A blog about nothing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

BREAK THE MOLD



When you conjure the word philosopher, what comes to mind? Likely the great thinkers of Greece (the triad of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle that every schoolchild learns), or perhaps some other beacon of European Civilization - the Nietzsches and the Kants and the Descartes and the Lockes and the Marxes and the Humes; and lest we forget America, the Huxleys and Camus too. Every western nation seems to have its philosophic treasure. The key word being west. 

And when you think of the word sage, perhaps you recall certain mystics of the Orient, such as Buddha, or the three wise men (Magi) who came from the east to visit the baby Jesus shortly after his birth. 

But the east/west dichotomy, which separates these two groups of individuals, breaks down on further inspection.

For philosophers actually have a lot in common with sages. After all philosophy means "love of wisdom" (philo is the Greek word for love and sofia means wisdom) and sage derives from the Latin verb sapere which means "be wise." A philosopher's highest aim is the sage's traditional terrain, which is wisdom. Both types, the philosopher and the sage, tend to be celibate men. What often distinguishes these noble professions (although profession may here be a misnomer: where today a university professor of philosophy can expect to earn a salary, a sage is never paid), so let us say what often separates these noble pursuits is the volume of written work. A philosopher writes volumes. Whereas a sage can live his entire life hardly setting anything down on the page. Both individuals are committed to the search for truth. Whereas the philosopher seeks truth in the manifest Universe, or in a God who is other than we are in his glorious transcendence, the sage has found truth in the silence of his own heart. 

But there are individuals who have broken the mold.

The Indian nationalist Sri Aurobindo was considered a sage by his disciples, though his literary output classified him as more of a scholar. His book on metaphysics, The Life Divine, runs 1113 pages. Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century philosopher of immense influence. His Summa Theologiae, which treats the nature of the world, man's place in it and God's loving purpose, exceeds 5000 pages in length. For this and his other works, Mr. Aquinas, who was also a friar, was made a Christian saint, a term often used interchangeably (at least by me) with sage.

Sages often meditate. But Gottfried Liebniz, a German philosopher, often arrived at the highest truths not by reading the works of others but by meditating. He realized that with the origin of thought arose matter, and that matter is dependent on duration and extent. That is, matter depends on time and space, which are themselves concepts, or thoughts. How did he arrive at this startling revelation (which the Eastern mystics before him had also averred)? It is "one of the results of my meditations," he says (in his Theodicy Essays). 

While it is true that both scholars and saints have traditionally been unmarried men, there have been rule breakers. Most notably Socrates, already notable for being a philosopher who wrote nothing down (his teachings were transcribed and dramatized by Plato, his foremost pupil). Socrates was married. His wife, Xanthippe, was 40 years younger than Socrates and the mother of his three sons. She was also purported to be a virago. Indeed Socrates agreed that his wife was "the hardest to get along with of all the women there are."A lover of debate himself, Socrates chose this precious woman to be his precisely because of her contentious nature. It seems that a thin line separates love and war.

Historically both types, philosophers and sages, have been saints. Whether the individuals have been formally recognized as such is incidental. Pure thoughts translate into kind words and benevolent actions. But nowadays those who call themselves philosophers earn a PhD studying the works of those who came before rather than forging truth in the workshop of introspection and original thought, and these have as their highest aim tenure and a pension. Because a PhD is not cheap and student loans carry back-breaking interest rates. Modern philosophers may not even write that much, because books on Thomas Aquinas just don't pay. 

But deviation from the norm can be a good thing. Many modern females have joined the exalted ranks once reserved exclusively for men.  Mary Wollstonecraft was a philosopher whose Vindication for the Rights of Women fascinated me as a college student. Ayn Rand was not only a woman philosopher but also a remarkably successful novelist. Her books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are among my all-time favorite reads. And Ayn was also married. 

Speaking of women writers, it was recently said about Ariel Levy, author of the recently-published memoir The Rules Do Not Apply, that she "has the rare gift of seeing herself with fierce, unforgiving clarity." Levy is neither saint nor sage. And yet it is this quality - more than word counts and books written or marital status or gender or profession or time or place - which best distinguishes the lovers of wisdom and the wise, who are one and the same, from the rest of us. That immensely rare gift of seeing yourself in the stark light of clarity; that is, as you really are. 

Whether you gain this self-insight by writing books or essays or blogs like mine, whether meditating cross-legged in front of a candle or while seated in traffic, whether in the kind attention you devote to your relationships with friend and foe alike, or in your work, or in the world, or whatever, wherever - then you, my fine friend, are a sage, a saint, a lover of sofia yourself. It's all the same. Whoever you are, you can do it. Old or young, guy or gal, rich or poor. DeNiro did it as both in the movie Cape Fear. So to all the Max Cadys everywhere, I salute you!




Monday, February 27, 2017

I WANT A NEW DRUG



There are few mysteries in this world that cannot be solved by means of reason and reflection. By reason I mean the mental ability to logically understand a phenomenon. For example, if all birds have wings, and you see a bird in the distance, it is reasonable to assert that the given birds has wings. And also feathers. But it may not fly, since not all birds can. 

And by reflection I mean using personal experience to form meaningful deductions. For example if every time I pet a cat I start to sneeze and break out in a rash, personal experience tells me that I am allergic. This is empirical evidence, the evidence of the senses.

Though the senses may sometimes deceive, they are much more authoritative than what your best friend's wife's nanny tells you, or what Donald Trump has to say on any subject. Another person's claims fall in the category of hearsay, and you can just naysay it. I had an instance of this the other day while discussing the topic of reincarnation with my friend DJ. He believes in reincarnation, and as proof he advanced the claim that many people exhibit talents as young children that they couldn't possibly have developed in their brief lifetime. 

Take Mozart, my friend said, who began composing at the age of five. How could he write music at such an early age without bringing into his life prior knowledge of the art? Oh but Mozart's father, himself a minor composer, was an experienced teacher who often instructed Mozart's older sister while the three-year-old prodigy-to-be watched, and a year later Mozart himself began taking lessons. He had a year of music under his belt before creating his earliest compositions, which were likely very rudimentary in nature. But we  don't know, because we weren't there. 

"Show me your talents or tendencies from another life," I said to DJ. 

He thought for a moment. "What about my foot fetish? I have always loved women's feet." I thought about this, remembering that when I had met DJ when we were twelve, he idolized Eddie Murphy, already able to skillfully impersonate the comedian's the delivery of many jokes. And I just so happened to have read once that Mr. Murphy himself had a foot fetish. "But I didn't know Eddie liked feet until the movie Boomerang," DJ replied. "And the movie came out years after I had been photographing women's toes." 

I reminded DJ that the unconscious mind sees everything. "It is safe to say that you had heard or read of Murphy's fetish and admiring the man adopted it as your own." DJ wasn't convinced. So I went on: "In any event this is far more plausible than saying that you were an ankle aficionado in some former life you can no longer recall." My friend finally conceded the point. 

Besides, even were reincarnation a reality, I do not remember life before my present one, and so I cannot speak to it with any authority. Had I lived before (likely as some emperor or sheikh, because everyone's former life is as royalty), failing to recall particulars makes that life as good as unlived. What does it matter anyway? Always reason from experience.

Doing so I may be able to understand why this past year or so I have danced from one vice to another. I must be in search of the perfect drug. In March of last year I stopped ejaculating for a period of two months leading up to my father's 77th birthday. Then in June I resumed sexual activity (I mean self-stimulation) but gave up coffee. I would have been a super clean liver had I not started eating fish and eggs, which for years till then I strictly avoided. Animal food finally didn't agree with me, so in October I gave it up - only to resume drinking caffeinated beverages. Around that time as well I found an unsmoked cigarette lying in the street, and taking this as a sign I took it home and smoked it. At least it was American Spirits; they are additive free and kill you less swiftly. 

Around my mother's funeral in mid November I started drinking beer. Found some in the cupboard and gave a bottle to DJ to slake his thirst after an evening's work in the garden. Then I polished off the rest of the sixer at a rate of a bottle a day till my mom's memorial. After the service I shared a bottle of white wine with another childhood friend, Jason, and from Thanksgiving until the end of last week I drank pretty much every day, whatever I could find lying around. Beer, wine, champagne, vodka, gin, tequila or Scotch. Grappa too, and something I had never tried before, Kirsch, which is made from cherries. I didn't drink much, mind you. An average of 2 drinks per day, maybe 3, which I'd sometimes enjoy with a cigarette, maybe two. Many mornings I woke up feeling my age, with tired legs and a heavy head. And after a night of fitful sleep, which for a lover of slumber is too much to endure. So I gave up these habits.

A friend of mine suggests I try ayahuasca, a medicinal herb with hallucinogenic properties. "It'll help you reconnect with what's real. Find your purpose. Achieve your life's destiny," he says. "We spend so much time in concrete jungles behind steering wheels and wearing shoes that we have forgotten what it means to live naturally."

My friend is speaking from his own experience, which is good, but in assuming that my experience is similar or identical is where the fault lies. I drive once a week, spend most of the day barefoot, and most days of the week I attend to the garden. I meditate every day. In other words I'm rarely not in tune with cosmic consciousness or the higher mind. In fact, if I am not already in touch with myself, and with nature, I don't know who is. To ask some exogenous substance to supply me with my life's true purpose may be asking too much. It's true that I don't wish to go out and conquer the world, make a huge impact, earn a hefty paycheck, travel and explore. And from my friend's point of view it may seem I am lost. But my motto is been there, done that. At this point, at forty-four years young, I only wish to be. Is there something wrong with me? 

By Western society's standards, there seems to be. The focus in America is outward-directed, to the latest gadget or app. It's a case of do or die. Whenever I see a friend the question they ask is always, "What have you been doing?" And I remind myself that we are human beings, not human doings. Maybe less action is best. 

I'll probably end up trying the herb because there are few new experiences I shun. But I'll draw the line at snus and absinthe. Snus are a type of tobacco. They come in pouches which you insert between your lip and gum. Each pouch delivers tobacco in steady amounts for nearly an hour, compared to the short burst of cigarettes, and without any damage to the lungs. And unlike chew or dip, this oral tobacco doesn't require that you spit, making them appealing to female tobacco lovers as well as to men. I'll recommend snus to my smoking friends. Like most smokers, they are always ready to quit. 

Speaking of uncharted territory (at least for me), absinthe is a high-alcohol drink with hallucinogenic properties. Marilyn Manson used to drink it but gave it up because it made him fat. A slew of writers and artists from Wilde to Van Gogh enjoyed the green fairy before it was made illegal. Watered down versions have recently been reintroduced in America, but if you wish to give absinthe a try opt for the Swiss versions, which you can get online and which still contain the compound (thujone) that gets you high. 

At 200 dollars a bottle, absinthe is not cheap. Maybe I'll gift my father a bottle for his birthday. But I won't buy one for me. Experience is teaching me that the best high is naturally. Who says you need wings to fly.



Sunday, February 26, 2017

ALL RUSSIANS CAN HACK


The saying used to be "you have to spend money to make money." The line was delivered by my teenage idol, Richard Tyson, in the movie Two Moon Junction when his character (Perry) is trying to get the owners of the carnival he works for to invest in repairs lest the whole show come down around them. They didn't. So the carnival did. 

But nowadays the saying is "to make money you have to make other people spend money." Witness the deluge of advertisements you encounter everywhere. 

Yesterday while driving to the market I became so mesmerized by a larger-than-life billboard that I almost missed my turn. To make my right I had to cross a bicycle lane hastily, without really making sure the lane was clear. It was. But had it not been, I'd have had only my wayward eye to blame. But who can avoid eye candy, and advertisers have impunity. They are free to bombard the unsuspecting eye with desires it didn't even know it had, while distracting your from work and relationships and concentrating on the road. You browse the Web and your browser embeds advertisements based on your search history everywhere on the page. Facebook does this. Search engines too. 

This evening the annual Oscars airs on network TV (ABC at 5:30 PST). I like watching celebrities traipse about in tuxedos and evening gowns. I entertained screenwriting in my twenties and always fantasized I'd one day be at the ceremony to earn a best screenwriting Oscar myself. But my dreams have faded and with it the stars' appeal. The real reason I'll refrain from watching is to avoid those irksome commercials, which seem to occur every ten minutes and bark orders at you to purchase the next car or drug or happy meal - and at markedly increased decibel levels. 

And then there's the Barefoot Blonde, a mother of two who lives in New York with her blog-dad husband. Like other bloggers of her ilk, and there are only a handful of these lifestyle brand princesses who were not already celebrities, Amber Fillerup Clark has made a fortune chronicling her life and getting readers of her blog and watchers of her videos to buy the products she endorses, from shaving creams to fitness equipment to hair extensions. Fillerup is an apt moniker: watch her and you are likely to "fill up" on some item you don't really need, whether a beauty product or unrealistic pictures of her family's fun days at the zoo. And anyway, who can have fun at the zoo with all those animals cooped in cages. It should be called the coo! 

Blondie purportedly makes as much as six million a year. Can you believe it? Six million, just for peddling the wares of her sponsors. To do so of course she relies on hundreds of thousands of impressionable subscribers, people (mostly women in their 20s and 30s) who want to be the best versions of themselves and look to Ms. Fillerup Clark for life guidance. The Barefoot Blonde is twenty-six. And despite deploring what she does I just gave her a plug. You're welcome.

Where is society headed? Why is there so much greed? We seem to be motivated more by consumerism and status than love of our fellow beings, kindness, or the quest for God consciousness. I read philosophy, the works of Spinoza and Pascal and Liebniz, whose pressing urge to understand the Creator is stamped on every page. Nowadays the search for truth seems old-fashioned. We have given up. We are like kids lost in the amusement park after dark and past our bedtimes on a sugar kick that will not end because the vendors never close. We won't tire until we die. I've taken the analogy as far as I can. I wanted to include something about how lost at the fair that is like a cage, like a coo, we'll never get back home to our parents who are the only ones that really care.

We equate becoming better with having more things and newer things, and as a result we walk around buried in debt, months behind our credit card and lease payments, but living like shiny happy people and looking the part. Until it all goes kaboom. 

But maybe it won't. I'm an optimist. I believe with Liebniz that we live in the best of all possible worlds governed by an infinitely benign and infinitely just Maker and all will turn out okay, is okay, has always been okay. But justice means purveyors of false idols will get their due. What is their due? I'm not sure. I am not the omniscient Lord of the Universe. And even false idols, so much fitness equipment that just gathers dust in your garage, has a part in the great drama of life.

Unlike BB's cash cow, this blog makes no money. I don't advertise, nor could I even if I wanted to, because this page wouldn't get enough traffic to attract sponsors in 18 billion years, which is the age of the universe. Sometimes nobody pays me a visit but you, and if the stats page is correct then you are some stranger in Russia who I'm not sure is reading my words or merely absorbed in trying to insert a link to a virus. Because like Asians and math, and like black athletes and track, all Russians know how to hack. I'm just kidding. But you know what they say about every joke. It's on me!

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

THE GRAND SCHEME


The Greek playwright Euripides is considered the "father of the stage." He started writing at the age of eighteen and in the fifty years that followed he wrote ninety or so plays. The most tragic of the poets, Euripides more than any other Greek tragedian is quoted by philosophers Plato and his protegee, Aristotle. Unlike many of the writers of his day, Euripides took little part in politics and war. A gloomy recluse who never laughed, he wore a long beard, lived alone and hated society as well as the company of women. He lived in a cave in Salamis, alone with his books and a beautiful view of the sea, where he could be seen "all day long, thinking to himself and writing, for he despised anything that was not great and high."

When I decided to be a writer around the age of twenty-three I told my mother that I wanted to be like Euripides. She opined that I was much too social to go it alone, and with my looks and general charisma I should not deprive society of my society. A mother's love. There's nothing like it. She was my biggest fan, and always put my intentions first. And twenty years later I find myself in the shoes of Euripides, alone with my books and my thoughts and my lovely view. And with little inclination to write. Maybe I'm still grieving. I spent half of yesterday going through old photo albums. I saw so many pictures of my mom taken over the decades. And I saw her not just as my mother but as a woman. So much love in her eyes. Such strength! The fantastic parties. The lovely home. She helped us with homework and endured my brothers' antics and my father's moods. She kept our family together, and with apparent ease. The woman existed for her family. Which is why she was in so few pictures. She was the one behind the camera. Then a letter from the funeral home came and reminded me of the normal stages of grieving. And I began to cry. How I miss my mom! When the pain gets too much, I remind myself that it is possible to love others the way I wish to be loved.

But is it possible to be two places at once? If not, then how can you say that while dreaming you are visiting astral realms and interacting with friends both alive and dead while your body lies sleeping in bed? If your soul is "out and about," who is keeping your physical form alive? The Greeks said that death was proof of the immortality of the soul. Soul and body together equal life. At death the soul departs the body, which ceases to live. So clearly the soul is the key to life. 

So if you can't be two place at once, what about God? When you think of God, perhaps you think of a personal deity, some powerful being who may have created the Universe, keeps things running smoothly, pronounces judgments, dispenses punishments and rewards, answers your prayers, etc. But if God is all that is, which the traditional definition also posits, then limiting God to an individual being however powerful is to take his omnipresence, and with it his divinity, away. For if God exists somewhere in heaven, then he is somehow other.

If the Creator is separate from his creation, then he is not all that is. The injustice of suffering is predicated on this notion of separation. How can God let us suffer? being the frequent refrain. But this complaint rests on the fallacy that God is somehow other than us. If God is all there is, then the one suffering is also God. And if God wills all that is, then the suffering is meant to be. You may have forgotten the why of suffering. Which it is up to you to divine. Unless you chant with the beer drinkers, "Why ask why?" But I can't think clearly when I'm high.

Only a God that is everything is the Universe - as well as any alternate realities that may exist but which we cannot see except in altered states of mind such as come with the ingestion of psychedelics - only such a God is synonymous with the Universe, which is synonymous with all that is. And if God is everything, existing everywhere simultaneously, then he is countless places at once. He is you and he is me. How can God be both of us at the same time? How can God feel my feelings and yours, simultaneously? Think my thoughts and your thoughts too, as we think them? If we were to make love, God could then be said to have sex with himself. And if you are female, then God is a woman too.

Heady stuff. The mind with its mental acrobatics. Speaking of mind, and its constructs. Time and space are merely figments of the imagination, without independent reality of their own. Consider that in dreamless sleep your mind subsides into unconsciousness. You are in a state of no mind, and in this state of no mind, you have no idea of place and time, which is to say extension and duration. You have no idea where you are when you're asleep. You are everywhere and nowhere. You have no concept of time when you are asleep. When you awaken you haven't a clue how long you have been in bed until you look at your watch or glimpse the sun's light shining through the window and say, "Ah, it's morning, I must have slept through the night." But if it's still dark outside, then there's no reliable indicator of the duration of your slumber. Whether ten minutes or ten hours, it's all the same to the unconscious mind. 

Because time doesn't really exist. Nor does space. And...newsflash: nor does the mind, or you the individual! But nothing can be created from nothing. And if you exist you always will, you say? Is this true? At death the particles that compose your body will endure as molecules and atoms in space. But you, the individual, with thoughts and feelings and opinions, will sooner or later subside back into the realm of eternal rest. I find this thought comforting. But I really like to sleep.

In any event, how can you say your soul is eternal when the Universe has only been around for 18 billion years! What about before the beginning of time? If you existed before the creation of the Universe, then you are timeless, existing outside of time. And this state, as we've shown, is analogous to deep sleep. Do I sound like a stoner? Stoners do like to sleep. Imagine if I smoked weed!

On another note, how my dog loves to smell urine! He is a connoisseur of stench. He lifts a front paw to better perceive the subtle notes I guess, and starts almost lapping at the air as though to get a better taste. And I think, how ridiculous to take so seriously something so trivial as another dog's waste. And I resist the temptation to give Max an impatient tug. What if our actions are like so many instances of pee-sniffing - to angels, if they exist; or to God? If what I take so seriously, writing or not writing, is as trivial in the grand scheme as Max's favorite pursuit appears to me, then I shouldn't take it so seriously. I shouldn't take anything so seriously. Even grief. Thanks for the pep talk.

So, given that at death or at some point thereafter the individual you will shatter into pieces and you will merge with the Oneness that the Buddhists call the Void and the Hindus the Self, source of all: given this, wouldn't it be fantabulous to break out of your personality and become universal in nature while still alive? I believe this is possible. All the sages have done so. Figures like Christ and Buddha have shown us the way. Common traits linking these exceptional individuals are charisma, a sense of humor and startling originality. 

To become like these godmen, watch everything you do, say, think, feel. Drive a wedge between who you think you are (self) and who you really are (Self). Sink the wave of personality back into the sea of totality. Shatter what is typical and predictable within you. View yourself as somebody else. Psychologist tell us that we can almost always read others like a book but often lack awareness of our own true motives. So see yourself as other and take notes. With practice, all traces of your personality will vanish and impersonality - originality, universality - will take its place.

Ah, Euripides! Despite his general misanthropy, the playwright par excellence was beloved in life and in death. His writing implements were purchased with gold and enshrined in the temple of the Muses. 

Maybe that's what I need to see this writing thing through to fulfillment. A muse!

Friday, February 24, 2017

SOLITARY BROTHERS

For a brief time in my late twenties I worked as a high school teacher. Well, more as a supervisor of high school-aged kids. 

The program was called AEWC for Alternative Education and Work Center and it catered to students who for one reason or another (work, pregnancy, poor grades, trouble with the law) were not suited for the traditional attendance-based classes offered by the standard curriculum. AEWC evolved as an independent study program "to provide high school dropouts with an alternative way to earn a high school diploma."

These "at-risk youths" would come to my classroom and check out their work for the week, around twenty assignments usually culled from two subjects, which they then could complete in class or take home and turn in by the week's end. 

I once remarked to a colleague that such a program, performance-driven rather than attendance-based, was an excellent idea and I wished I had had the opportunity to be my student when I was a teen. Especially during the second half of my senior year, when the novelty of being a senior had faded and senioritis set in, school having become by my birthday in February a sort of glorified babysitting which left me itching to graduate but forced to go to class or fail. 

But most of the at-risk youths under my supervision were really the least qualified of all students to make advantageous use of independent study. They were the very ones, with learning disabilities, short attention spans and general disgruntled waywardness typical of teenagers but more pronounced in certain populations, who required more supervision, not less, more structure rather than the free-form approach. Indeed many even needed the one-on-one care that you only receive with a tutor. 

Instead they got me and my coworker Gerry. The two of us had a total of fifty or more students in class in a given week, and many more were enrolled who didn't regularly show up. We sent these kids off with their assignments and come Friday we each had a tall pile of papers we were supposed to grade. Without enough time to give each assignment the attention it deserved, we had little choice but to give credit for incomplete or flat-out incorrect assignments. Funding for the program was by enrollment, and keeping these kids enrolled meant making sure they completed their work on time. And I don't think a teacher should ever have home work. 

The message we were sending these kids was that all that is required of life is that you show up. Which may be of value in this world, because it is true most of the time. No less than the great thinker and comedian Woody Allen is purported to have said that eighty percent of success lies in simply showing up. Or in this case turning in shoddy work. What the program really needed were students with initiative, self-starters. Gifted kids, not slackers, hoodlums, and pot-heads (and there were many of these; they'd come back after eating lunch at the corner Jack in the Box smelling to high heaven of reefer). But the students most equipped to benefit from a course of self-study generally remain in high school where they enroll in honors and AP courses, with or without skipping a grade or two. There's also home school, I guess.

I was thinking of these kids, of programs with good intentions that target those least equipped to benefit when I read an article on solitary confinement in this month's GQ Magazine. These solitary brothers (I'm not sexist, but 99 percent of those in solitary are male) spend 22 to 24 hours a day alone. Either in Supermax, a "high-tech dungeon specifically designed to warehouse men in isolation," or in seg, an isolation cell in a max-security prison. 

Solitary cuts off the individual from society, indeed from virtually all other human beings other than the guards, who can be cruel. Solitary deposits one in a cell smaller than a parking place without a window and with only the drone of the fluorescent light overhead, which never goes out. And perhaps with a rodent or two in search of crumbs. Inmates are given barely enough food to keep them alive and subjected to the abuses of guards and rants and wailings of the inmates in adjacent cells. 

The program is designed to provide prisoners with alone time to reflect on their misdeeds - which range from heinous crimes to mere insubordination - in the hope that guilt or remorse will help them see the error of their ways and that they'll return to the prison population and later to the general population reformed and rehabilitated. But what too often results is the opposite. Many men go crazy, if they don't start out that way. Some smear themselves with feces, a few bang their head against toilets or even hang themselves. Those who do survive their stint of enforced solitude, which for some can last several decades, often re-enter society maladjusted and with PTSD. 

And then I think of some of the sages who have voluntarily entered the forest or a cave to "meditate on the Self." Ramana Maharshi left home in his early teens, journeyed to the foot of a sacred mountain where he found a temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, and cloistered himself in a remote part of the temple where he sat cross-legged like a stone for not hours or days but entire freakin' years. In this time vermin feasted on his flesh, he developed pressure sores from sitting on the cold concrete, local children would tease him and toss things at him. He neglected his body to such a degree that the temple caretakers eventually had to stuff food in his mouth to keep his body alive. All the while he was "immersed in the bliss of the divine." And he emerged a holy personage. 

In a perfect world this is how the solitary inmate would fare. Instead they leave confinement more of a danger to themselves and others than they were when they entered. I suppose the difference lies in choice. 

I spend most of my hours alone. Some weeks six out of seven days do not involve any interaction with others. And on the seventh day, usually Sunday, a short visit to the market and a few pleasantries exchanged with the cashier comprise my week's worth of social intercourse. And I relish my time alone. Sure I could fill my days with engagements and pursuits, clutter the airwaves with gossip and idle chatter, but instead I commune with myself. Sometimes I talk to myself, other times I write or read. There is exercising and gardening to be done, and caring for my dog. The hours get occupied, and still there is much time for meditation and reflection. This is all worthwhile, partly because it is by choice, and partly because my house is larger than a prison cell, and I don't have nasty fellow inmates and nastier guards with whom to contend. But mostly because I choose time alone. Like a Taoist recluse. Like our Maharshi.

Maharshi elected to experience seclusion. What he could not tolerate was the life of a student, made to do lessons he found to be drudgery, interacting with peers he could not relate to. And so he imposed a solitary confinement of his own. While the wrongdoer is compelled to go it alone, without a guide, as a form of punishment, and consequently feels cut-off.

Now if the inmate were given regular counselling while in solitary, analogous to the one-on-one tutoring that my at-risk kids needed but never got, maybe he'd emerge from his time alone a sage rather than an entrenched sinner. In a perfect world, perhaps. This is me still holding out for utopia.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A HISTORY OF THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ME

I always thought it would be cool to dilate upon the purpose of life and nature of the universe in a thousand words or less, so here goes.

In the beginning consciousness became aware of itself and with this awareness rose the mind and the first thought, which was: "I am one, let me become many."

Though I was not present at the moment of the creation of the universe, or if I was I can't remember being there, and though I don't take literally the 7-day account found in the Bible, it seems to me that in the beginning of time there must have been a first cause. A oneness. A supreme being. 

And most religions including Christianity endorse this. To posit two or more beings existing simultaneously as far back as forever just doesn't make any sense. If these two beings occupied all known space, where would one stop and where would the other begin? And who would the space in between belong to? 

No, two beings would definitely make for feisty neighbors. I often wonder who owns the fence circling my house and separating it from the neighbors' property. Is it the Changs' or is it ours? Do we share it? I've always just taken it for granted that the white picket fence is our property because it goes around our house to divide the property from the lovely Persian couple on the other side. Okay I'm wasting my thousand words. Okay I just wasted more. I'll get on with it. 

So, one supreme being. And however you choose to move forward, that Being became many, which is why we see such variety in our lives. And which is why so many religions stress the notion that "All Is One." Because ultimately, it is. All drops of water are ultimately from the sea. In Christian tradition, God and man are separate and stand in a relation of Creator and created; whereas in religions of the East, you as individual are identical with the Self, source of all that is.

Life is also like a dream, and when you go to sleep at night, and you dream, you elaborate people and places from your own consciousness. In essence, all that you imagine is one. It's all you. And again, many philosophies and religions and even children's rhymes tell us that this is the case. Life is like a dream. 

But what about the individual soul? Did it exist prior to being born, or does it emerge from the ocean of oneness along with the body at birth and at death subside back into the primordial sea? This is where the various religions differ. 

Christians of different persuasions say that the soul begins at birth and after death lives forever in heaven or hell or in purgatory according to its actions while embodied. That's strange to me, since I cannot imagine something that is born and does not eventually experience some sort of death. Every beginning has an end. It is important to note however that nowhere in the Bible is found mention of an immortal soul. It seems the notion came afterward and was in part influenced by the Greeks, who were influenced by the Hindus. Are you listening Christians and Jews?

Whereas the Hindus say that the soul is immortal and comes back to earth over and over again, with time in the spirit realm in between for reflection, and each rebirth occurs without knowledge of former lives. It says in the Srimad Bhagavatam that at death the soul reviews its own life and after a time glimpses the life to come before making the journey back to earth with a sort of memory loss. The recollection of things from former lives is what the Greeks refer to as anamnesis and what the believers in reincarnation sometimes take as support for multiple lives but I take as an indication that the individual can access cosmic consciousness where can be found all the information that exists. I know this place exists, I just haven't been able to get there. But when I do, you just watch the award-winning screenplays I bring back with me for your viewing pleasure! An aside.

Near death experiences as well as seances seem to support the notion that after death the soul goes on, but we don't know the precise nature of incorporeal existence, nor do we know how long it lasts, or what if anything comes afterwards. It may be that the individual consciousness merges back into the source of everything, the oneness, the supreme consciousness out of which all arises. In which case death may be like deep sleep, and who doesn't love a night of restful shut-eye? 

The Buddhists believed this, denying the reality of an individual soul and positing a void or nothingness out of which all arises, a seeming nothingness at least because something cannot arise out of thin air. But a nothingness like deep sleep, for who doesn't admit than in dreamless sleep even the individual ceases to exist? You are alive, but you are not aware of the fact until you wake up in the morning to pee. 

But if the ultimate end of life is merging with the Oneness from which we all come, what's the point of striving and self-improvement? In becoming a stronger or faster or richer human being you're simply building a castle in the clouds, which is futile to me, since when the cloud dissipates, as at death, the castle disappears. In this way life may be like a game, which is pointless when it's over, but can be fun while it lasts.

Users of hallucinogenics and also those who have almost died and come back swear that they encounter spirit beings that instruct them on how to better behave and help them to get at life's true meaning. These beings come in the form of whatever saint or sage the individual follows in his waking life. Proving that all the major religions are true, or that whatever you believe is true for you. Vedantists appreciate all major religions and figureheads and perspectives, minor ones too. Which is why Vedanta gets my vote for universal ethos, cast your ballot too.

My believing in heaven or hell makes those ethereal realms real destinations for my soul at death, while your longing for a merging with the Oneness and a cessation of individuality makes that reality true for you. And me, since that is what I see as a perfect way to spend eternity. Out of time and space, as they say. 

Most people I have met love their individuality, despite the curve balls and speed bumps they encounter in life, and believe that after death they as individuals will go on. But I'm tired, and I just want to sleep. That's just me. What about you?

And what about George Clooney, who until recently I viewed as a like mind, at least as far as his views on being a father were concerned. He didn't want to be one. And now I come to find that he's going to be the father of twins, and at the seasoned age of 56. I guess George isn't as tired as I. His numerous critical and commercial successes as a writer and director and star notwithstanding. Where he gets his energy remains a mystery to me. Which is okay, now that I've figured out where we're all from and where we go when it's done.


GUT FEELING


I found out a dear friend has been suffering recurrent bouts of what appears to be the stomach flu and so I offered to share any medical advice she may find useful to alleviate symptoms of this most inconvenient and uncomfortable condition. 

I sent her a detailed questionnaire the purpose of which was to rule out serious conditions, narrow down the diagnosis and possibly even reach a likely culprit. Included in this questionnaire were questions about coffee consumption and alcohol and artificial sweeteners and new foods, travel and stress and sleep. Because the cruel combination of diarrhea, fever, aches and stomach pain three times in 6 months is more than anyone should have to bear. 

But the virus responsible for stomach flu in adults (norovirus, to give it a name, which infects people most frequently from October to April and causes the symptoms my friend has been suffering, within 1 to 3 days of exposure and lasting about as long) has various strains, and so it is not impossible that a person could get reinfected with such regularity. Does my friend eat at dirty restaurants, associate with sick people, eat too many oysters? Oysters are a major source of norovirus, which is typically spread to other people by contact with stool or vomit of infected people and through contaminated water or food. We ate oysters a couple weeks ago, but she didn't have any symptoms back then, nor did I. Ah the unknown!

What we do know is that the gut is the center of health. Immune cells (Peyer's patches) litter the small intestine and form an important part of the immune system by monitoring intestinal bacteria populations and preventing harmful overgrowth of pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms. The appendix, which some ignoramuses consider a vestigial organ with no function in the guts of modern humans, is located where the small intestine and the large intestine meet and it is rich in infection-fighting lymphoid cells, which suggests it plays a major role in the immune system, arguably more so for those who eat a diet rich in cellulose-rich plants. My friend's diet is more meat-friendly.  Bacterial flora need to be kept in balance with a diet emphasizing fruits and vegetables, prebiotics which nourish and sustain these probiotics. Or else unfriendly bacteria, and also viruses, will flourish. 

Norovirus replicates in the small intestine and after a day or so takes over the gut. Friendly bacteria will crowd it out and reduce symptom length and severity. I told this to my friend, and suggested a Tylenol/Advil mix for pain relief to get her through the day, plus probiotics in the form of kimchi and kombucha to bolster her intestinal tract health. And to avoid eating out so much, since a stranger's hands are more likely to transmit infectious organisms to your grub than you are if you prepare you own meals. Sometimes watching what you eat and how it's made is all that it takes to keep the doctor at bay. I hope I saved my friend a trip to a specialist, which can often involve unnecessary tests and procedures. Like my cousin, who complained of heartburn and bought himself a upper endoscopy just like that. 

Last week I visited my GP to investigate some urinary issues I'd been having and left the exam room after getting my prostate fondled. I haven't had any symptoms since. Maybe my prostate just needed a little TLC. Assuming the position was a first for me. And I came away with a negative STD screen, so there was that. Here I feared there was an outside chance I'd been living with syphilis for the last 15 years. Priceless, is a little peace of mind, and worth the two hours in the doctor's waiting room. Call me a minimalist, or maybe just lazy, but I'd just as soon take a friend's informed advice. 

But not everybody has a pal like me. To my friend's credit, she knew she had the stomach flu even before answering my detailed questionnaire. Her answers to these personal questions just served to bring us closer. I believe that a chummier world would be one in which the handshake was replaced by the sniffing of behinds. Taking a cue from the canines. My friend has one, a canine that is. And puppies can transmit disease. I should mention the fact next time we get together to sniff one another's butts, would that the day would come....

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

FINDING EDEN



I don't have many friends, and I sometimes wonder why I don't spend more time socializing. Because my interactions with others, whether chance and fleeting or extended and deep, always prove beneficial in some way. This may be partly due to the fact that I'm very open to suggestion and impressionable. My mother would say this trait is indicated by my Sagittarius rising. Your rising sign is how you appear to the world, and Sagittarius is mutable, as in open to suggestion. But I don't live or die by astrology.

A recent dinner date led to my purchase and perusal of a lovely little book on Zen. And after spending a day watching football with my friend and his wife, I came away with a copy of Jack London's Martin Eden. 

Martin Eden is one of Anna's (my friend's wife) favorite books. She particularly likes the way the eponymous main character died at the novel's end. She told me even before giving me the book that, determined to end his life, Eden, who was once a sailor, swims as far below the surface of the ocean as his lungs and limbs will carry him and with no means of egress, suffocates on salt water. The final passage is haunting and beautiful. It was almost as if the author himself had known death in order to write about it. And a short time later, the author would.

The ending was tragic, considering that Eden was only twenty-two at the time of his suicide, and already a published author with a string of sensational successes to his credit. 

But worldly success is often not enough. If it were, there surely would not be so many celebrity suicides. Heath Ledger killed himself a month before he would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Batman. He joined the ranks of many actors and artists who have died at the height of their fame. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is another. And the writer David Foster Wallace. In addition to being a writer, Ernest Hemingway was a hunter who put a gun to his head. Sometimes the pressure to produce is too much of a burden to bear, or the fame and glory and wealth not all they're cracked up to be. Which is why the advice I recently gave to a friend who is a school teacher with a desire to fulfill the dreams of his childhood and become a successful broadcaster was this: Unlike the desires for food or sex, which are quickly gratified after a lavish repast or a roll in the sack, the lust for power and fame is insatiable. No matter what rarefied heights you may attain, it will never be enough. So why be like the dog chasing its own tail, doomed to dissatisfaction? Content yourself in your humble profession, and if the desire for creativity seizes you, keep a journal or maybe make a YouTube video. In other words, take a page out of the Epicureans' book: Eat, drink and be merry (and have a lot of sex if you so desire); but leave the big dreams to the tragic endings. Like Jack London.

Jack London, who authored Eden, has been a favorite novelist of mine since the dawning of my literary aspirations. Like his Martin Eden, I began writing "seriously" around the age of twenty-two. The novel is largely autobiographical. London, who didn't have a college education, was self-taught, like Eden, who embarks on a two-year-long course of self-study, reading all that he can and writing more, hoping his journey will culminate in manuscript sales and marriage to his sweetheart. Alas, Eden gets his wish, but not in the manner he had anticipated. For he finds the literary community to be obtuse, his bourgeoisie readers without minds of their own, the opinions of his peers fickle, and publishers to be so many liars and thieves unwilling to part with their money even after putting his words in print.

Even the girl he loves, a high-society debutante whose name escapes me because she turns out to be so stinkin' ordinary, doesn't really believe in Eden's work even after they get engaged. She keeps trying to persuade him to work for her father, even though Eden regards the daily grind in the working world of 9-t0-5 as a soul-crushing hell that would only stultify his creative spirit (and mine). And so his sweetheart breaks up with him, only to try and crawl back into his arms once he becomes the author du jour. At which point he no longer desires her. And why would he? Nobody wants a person who loves him for his money. Like the lady who berates you for staring at her breasts, we all scream in our heart of hearts: Love me for who I am not what I have!

Disenchanted, Eden gives most of his money away to friends and family, the very ones who didn't support him during his struggles, but embraced him in his success, and sets sail for Tahiti, hoping to live a quiet life on a tropical island ... and never write another word. But en route he finds he has no desire to do anything, no zest for life, and when he thinks of all that getting settled in his new abode will involve, purchasing equipment and forging new relationships, he is overcome with malaise. And rather than start anew in paradise he chooses to end it all and risk going to hell. 

I can so relate to Eden! I too embarked on a two-year program of self-study in my early twenties, when I was just out of college. During this time I read all I could, including novels and screenplays and Shakespeare's plays, and even the dictionary, and wrote not one but five screenplays. But unlike Eden none of my works found an audience. I have also known quite a few bouts of disinclination, dismay and malaise. And unlike Eden, twenty years after my journey's start I am here to talk about it. I suppose I am fortunate. Am I?

If I believed in reincarnation, I'd think I was Jack London in a former life. But I don't believe in reincarnation. Give the concept any thought and it breaks down. For identity (the notion of who you are) rests on memory and continuity. Without either, you don't get you. Consider: most people cannot remember life as a two-year-old, but there are pictures and legal documents that attest to your existence, not to mention parental testimonies. Though the infant you once were bore no resemblance to the person you are today, at least mini-you had the same name, parents, circumstances as today. I even lived in the same house then as now! This is to say there is continuity. But if I were Jack London (who died 55 or so years before I came into the world), there'd be no continuity, since that great writer was different from me in name and form, not to mention literary accomplishments. Nor can I remember life as London. So no memory nor continuity. Without either, you have no identity. 

But when I read London's prose, I think, I write that way! Or so I hope. Of course it helps that when I set out to become a writer I devoured three of his works in swift succession - Sea Wolf, White Fang and Call of the Wild - and they surely influenced my prose. But when I finished Eden, I felt as if I had reached onto the bookshelf and grabbed an old manuscript of my own. Many of the archaic words London liked to scatter across the page are the very same ones I have used in novels of my own. Who else uses "essay" in place of try but he and I?

And the author's life was in certain ways a complement of mine, which in certain ways is an evolution of his. He wanted to study at UC Berkeley and did for a time, though he left before graduating. I wanted to attend Berkeley but was put on the wait list so enrolled in UCLA, which I tried to leave several times only to stay and graduate at my parents' behest. And the aforementioned self-study the author undertook and had his protagonist undertake were similar to my own, as I said. And as I said, the success is where we differ. London and Eden had loads of it, I have not a jot. But like Eden, London also met a premature end. At the age of 40, broken down by morphine and alcoholism, he suffered kidney failure and dysentery and died in extreme pain. While I, who just turned 44, am still around to lament my lot!

Some think London's death was suicide, like the death of his Martin Eden. I think of suicide almost every day, in a vague sort of way. And when I do I can't help but wonder: Who's the lucky one?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A VISION FOR THE FUTURE


They say that gardening cleanses the soul. If this is the case, then my soul is sparkling. Because this past Saturday I spent not one but three hours trimming the three big jacaranda trees that grace the yard. These trees are lovely, especially in the summer and spring, when their large fan-like leaves sway in tune with the breeze and give the surroundings a gentle, tropical feel. But come winter their pretty green turns urine brown and they shed profusely, sending tear-dropped shaped shavings everywhere. I've had to go on the roof not one but three times this rainy season, cleaning out the gutters of jacaranda debris. And all the times I've had to rake the lawn, and sweep the tiles! As I said, my soul must be spotless. 

The process involves not one but three steps, which are in order: cutting the big branches, stuffing them into garbage bins (I used not one but six) and then raking the debris. My soul is not only debris free but I also have enough firewood to last until spring, unless I routinely burn as much of it as I did last night when I entertained my late mom's friends, Gail and Susan. In high school my friend Autumn called me "just one of the girls." Last night I was just that, chatting about plastic surgery and life in retail and the challenges of being married to a man with a high-maintenance daughter and anything else these lovely women cared to broach. 

But back to the soul, and its cleanliness. And why should the soul, made in the image of the Divine, require any cleansing at all? If God is all there is, and God is good, how can there be any evil, not to mention grime or grit or leaves that shed?

The ancients say that the human mind has evolved so that the cosmic Force that pervades everything may know Itself. I accept the statement on faith, since I wasn't there some 40,000 years ago when we as a species came into our own. And would you believe that the huge leap homo sapiens made, in impressionist art and language and culture, may have largely been due to the consumption of DMT? This molecule, present in all animals and in many plants, began to be cultivated by civilizations the world over, from Amazon to Peru and Egypt and our humble continent in more recent times. And it also is produced by the our own brains - location the pineal gland, which the ancients call the third eye -  at birth and at death and occasionally in between, but usually before late teens, at which point the pineal gland calcifies. The molecule is the gateway between the individual self and the Self, source of all that is. Its territory is where spirit meets matter. And the high is supposedly out of this world, accelerating evolution, allowing us to connect with our purpose in life often through contact with interdimensional beings. DMT is present in brews including ayahuasca as well as magic mushrooms and other plants. So give it a try (although check your local laws since it may be illegal). And give me some if you can spare it. Heck, maybe we can do it together. Among the many purported perks is sexual ecstasy, which is not as fun when you're alone.

Anyhow, it seems that when simple life forms arose, awareness on its own was not enough. How do we know? Because awareness alone was not the end of the road. Then came us. And we may be just the latest model in a work in progress. We who are aware that we are aware. But with the self-aware, self-referential, self-absorbed and sometimes selfish mind arises the ego, and with identification that you are your body (rather than your body being merely a vehicle for experience to convey you through life which is just a blip on the radar of eternal cosmic experience), as you identify with your body you feel separateness from others, and vices such as greed and gluttony take hold, and we get Donald Trump for president and nuclear proliferation and the brink of World War III. 

I recently learned that a friend's house had been burglarized. Before you go getting your panties in a bind, the thieves were caught on camera and apprehended a few hours later. The alarm went off ten minutes after the two hood-wearing hoodlums entered the place and so they didn't get away with anything of value but their lives, which they already had and which is worth more than any of the paintings and furnishings my friend owns, who is rich. So it really wasn't worth it for our street urchins, their life of crime didn't pay and now they have a lifetime of prison in which to mull over the matter. Leisure time is pretty valuable too. The cops say they found coins and jewels in the getaway car, so it was likely not the robbers' first offense. Maybe they deserve such strict punishment. A momentary lapse of judgement and boom, life over. I don't know these guys, but I can't help feeling sorry for them.

My father didn't feel sad, however. Hearing of the attempted theft, this card-carrying member of the NRA suggested my friend buy a gun first thing in the morning and take it to the shooting range. He even offered to go with my friend, since he doesn't often get the opportunity to discharge his multiple firearms. Waiting to be burglarized, I guess. I'm kidding. But the truth is that I was silently outraged with my father's remark. This is a man who calls himself spiritual. Vegetarian. Been to "the feet of the Lord" (an Indian guru) several times. And he certainly knows how to spout the rhetoric. Throughout childhood he pontificated at the dinner table on an almost nightly basis. I love that word, pontificate. Is my precious daddy-o an embodiment of the phrase Do as I say not as I do? I love that one, too. 

I couldn't help but think of one Indian guru, Ramana Maharshi. He wasn't my father's guru but my dad does admire the man and has read his books. Once when the Maharshi's dwelling was besieged by thieves, he calmly told the intruders to take what they needed and go in peace. Now that's how a spiritual somebody should act. That's how a spiritual person does act. Spiritual is as spiritual does. Like stupid. And it's stupid as in ignorant to claim an eye for an eye when the evolution of this idea is to turn the other cheek. There is no good and evil, only knowledge and ignorance. Those are the words of my dad's spiritual guide. So act on 'em. These thugs didn't know any better, or are bent by crippling poverty, etc. Rather than punish them we should understand them and help them out of their unfortunate situation. We are one family, the human race, one divine entity. Those may be just words, unless you bring them to life in your own life.

One day we will live in a world governed by the laws of karma. We already do, though authorities and trembling home owners have no faith in the fact that every action has a reaction. That nobody acts with impunity, even when there are no cameras around and cops to slap on the cuffs (a rare occurrence in today's surveillance age). Thieves eventually get their comeuppance without the heavy hand of the law weighing in. But until we let the natural order assume its rightful place in the governance of things, you will be imprisoned for drunk driving if you get caught. But I predict that one day the mere thought of yourself being hit by a tipsy motorist will sufficiently deter you from getting behind the wheel after one too many libations (or three, sticking with the theme) yourself. 

Until then we have our laws and cops and breathalyzers and penitentiaries. And they are necessary for now, for many is the person, and me too on occasion, who would happily drive to the market after a six-pack for another round, were it not for the thought of getting caught along the way. Maybe I need to take DMT. Maybe my dad should too. Then he'd know that we're all one and notions like vengeance and prosecution of so called "others" are as ridiculous in the grand scheme as cutting out your front teeth when they accidentally bite your tongue. Maybe we should make like Brazil and give the substance to our thieves to help them see the error of their ways. But life is perfect, so there is no evil! Lest we forget.

Even though we live in utopia as in everything happens for our ultimate good, I'm still holding out for the brand of utopia featuring no haves vs. have nots, and no prison terms. If nothing else than for the tax dollars we'd save. Imagine! Will I see this breed of paradise in my lifetime. Yes, if I see it in my own life. And I often do, by watching my actions and living with forethought and discretion and practicing kindness virtually every step of the way. 

And really, often to always is merely a hop skip and a jump away. I can make it with you by my side, friend.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A PERFECT WORLD

After reading Zen and the Art of Happiness, and having for decades been a devotee of Voltaire's Candide, I decided to finally sit down and read Liebniz, who in his Theodicy treatise reasons why a good God permits the presence of evil in the world. What do the former two books have to do with the latter? As I mentioned previously, the Zen book argues that in a Universe invested in its perpetuation, only beneficial events can happen, and as you are a part of this Universe, everything that happens to you is for your ultimate good. Voltaire attempted to mock this simple notion by plunging his Candide into all manner of hardship and having him cling to the notion that we live in the "best of all possible worlds," a statement made famous by Liebniz, who was Voltaire's 17th-century contemporary.

Now the Theodicy is slow going. These scholars of yore were long-winded. They were before the Internet and so their readers had fewer distractions (phone, TV, computer, etc) vying for their attention. In fact the attention spans have historically been much longer than they are today. Short-term memory as well. Just the other night my friend's wife complained that she can't remember anything that happened to her the day before. Although her long-term memory is perfect. I'd worry that this was the early signs of Alzheimer's, since dementia presents this way, but really her lament is merely a symptom of the current age. Why do I have to remember facts when I can run to Wikipedia and look them up, or bark an order at my phone, or at Amazon Echo (neither of which I own) to answer my questions for me. This can't be good for the human race, a fact I'll return to - oh but that reminds me, if everything is for the best, and our interests are always served, then becoming a race of ineffectual, flabby consumers is just what God/the Universe intended. Unless that day never comes. But a visit to the McDonald's drive-thru is enough to convince a person that the day is already here.

It's just really baffling to think that the world is perfect as it is. I for one could imagine a world without suffering, pain, anguish and death. Not the details, which are hard to envision, but in vague, broad brush strokes, a paradisical place where everybody was happy all the time, where every day was bright and sunny, where a smile was today's equivalent of a straight face. One word, boring! Ya think? But it's comical to think that a world in which the vast majority of inhabitants consume animal products, and also where various health experts and religious leaders throughout history have discouraged meat-eating, could be perfect. Isn't this a contradiction? How can eating hamburgers be okay when beef causes cancer and heart-disease? Among Buddha's laws was that we should not be cruel to other living things or kill. Eating meat involves both transgressions. But I have used this contradiction, between what we "should" do and what most of us actually do, to argue my way out of endeavors on account of their futility. In response to the suggestion of one friend that I accompany her to a public school and lecture the kids on healthy eating, I replied, "I don't think God created obesity in order that I should fight it." In other words, leave well enough alone. Maybe this is escapist, I don't know. It felt right at the time.

But suffering does have a purpose. Take running, which I do quite a lot of. Training for a marathon and completing the 26.2-mile race involves a lot of effort, struggle, commitment, even pain. And the fact that such inconveniences are involved make it worthwhile. If running a marathon were easy, maybe fewer people would do it than the 20-plus thousand that complete the LA Marathon every year. How's that for irony. My friend recently asked me for an example of a paradox. Well, look nor farther than running marathons, if in our alternate world they were easy to achieve. I guess for some people even in this world they are. Like George Sheehan, who ran marathons in around 3 hours per, and well into his fifties, while logging a mere 30 or so miles per week. That stat never fails to astound me.

But I take comfort in the fact that things are as they should be. Sure, I'd prefer it if I didn't have screws in my leg, if I never had to clear my throat or detangle my hair, where people would call me back when they say they will, a world without traffic and smog, one in which my writings would be appreciated, one without hemorrhoids and herpes and hangnails and hangovers, and I really could do without making my bed every dang morning, but these things are just part and parcel of life. They add to the tapestry. And your life is your art. Maybe the true purpose of suffering is to allow us to feel relief when our time has come. And despite what Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who imagines a future in which humans become useless and their lives lose all meaning, has to say in his new book, Homo Deus, which is that technology will one day allow us to defeat death - egad, not wanting to go on living and being doomed to live forever, now that is a real paradise! - for now and the foreseeable future, dying and suffering have their rooted place. 

So suffer to your heart's content, and when it comes time, die that way too, but do so with a smile on your face, is what I say. A perfect world is one in which we all get to wear hairpieces like Liebniz did. Give me that, and I am happy. It all boils down to simple pleasures I guess.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

THE PAIN GAME


Life can be hard. And not just when you consume sucralose. This sugar alcohol, which is found in various sugar-free, calorie-free drinks and gums and candies, not to mention Splenda, and also the diet Margarita mix I found in the pantry and mixed with tequila every night the second half of last week in my version of a party of one - excuse me, but it was my birthday week - sucralose, I repeat, is hell on the stomach. What's the point of saving a few calories when your belly swells to third trimester pregnancy size. Which makes it hard to enjoy the Groundlings comedy show. Well, not that hard, because the show was funny and I am in love with one of the stars. Her name is Patty. A sense of humor is the most potent aphrodisiac. Which put negatively is to say that the lack thereof is "the most profound indication of a social malignancy." That's Virginia Woolf. Which I'm currently reading. And if I have tequila, it will be sans mixer. Don't consume artificial sweeteners, unless they're natural. Lesson learned.

But even if you learn your lessons, as have I, you still find that life can be hard. I have heard it said that we live lifetimes within lifetimes. That the "karmic cycle," the law of cause and effect, is speeding up. Like the Buddhists, I don't believe in reincarnation. And I am not a Buddhist. But I am a fan of the comedian Jim Carey, who once said that the power that is (cosmic order?) doesn't let him get away with anything, so he tries not to break the rules. No lying cheating or stealing for Jim, whether in thought, word or deed. Because if he's naughty, he gets his comeuppance with celerity. Jimbo is probably fortunate. Not getting caught can be the worst-case scenario for the evil-doer, who becomes entrenched in bad habits and emboldened in his belief in his own invincibility, his crimes skyrocketing to the heavens until he commits some abhorrent atrocity, gets nabbed, and has hell to pay. 

But even when you play by the rules, there are life's big stressors with which to contend. And stress sucks. Among the biggest stressors listed on the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory are separation from a mate, whether by death or by divorce, the death of a close family member, major personal illness or injury, losing a job or changing jobs, and moving to a new place. And true to the old adage, I find my own life speeding up and becoming more stressful. The first 20 or so years were pretty smooth sailing. I lived in the same house and attended the same schools for years on end. No one died or divorced. Things were peachy. But the second half of my life has witnessed at least one major stressor virtually every year. Take the last five years. Last year my mom passed away. In 2015 my mom was hospitalized for nearly a month after undergoing the partial removal of her colon. In 2014 I broke my femur. In 2013 my longest romantic relationship to date ended. In 2012 I broke my foot and got hit by a car, which I don't recommend. And on and on and on, not to mention living in several different states, working different jobs, etc. Yes the one constant in life is change, but so much change is enough to make a person's head spin, and I get car and sea sick so easily. And don't even own a smart phone!

I mention this to reassure you that if you're feeling more stressed out than usual of late, it may be due to the acceleration of your life's pace. Whether or not you can slow things down is up to you. Or maybe it's not. You can't control things like death and divorce. But marriage and kids are on that list to, and you can control your reactions to all these. So take a step back, sit in silence. Breathe. And drink your tequila straight up, like me.