not that's the case, I think a great deal follows from that odd combination of literacy and theocracy and tribalism.


If it's messy enough, it's neat: A butcher's knife or a grenade strews us with bloody, but recognizable bits. A nuclear blast leaves fine clean ash. Such overwhelming force compresses and explodes time, rendering the friends and family of the moment so dead that they are not dead, but historical, as physically remote as dioramas of ancient ancesters behind glass museum walls, leaving even memory a numb neat blank. Everything that was dear to you will fit in a single small urn on a mantel, if a mantel survives.

Destruction seems to be a lower harmonic of nothing at all. Nothing at all is neither neat nor messy. It's the instant of potential creating of any or everything. We try to return to that state (so that we can make things over? Do a better job of it?) by destroying so completely and indiscriminately as to make zillions of atoms and molecules and gamma rays and all the other special ingredients moving wildly every which way resemble, in their randomness, nothing at all, just as inconceivably disordered and random fast motion (like that of the molecules making up a rock) appears to be stillness, as the motions of colliding particles cancel out -- just as a business or army in which every individual is doing his own thing, with no co-ordination, is at a standstill.

That's probably why God in the Old Testament told Moses to speak to the rock, not strike it. Why add to the motion when the rock is already alive and just needs a purpose upon which all its particles can agree?

Odd how the experiences most of us associate with "nothingness" are experiences full of somethings, random explosions and fizzzipping of live wires, trash, bodies, stench and noise (and noise being too many meaningful sounds all at once). We call "white noise" silence -- or the thudding of one's own heartbeat. No amount of noise brings us silence. No amount of destruction brings us nothing.

Nothing, true nothing, is the absense of all the things we associate with nothingness. Can you hear these words in your own mind, as if some voice is speaking them? And your responses to them, are they not spoken even as we speak? Who or what is listening?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Fatal Exclamations

Why is it (in the old comic books -- Korean War vintage, for example) that cowboys and American soldiers died with simple sounds like "Uh!", "Ugh," and "Gaa," while the Indians and Japs died in diphthongs ("Aiee!")? [A diphthong is not a kind of thong. It's a complex sound made by sliding from one vowel to another -- a sort of vowel movement?]

And how come the bad guys are so formal ("Capitalist dogs!"), while the good guys are so slangy and nonchalant ("Commie pigs!")?

The bad guys seem to take getting killed very seriously, laughing only to gloat, just before a wounded hero they left for dead gets off one last shot and one last wise crack as the villain
rediscovers seriousness briefly.

And why do we feel better about killing people after giving them the sorts of affectionate nicknames (Jap, Nip, Charlie, gook) one might give to a child or a pet monkey?

Why Stop There?

Mistreatment of prisoners violates international conventions.

War does not?

There must be rules about war. It probably goes back to having champions. Each army chooses a champion to battle the other army's designated champion, while both armies watch. No one else is supposed to get hurt. It's almost entertainment.

OK, we can have rules for war. But if we can agree on the rules for war, why can't we increase our agreements? What else can we agree about, you and I? We and they?

(I've even made my pronouns agree in case, and I think I got that right. Agreeing about oil and religion ought to be relatively simple.)

No One Home

The policeman protects your home. The poet tries to find someone home and say hello. In this society, we reward police, not poets.

Our homes are safe, but there's no one home.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Individuals and Groups

It isn't group versus individual. The question is, does the individual make the bigness of the group his own, growing to encompass it? Does he take responsibility for the flourishing of his group?

Or does he wear it pompously, like Daddy's too-big boots? Or cringe before it and scurry on errands, heart filled with gratitude-coated resentment?

An Odd Thought After Dying

When I died, the music in the next room didn't stop, and--this is the strange thing-- I thought, "Why hasn't the music stopped?" before I thought, "How come I'm still thinking?"

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Bright Idea for Poetry Readings

We shouldn't have these open poetry readings with seated audience and poet, for five tight minutes, at podium. Instead, a poet should, in the center of a circle of his/her peers and admirers, recite poems while dodging a volleyball hurled by other poets in the circle. The reader would be allowed to go on and on until hit, then replaced by the marksman (marksperson?).

Think of the much needed exercise for our effete poets, now debilitated by tobacco, drink, drugs, inertia: In their desperate need to hold an audience, they will train for stamina and agility.

And listeners will be able to take out their frustrations with lousy poetry and do so without resorting to critical sniping. How much easier to take we poets will be when audiences can zing volley balls at our sensitive heads.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

A Very Limited Way to Handle Sadness

I had some long sad stretches. These days they are called "depression". Mine were caused - partially - biochemically: The spiritual and biochemical phenomenon I called "my first wife" extricated herself from "our" life.

It wasn't even "my" life she left, but a knotted combination of our lives that remained, for over a year after her departure, the same knotted combination of a life I couldn't let go of and the life of the ghost of her. The future we'd created for ourselves in which we were together persisted, kept trying to crowd out of existence any new future I tried to create.

One thing I learned from that period is the long-term folly of depending on memories of happier days to pull one out of the dumps. Depressed, we remember sad things. If we try to remember happy things, soon we can no longer find the joy in them. Drawing on hopes turns hopes gray.

We make our pictures to suit and solidify our moods, so it is foolish to expect cheerful memories to fish us out. There are no cheerful memories, only cheerful rememberers. I must think up a cheerful me to think my cheerful thoughts.

What seemed to work (as a cope measure) was walking and looking at what was there, and that meant walking for hours before, at some point, I would see something, anything (a tree, a house, a pattern of light and shade and motion, kids playing in a park) and maybe even feel something.

The trick was not to be fooled by the lifelessness of all I saw, the way my vision cast a grayness over even the brightest day, to know (take it on faith) that I was putting that there and just keep walking (letting my thoughts plod along with me in their tedious rounds: Why did she have to...? Why couldn't she have...? Why did I...?), just keep walking and looking about and, really, peeking out of my thoughts to notice a sidewalk crack here, a fire hydrant there.

Deadly to remember how beautiful trees were to me once and try to jump-start joy by forcing myself to look at trees; why waste them thus? It's like getting mud on a treasured toy, then, to make it better, pushing all one's other toys into the same mud.

Perhaps this is because the end of a relationship is filled with attempts to force emotions into being. This often happens gradually, so that one doesn't realize it is happening. She turns a fraction of a degree colder, so, without knowing one is doing it, one turns up his heat a fraction of a degree. (One doesn't know one is doing it, because one doesn't want to admit that she's more distant.) And as the gap widens, in tiny increments one increases that effort to make love happen, until, at the end, one is hollering over an abyss to communicate to someone so far away (as if across Grand Canyon) that one isn't sure anyone is there, and all one gets back is echoes.

So as soon as one tries (on such a walk) to make the world beautiful and responsive, one stirs up the the ashes, which turn the world gray and get in one's lungs and eyes. Because it's the same reach, the same enforcement.

(One does all this. One, that lonely pronoun, so appropriate here, like Emily Dickinson's "formal feeling".)

So finding (on many walks) that recalling happier times soon became like sniffing one's own vomit, I learned to be patient with the world, to walk and notice and impose as little as possible upon either my thoughts or what I saw, and I discovered that gradually, increasingly often, I'd find myself right then and there being me again and the world alive around me.

Really what I discovered is that there is no loss, that whatever happiness I'd ever had had been in myself, and that whatever ability I'd had to access that happiness could not be lost. It could be buried, but never destroyed.

And it only takes a second of revival, of suddenly, unexpectedly slipping into that imperishable ocean of joy, of what - it now seems to me - one basically IS; just an instant of it after days of work that has lost its purpose and long rambling walks, just an instant, and loss begins to disintegrate, like the first rumblings of a frozen river at the start of a spring thaw. There are days when the sky is solid dead gray, spitting cold drizzle. And after you walk a mile or so, you see a thin spot in the gray, just a haze of blue, and after another mile, you find yourself under a tiny hole in the gray, visible vertical rays of sunlight surrounding you, and then you put your attention elsewhere for what seems a few minutes, then notice that things are more sharply defined, more brilliant, then realize that the clouds are gone except for a few blindingly white puffs here and there in a sea of gold and blue. It can happen that fast. Does it last? No matter if it doesn't, if the day turns dark again. That dark no longer has the same power to daunt you.

Of all my gripes with chemical psychiatry, my loudest is simply this: Losses and tangles of things said and done that shouldn't have been said and done and all the other mires that spatter us daily coat awareness with smeary muck and cut us off from ourselves. The pills a shink gives us, when "effective", are effective because they coat that smeary muck with a shiny lacquered finish and make it hard to see or touch. In doing so, they impose between us and what we truly are yet another layer -- a layer even more impenetrable than the muck.

Trust yourself a little longer. Trust the world a little more. You are still there. You can still communicate. There is still something there to which you can communicate. There is still a playing field. Better games are still possible.

[Soon after my longest bout with sadness, I discovered something that would have accelerated the recovery process 100 fold and which has, since then, spared me a great deal of worn-down shoe leather. This you can learn about here.]