Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Altec UHP336 In-Ear Earphones: Product Review

My Ultimate Ears SuperFi5 Pro Studio pair blinked out a speaker after two-and-a-half loyal years; unable to afford their replacement, I downsized to this "Upgrader" series. Less than $40 compared to what were then $240 UE5s, so how do these compare?

I've heard recently with "cans" a friend's tube-amp iPod set-up, and with the UHP336 pair, while they may fall sort of the UE's fabled dual-speaker In-Ear Monitor separation, as the lower-level one-speaker equivalent of the UE3's, they sound nearly as great. The stats differ barely except in impedence: 21 for UE SuperFi 5 vs. 13 for UHP336.

I tested them on my standard trial: two Beatles songs that have breaths that lurk semi-audibly in "Taxman" and "Paperback Writer." I did this before and after a 24-hour period leaving the pair plugged into an online hip-hip station, at high volume, as recommended in Mr. Leonard's video here. The difference may not be dramatic, as the bass on these tends towards the reference, uncolored, non-equalized settings I have on my iPod, but there seemed a subtle vocal warmth after burn-in.

They performed well, similar to studio monitor headphones in the steady vocal clarity and ambient separation. Not playing bass-heavy hip-hop but my preferred rock and folk, through such tiny, therefore portable, devices, the pair satisfied me. I admit as I now lack hearing differences between lossy and 128 on my iPod, so be forewarned your results may differ.

I often listen on a train-bus commute, the reason for purchasing a small-sized in-ear pair anyway-- but I blank out in hearing at about 13-20 range so I may not need the resolution that musicians or better blessed, or younger, listeners may demand. Therefore, I need to save my ears; with the lower volume provided by in-ear phones, there is a protective element that adds to their aesthetic delight. They may lack elegance when in use, but you're far better off than earbuds needing a player cranked all the way up to be heard over traffic.

The straight rather than right-angle plug of the UE5 pair may disappoint, as this does put more pressure on the wiring. Yet, it also is easier to carry in a pocket. Cordwise, the slight gain of length not directed off at an angle may make more sense as a compromise. As with the UE's an additional reason for purchase was their detachable cable; UE replaced my SuperFi 5's cord readily, but it needs care in use. Watch the Y-junction and ends. The addition of the carrying case, alternative ear pieces, and cleaning tool's also a customer plus.

I do hope they are more easily cleaned than the Super 5's which perhaps due to the lack of a distancing, protective, double flange built up rapidly with gook deep down at the base of the speakers that was impossible to extricate with the cleaning tool. (The UHP pair lacks a tiny division in the plastic hole opening into the speaker chamber, perhaps as the cheaper pair obviously has one speaker rather than the woofer-tweeter SuperFi pair.) My ears aren't that dirty! The difficulty may be that while any such in-ear pair is in use in the ears, they go so deep out of necessity that the suction works too well. I hope the new double flange may offset the danger of dirtying the interior, literally beyond reach.

This is one problem that I predict may be endemic to in-ear phones; other than the obvious advice to keep them clean regularly, I'd be eager to find out extraction tips that preserve delicate IEM interior speakers. The vacuum created for a snug fit, I wonder, when in the ear may draw out into the speakers one's mucus deeply and irrevocably while they're inside your ears-- is this correct? No audiophile's favorite topic, but I'd figured I'd ask experts.

The other problem with the UE5's (reviewed by me on Amazon when I got them) was their plastic ear tips. They'd fall out easily, often separating off your ear as you pulled the speaker out, and got easily lost. The addition on the standard pair of a second flange works well to stabilize them in the ear. Also, if you need more outside ambiance to filter in, you can tip them farther out of the ear canal and still hear most of the sound fine-- this could not be done on my earlier pair without them falling out totally. Enjoy these and comment if you wish...

(Posted to Amazon US 6-26-2009, where such obsessively researched tech geek products inevitably gain far more reviews than my arcane books critiqued painstakingly. A great video review's here at the product site-- a feature lacking on books I admit!)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Daisaku Ikeda's "Buddhism: The First Millennium": Book Review

Reprinting this 1977 history translated in 1982, this welcome overview summarizes early Buddhist attempts to formulate a canon, institute practices, and solve disputes. Ikeda constantly laments the tendency of monks towards argument, but he reminds us how, unlike most religions or ideologies, debates ensued rather than for those who refused to compromise or submit to authority. For, Buddhism departs from centralized, external rulers by encouraging the seeker to look within to find the same teaching that the historical Buddha insisted can be found that leads to freedom.

A freedom based more on interior realization rather than social revolution has unfairly caused Westerners to stereotype Buddhism as nihilistic, passive, and disengaged from life. While the monastic tendencies early on strove to control the dharma's compilation and interpretation as it passed from oral to written form, their understandable worry about the dilution of the original message did push much of the control over the dharma out of the reach of lay people. Ikeda, as a leader of Soka Gakkai, a Japanese movement determined to bring the dharma into everyday, non-clerical dissemination, seeks the same tolerance and respect within the Buddhists who, in the Mahasamghika and later the Mahayana version, followed their reformist zeal.

The saga reminded me often of how St Francis of Assisi late in his life struggled against those followers who bickered over how the Rule was to be practiced; analogies to the Reformation certainly also will emerge for readers studying the dogmatist vs. revisionist tensions that may have led to schisms, but at least bloodless ones rather than burning alive heretics. This lesson teaches us all!

Ikeda, speaking of Christian parallels, considers suggestive if largely unverifiable ones that show how the spread of Aramaic throughout the Persian empire may have allowed influences to travel from India to Palestine at the time of Jesus. Even if indirectly, common conclusions about lofty wisdom, "doctrinal breadth and depth, and this invariable rejection of class distinctions and narrow racial and national concepts" can "qualify Buddhism and Christianity as world religions." (75) As in the previous volume (also reviewed by me) "The Living Buddha: An Interpretative Biography" in this newly launched series, Ikeda in Burton Watson's efficient translation employs "religion" for the non-theistic philosophy of Buddhism, but this does correspond to common if not technically precise usage among Westerners.

With the stories of King Ashoka, great reformer and disseminator of the dharma to even the West within Alexander's heirs in Hellenistic Asia Minor, Ikeda makes a subtle argument. Those familiar with Soka Gakkai in its Japanese manifestation as not only a social movement but a political party may recognize what's alluded to only here. Ikeda uses Ashoka's example to show how a leader can embody the dharma while still allowing others within a polity to follow freedom of religion; the dharma's universality remains untainted by reform, rather it is perfected as people bring Buddhist ethics into the world beyond the monasteries.

Naganesa's dialogue with the Greek-rooted King Menander of Bactria, in the "Questions of King Milinda," shows the power of dialogue between Eastern wisdom and Western reason as standards by which we judge truth. (A recent comparison: see my review of Jean-Francois Revel & Mathieu Ricard's "The Monk & the Philosopher.") Still, the question of how "transmigration" differs from rebirth or reincarnation deserved more elucidation.

Another interpretative crux, raised in my review of Ikeda's Buddha biography, also enters this sequel. The Therevada version of Buddhism favored monasticism, inward direction, a negative view of what keeps the person from freedom, and a liking for the pattern of earlier Hinduism repeated in the "arhat," the realized-one who as a "voice-hearer" finds enlightenment, if of a lower level. The Mahayana encourage the outward direction, the goal of a bodhisattva that after being freed stays in future incarnations to help others towards "salvation" (another word taken in this translation that may need caution for a Westerner's understanding within Buddhism).

The move from the Therevada's negatively tinged escape from this life's snares into a Mahayana embrace of the possibility of perfection by not individual endurance and renunciation so much as collective advancement may reflect again Ikeda's perspective. The Japanese title, after all's, "My View of Buddhism." Actively overcoming obstacles, bettering society, and enacting suffering as a means to rid one's self of its drawbacks give Ikeda's view energy and impact. Later chapters may flag somewhat by comparison with the historical ones about the dharma's spread, but the sincerity with which Ikeda carefully sifts legend from fact, textual claims from enduring revelation in the Lotus Sutra, do reveal the passion and the clarity of his encounter with the roots of his practice.

The book's appended with a helpful glossary and throughly cross-referenced index. Nearly all of the sources, however, are documented only in Japanese; I'd have loved to be able to read some of these that suggest fascinating research about earlier East-West contacts. In the meantime, those of us lacking Japanese can learn about the often overlooked attempts to widen the message of Shakyamuni's dharma to Asia and even beyond, as gleaned from scraps of chronicles, recovered carvings, and massive heaps of textual compendiums. (Posted to Amazon US at 1982 version 6/24/09. To be reprinted August 2009.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Daisaku Ikeda's "Living Buddha": Book Review

In Japanese, the title's "My View of Shakyamuni." Ikeda, leader of the lay organization Soka Gakkai that stresses outreach, emphasizes how flexible Buddhism can be for our age. His "interpretative biography" cites Karl Jaspers on how in its origins, it emerged during what scholars call the Axial Age, when Socrates, Confucius, and later Jesus preached. Like them, the Buddha's messages weren't written down until later; like them, his teachings emerged from the "middle of the world" to spread to millions. (See Karen Armstrong's "Buddha" biography, also reviewed by me, in the Penguin Lives series for more context.)

Sharing the dharma teaching's foremost; the intellectual understanding, Ikeda tells us, cannot replace action. He places the little factually that we know about the historical Shakyamuni, the sage of the Shakyas, within the legends and suppositions that, as with Socrates and Jesus, grew up around the teacher after his death. One key difference: the Eastern conception of emancipation comes not from an oppressive political system so much as a deceptive personal structure. (See Pankraj Mishra's "An End to Suffering" for more on this comparison and contrast within Western & Hindu intellectual history and philosophy.)

Ikeda admits he searches the scanty information we can verify, while allowing the myths also to enter his study, for from both we, as with Jesus and Socrates, have built our perceptions of such men, far more imaginatively and powerfully than a few facts recited could sway so many millions in centuries since. This narrative takes time to look at those who as "voice hearers" (shravaka) listened to the teachings and found enlightenment.

Here, a comparison with Stephen Batchelor's agnostic "Buddhism Without Beliefs" may be helpful. Batchelor wonders why in the original time of the Buddha's talks, many listeners earned enlightenment by hearing them, whereas now, many eons may be necessary for practitioners to find release. Ikeda appears to at first downplay "voice hearers" as a lower level within the Hindu "arhat" stages of enlightenment; while later he puts this stage at a somewhat higher stage (four out of ten?) for some of the first Buddhists. This issue remained somewhat confusing, although looking up information on Soka Gakkai in Donald Mitchell's excellent "Buddhism: An Introduction" from Oxford UP, the importance of ten stages for SG is emphasized as a key precept that may account for Ikeda's subtle downplaying of hearing teachings rather than making them actively part of one's life.

Ikeda, similarly, favors promoting a simpler "Law of Life" as a core dharma rather than a 12-linked chain of causation to elucidate the difficult doctrine of "dependent origination" that underlies karma and rebirth, issues that gain minor attention here compared to a more socially directed, accessible, and practical Buddhism that allows the strengths of all involved in the world's pursuits to gain from it, not only monks. He shows why monks were sent out to spread the dharma not in groups or pairs, but alone. Why? Ikeda muses that this example demands individual initiative, and a creative, positive, and flexible application of Buddhism to one's own experience in the world. This direction unsurprisingly finds Ikeda reminding readers that Buddhism expects personal responsibility, not blind devotion to leaders, fanatical asceticism, or misdirected yoga marathons or Zen meditation that become ends in themselves for egotistical comfort rather than means to enlightenment.

The dying Buddha reminded listeners to take charge of their improvement. The guide, unlike other "religions" (this term is used throughout Burton Watson's fluid translation despite possible confusion for Westerners; I am not sure what the Japanese equivalent term may have been), remains not focused on some external "absolute," but within the self, where one finds the way to conquer the ego and transcend the same self's delusions. Transformation by active habit, rather than information by passive reception, sums up the heart of dharma.

Ikeda throughout reminds us that the few facts of the Buddha that are in this short text expanded, with nods to scholarship and dissenting perspectives and historical situations, do not tell us much in themselves. The data may be scanty, but the insights prove profound. The "dignity of the individual and one's subjective nature" occupy central stage for the dharma as Ikeda interprets it. From within ourselves, we draw out the Law of Life. Practice makes us responsible, he finds, for our own liberation.

He ends this primer: "In other words, one transforms the present changeable self into the self as it should be, the self that is in perfect harmony with the Law"-- the essence of Buddhism's in this "human revolution" inherent within each of us. (133) The book's glossary and index cross-reference and translate terms concisely for newcomers to the Sanskrit vocabulary and Indian places; this along with Karen Armstrong's work may prove ideal for beginners curious about Siddhartha Gautama, although Ikeda moves more into those who followed the Buddha and less on doctrine.

(P.S. I reviewed Armstrong, Batchelor, Mitchell, and Mishra's books on Amazon US & my blog along with the follow-up to Ikeda's biography, "Buddhism: The First Millennium." This review sent to Amazon US 6/18/09.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

What's your political typology?

"Beyond Red & Blue": the Pew Center analyzed U.S. political typology. Take this 2005 quiz. See where you stand.

PARTY ID: 84% Democrat; 16% Independent/No Preference, 0% Republican (99% Dem/Lean Dem)

BASIC DESCRIPTION: Least financially secure of all the groups, these voters are very anti-business, and strong supporters of government efforts to help the needy. Minorities account for a significant proportion of this group; nearly a third (32%) are black, roughly the same proportion as among Conservative Democrats. Levels of disapproval of George W. Bush job performance (91%) and candidate choice in 2004 (82% for Kerry) are comparable to those among Liberals.

DEFINING VALUES: Most likely to be skeptical of an individual's ability to succeed without impediments and most anti-business. Strong belief that government should do more to help the poor, yet most are disenchanted with government. Strongly supportive of organized labor (71% have a favorable view of labor unions).

Key Beliefs: General Population [percentage polled] vs. Disadvantaged Democrats:
Hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people: 28% vs. 79%.
Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don't go far enough to help them live decently: 52% vs. 80%.
Most elected officials don't care what people like me think: 63% vs. 87%.
Business corporations make too much profit: 54% vs. 76%.
We should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home: 49% vs. 72%.

WHO THEY ARE: Low average incomes (32% below $20,000 in household income); most (77%) often can't make ends meet. Six-in-ten are female. Three-in-ten (32%) are black and 14% are Hispanic. Not very well educated, 67% have at most a high-school degree. Nearly half (47%) are parents of children living at home.

LIFESTYLE NOTES: Nearly a quarter (23%) report someone in their household is a member of a labor union, and 58% report that they or someone in the home has been unemployed in the past year­ both far larger proportions than in any other group. Only 27% have a gun in the home.

2004 ELECTION: 2% Bush, 82% Kerry

MEDIA USE: Largest viewership of CNN as main news source among all groups (31%). Only group in which a majority (53%) reads newspapers.
You can read all the typologies at "Typology Groups". It'd be intriguing to compare results four years later under a regime change and a faltering economy. Certainly "disenchanted" fits me, although I hope the condescending sneer of "not very well educated" no longer applies!

I follow the news (not CNN but newspapers!) and vote and fret. So, I'm not under "Disaffecteds"-- although as tallied above I share their frustration. Many of us retain "embittered" cynicism regarding the environment, economic prospects, wealth distribution, and population growth. Despite "20 years of schoolin' and they put you on the day shift," as his Bobness warbled in "Subterranean Homesick Blues," I've kept a mindset of my upbringing among the (gun-less) working class, risible as my wife regards my own smooth monkish hands that have known neither plow nor shovel.

At least since that Weedwhacker I got for my 16th birthday, no joke; my graduation present from college was a small color t.v.

P.S. After I wrote this, Anthony McIntyre over at "The Pensive Quill" blog posted his piece "Fraudsters & Their Ads," castigating the Irish government's Orwellian crackdown on "benefit fraud" (we'd say "welfare cheats"). The juxtaposition of blaming the few poor who abuse the system while the many rich scamper free meshes well with the suspicions defined as populist, yet resentful, "Defining Values" quoted above.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thich Nhat Hanh's "No Death, No Fear": Book Review

From a flame and a cloud, these pages teach impermanence and no-self. Simple terms, complex doctrines made concise, meditative, and calming. I read this after my father's death and when parents of friends of mine died. While familiar with Buddhist basics already, I'm challenged by the intangible idea of continuity that transcends form and duration.

Nhat Hanh repeats his lessons. He returns to the cloud analogy, transformed into rain and water, milk and grass, cows and ice cream! In a cup of tea, our DNA, a burst of diffused fireworks, a plum tree's pit, he directs us to recognize life as it's sustained rather than ended. As cells live and die, so our consciousness comes and goes. Rather than "creation" or "departure" the monk prefers to say: "Manifestation and the cessation of manifestation are constantly taking place. We do not remain the same in two consecutive moments. The same is true of the river, the flame, the cloud or the sunflower." (71) This sums up the two hundred pages, but again, in the flow of the discourse, the recapitulation and elaboration of the spare lesson, we hear as if with a musical motif the theme deepened, played with, pondered, and intoned.

Christians may find this book especially helpful, for it explains some dharma teachings while comparing them to the Living Christ resurrected in our world. He notes how Christmas should be more a "Continuation Day" rather than a birthday of the One incarnated but not "created"; similarly, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as part of a continuum that has never begun or ended in the universal scheme that defies easy summary, but whose wisdom will, by "skillful means," blossom.

The latter half of the book shows how this can happen. "Touching the Earth" in three meditations offers ways to inculcate the notion of emptiness, impermanence, and how we connect to our ancestors and our progeny in non-theistic guided thoughts that anyone, regardless of their beliefs, can incorporate. While this book would not serve as a primer on dharma (try perhaps Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist" or "Buddhism Without Beliefs" by Stephen Batchelor for comparable introductions, both reviewed by me recently on Amazon & my blog), it can provide a welcome companion for those bereaved or mourning.

He reminds us how the Buddha continues in the people we see, and in our selves if we pause to reflect on our true nature and practice awareness. Again, fundamental truths, but ones often obscured and abandoned to our peril. "Practice like a wave. Take the time to look deeply into yourself and recognize that your nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death. You can break through to freedom and fearlessness this way. This method of practice will help us to live without fear, and it will help us to die peacefully without regret." Taken in slowly, this will begin to make more sense than many of these statements may seem initially to contain, if a reader's facing Buddhist discourse such as this for the first time.

He also adds in the final chapter advice on comforting a dying person, and ways that we can ease their pain and ours with confidence that "emptiness is not the opposite of existence." Rather than existing or not existing totally, Nhat Hanh interprets the Buddha's teaching as telling us that "notions of being and non-being cannot be applied to reality." This seems contradictory, but just as matter changes into other energy even if invisible to us, so does our consciousness manifest or cease; neither nihilism nor eternalism substitutes for this profound but, for Westerners, often elusive concept to conceive of, this notion of "nothing is born, nothing dies." The chapters pace themselves as if dictated from the meditative mind, often a few paragraphs suffice for a shorter reflection within each section. This makes therefore an ideal resource to dip into for spiritual refreshment and emotional support.

I read this on my birthday, and turned to find that "the vertical line" with a year inserted of the reader's imagined birth and death-date fit, at least so far, mine-- eerily to the year of my conception! I wondered about this coincidence, when news of Michael Jackson's sudden death then came into my household: a small reminder of the lessons this Buddhist monk warns us about, to never take the future for granted, to look not to fame or riches but to family and neighbors as our bodhissatvas to show us the way to a surer path to ultimate reality beyond the temptations and distractions peddled by so many in our world. There's no talk of karma here, only confidence that continuity demands us to accept that we must die to live again, and to leave fear behind to embrace love. (Posted 6-25-09 to Amazon US)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Decline to State"

Today brings me two years short of jubilee's half-century. I ponder how my always eclectic, unpredictable political outlook mirrors my religious one. Or should I say, as is the fashion among so many who can no longer affirm without doubt a Deity's omnipresence, "spiritual"? As a Californian, perhaps stereotypical, but even for one raised Irish Catholic, the motherland's no bastion anymore either. It's caught up with the rest of a Western Europe where French Muslims and Buddhists outnumber its Jews or Protestants, and probably practicing Catholics.

I opened a library find, Christopher Brooke's text and Wim Swaan's photos in "The Monastic World," a splendid 1974 coffee-table survey of monasteries 1000-1300. I had only seen this book once, a quarter-century ago in my dissertation advisor's office, and I'd longed for a copy. Working so long on medieval literature and culture, the religious aspect doubtless allowed me a place to ponder my own conflicts while progressing within academia. With my immersion into the Irish expressions in older and newer centuries of similar longings, it's also an ideal realm to continue my quest as a scholarly seeker of information and a personal pilgrim of transformation.

Perusing Swaan's atmospheric, often shadowy and austere, cloistered angles, I remembered my lifelong fascination with such lives lived, and such ruins remaining. I've barely visited any: Our Lady of Guadalupe in Oregon which I stumbled upon by chance so could only see for an hour; the Brigittines where I could get no farther than the visitor's reception to buy fudge: my destination before the Trappists sign caught my eye on the highway!-- and before I left my hasty Williamette weekend, a walk around Mount Angel Abbey where all the Benedictines might have been at the choir rehearsal on a silent Sunday afternoon.

Well, the Trappists were constructing their lovely new church; Brigittines stay cloistered; Mount Angel's was in use-- no chapel visits for me that Oregon stint. I've attended an uninspiring Mass at the local abbey over the mountains in Valyermo; I mean to get to the Camaldolese (however abandoned to Zen the hermits may be, they grabbed a great domain name, "contemplation-dot-com") above Big Sur for more than a look at the empty parking lot (albeit with splendid Pacific vista) another visit north soon. One of my five favorite films ever's Philip Gröning's three-hour immersion into time's passing at the strictest monastery in Catholicism, La Grande Chartreuse: "Die Gross Stille" or "Into Great Silence." My attraction early on towards testing the possibility of a clerical calling I cannot account for with any particular association, but as a fair-complected, retiring intellectual type, I've always liked the coolness of a church (like a library, which ties into monasteries neatly!) entered for shelter and quiet on a typically smoggy, glaring, harsh day as found generally here where I've passed nearly five decades.

Far from rural retreats, the first friars sought their apostolate in polyglot cities. Lately, after getting a haircut near St. Francis in Silver Lake, or before picking up Niall from school near rival St. Dominic in Eagle Rock, I've popped in for a short prayer. Not for myself, for I cannot say I "pray" to God in an orthodox sense now. My thoughts seek a wider source of mercy and compassion, however imagined or diffused. Whether this emanation's a projection or a presence, I cannot determine. Is that enough to assert as a belief, or does this define its denial?

So, I now ask prayers for others whom I love, and who ask God for love. When in the house of a another as a guest, you follow their customs. I make the sign of a cross inside a church; I wear a yarmulke and tallis as I first did when I stood before the Torah. I stand before the same God I did at my First Communion. I'm not as sure as I once was at seven that He's looking back at me, but I figure if so, then He's tolerant of my ambiguity. I'd be roasted as a heretic and expelled as a "Judaizer" depending back in those Middle Ages and many centuries or places since. Now, one consolation of my own post-Christian identity in a secularizing society's my ability protected to make such statements, to publish them, and to check out books on them.

I'd ask God to help my dying father, my demented mother-in-law, my newly found birth mother and her husband, my feckless sister and the parents of my friends who've also watched more often recently as the Misters and Missuses (no first names back then, a generational gap now apparent as our children's pals call us by the same names as our spouses and our parents call us, a curious evolution) we knew as teens now crumble and collapse in hospitals and hospices.

Aging as is marked today, I consider how my Facebook Friends and blog readers differ: among them I count a fine priest, liberal Jews, fervent Catholics, hybrid Buddhists. And lukewarm doubters, so human, those Christ warned He'd regurgitate. I note Facebook allows you to select your political and religious preference. "Decline to State" might apply for both boxes today. Politically, I've always been all over the place; religiously, it's been a long winding path that makes me wonder if I lack conviction or I uphold integrity. My own identification, as I've mused before on this blog, challenges easy summary. My baptism and formation in a strict Catholicism as hermetic and uncompromising as could be allowed within post-Tridentine, Los Angeles, blue-collar sprawl made me proud yet detached. I always have felt out of place within a lazy, tawdry, and shallow local culture that has little room for me.

Making my own way, I spent years in college and grad school in and out of the Church. After my nadir in my late-twenties, I found my dear wife and together we found our way towards where we could both find solace, within a carefully skeptical, somewhat ambivalent, but nonetheless confident Judaism as common ground for us to raise our sons. Still, living as we do in a non-Jewish neighborhood with a non-Jewish name and little on the surface to mark ourselves as apart from the quondam assimilated neighbors of little or no faith, or those of an newly evangelical persuasion or again traditional Catholic allegiance, we lack the surroundings that others use to fortify their beliefs. For us, we can go to shul respectfully or critique "Religulous" with equal equanimity, comfortable in our range of responses.

On the treadmill, I've been re-reading Rodger Kamenentz' "The Jew in the Lotus." When it came out in '94, I'd been immersing myself five years in Jewish learning; today-- I research the cultural and historical, literary and devotional detour that comprises how Irish people have read and misread Buddhism. Funding pending (my birthday horoscope promises: "Travel in October"), I'll give a paper at a formidably named "European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism" conference on "Irish Alternative Spiritualities of the New Age and New Religious Movements" (aka "cults" among the untenured). Given the level of discourse by the members' monographs and affiliations, I confess a need to learn more about dharma teaching! The organizer wrote me how confused his colleagues were by my typically allusive and, well, esoteric, proposal! It's a topic with nearly nothing written about it. This in grad school, me scaling steep, well-worn trails of medievalists in search of novelty, was usually seen as a bad sign for good reason!

One of the few times that we can assert that, yes, this has not been found before comes when charting verifiable exchanges at a high level of Jews with Buddhists, New Age wishes for Jesus' lost years in India aside. Kamenentz' encounters as part of the Jewish entourage mainly of rabbis who met in October 1990 with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala exile to teach and to learn remind me of my own skewed trajectory across skittery spiritual terrain. Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert and scion of a big macher's family, Tim Leary's equally squirrely LSD counterpart, a Hindu priest and a Hasid student (however bemusedly) now, tells the author that few of us are lucky enough to be born within the spiritual tradition right for us. Like our families, we find that the denominational milieu that forms many of us "pushes our buttons" too readily. Early in life, he notes how many Catholics chafe at the discipline but only later find the beauty in their faith. Similarly, as Kamenentz' book explores and Ram Dass parallels, the drift of many Jews into Buddhism shows the lack of "fit" within their ancestral identification and familial expectations.

Maybe I'm a political and religious misfit at heart. Facebook offers profile choices that remind me of their crossover potential for me. Is my political affiliation also my religious one? Distrusting Obama, disagreeing with McCain, disgusted with the Greens' nominee Cynthia McKinney, last fall I changed my party registration. Disappointed with Clinton, I had switched to the Greens as soon as they'd been approved for the California ballots in the mid-90s. However, I remained only to boost their numbers to the 100,000 minimum voters needed to stay recognized here. Their open-borders platform (as with the Sierra Club) conflicted with my environmental stance that favors fewer people in my fragile and overcrowded Golden State. Greens, as many progressives, seem admirable for ideals more than practices.

Ideologically and devotionally, intellectually and bibliographically, I wander, suspicious by nature of traps. Maybe it's inherited Fenianism. Not that current representatives of that ideal have been any more coherent than the Greens' nominee.

My wife's commented on how my blog and my Amazon reviews (over a thousand now: go and rate I implore thee) show, as I intended, my interests as they ebb and flow. The blog indexes my tags, and I can see how beneath the book reviews that top it and the bilingual Irish-language ones that appear every few days, Buddhism's now a head ahead of Judaism, with belief nearby and Irish literature, Christianity, and Catholicism, not to mention Wales and surprisingly "sexuality" clustered high too.

Categories keep us apart and organize our thoughts. Even though if mine as blogged, they run together as often as the "labels for this post" boxes do below my entries. Such may be my spirituality to match my bookshelves.

I went to a library where I'd never been. Wearing an old t-shirt with large Hebrew lettering on the front: "tikkun" or "healing/ repair." Near Jackie Robinson Park, Pasadena's La Pintoresca Branch may acclaim its local baseball hero who broke another category over sixty years ago, the color barrier in the majors, but inside, I couldn't find what we still demand: discrimination in the positive, bibliographical sense. Keeping track of what needs to be kept apart! I had no idea where the adult fiction section lurked, although a children's summer art workshop may have blocked those shelves.

So, in the religion section, on a lark, I found a thin, dated children's book on Hanukkah as its Judaica in total; no Buddhism at all (they're neighbors in the Dewey Decimal System unless Hinduism shoulders between, which here it did not; Islam loomed large) but lots of inspirational lore, such as "Oh God! A Black Woman's Guide to Sex and Spirituality." Thin books tend to be found in the 200s: Christians choose covers with scenery and/or crosses, Buddhists get the Asian versions of the former element artistically rendered with a stolid statue or the ubiquitous maroon and saffron garb of the Dalai Lama XIV, but Jews aspire towards thickness-- unless in the form of joke books.

P.S. Amazing how an image hunt for "irish jewish joke book" (a paperback I own) shows my blog, at #9 for "Irish Erotic Art" (a blank book I do not own). Telling how quickly this search finds anti-Zionist placards, a RichardDawkins.net-hosted cartoon of the Pope yelling at an Arab, and skillets of latkes. Apropos reason I left the Greens: nominee McKinney's hatred of Israel. Lacking joke book's cover, asking Dutch pardon (I love the world's best beer brewed under license to Trappists there and among their Flemish cousins; buying it should constitute a charitable deduction) here's an ecumenical substitute. Not sure if it's as funny as "Oh God!"(book/film).

Credit: Archives of Irish America. Mick Moloney Collection of Irish-American Music and Popular Culture (AIA 31) Part IV: Irish Americana. It's named for that wonderful archivist and musician I actually met once and exchanged if not a joke a small witticism with! He took it with good grace, given my 'goyische' delivery. Caption warns, dutifully: "Twenty-one jokebooks, or comedic material, make up Series D. In addition to Irish-American subject matter, these contain hackneyed stereotypes about Jewish, African-American, and German immigrants such as Jew Jokes and Job Lots (Box 1, Folder 8)and The Comical Sayings of Paddy from Cork (Box 1, Folder 15)."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Peter Murphy's "John the Revelator": Book Review

This bog-gothic coming-of-age novel moves rapidly, if obliquely, into an off-kilter portrayal of small-town Irish savagery, mystery, and unsolved goings-on. I read this story quickly, and its pace pleased me. I finished it puzzled, but this did not displease me. It's not a tidy novel, rather a dreamlike one as ordinary and ethereal, menacing and disjointed, as dreams often can combine their telling to us.

Murphy's not the Peter M. of (musical) Bauhaus fame, although his publicity photo makes him look the part. He, similarly gloomily but more wryly, intersperses the narrative told by the teen protagonist John Devine (heavy symbolism with the evangelist and his apocalyptic revelations) with stories related in speech and on the page by his new friend, the roguish Rimbaud-loving Jamey Corboy, who wanders into the misfit young man's life, under the spell of his Bible-spouting, somewhat bewitched mother, full of fables from Irish myth that threaten malfeasants with doom or at least shape-shifting. This mordant theme underlies the book, which cleverly, if perhaps too allusively for a wider audience, interprets through the doings of creator crows and persistent worms a gory, visceral, and primal scene of a restless earth's magic that thrives despite the veneer of our own time's complacency in a southwest Ireland market town.

The novel's best at the interspersed short stories Jamey writes to John. These arguably suggest Murphy's talent may lie in short fiction; the dream of the "hellavator" itself could be a novella, as that of the world's end vision John dreams. The prose sharpens too in the musical story in Morocco, and I note Murphy's background as a music journalist. As for the dialogue, as in many Irish works, it opens promisingly. John's mother Lily, asked if the book she's reading's any good, tells her son: "Too many descriptions. I know what a tree looks like." On the same page, as the wind howls and reminds them of the night of his birth: "'You were a typical boy," she muttered under her breath. 'You came early.'" (4)

Later, John's at a disco: "I felt the alcohol buzz kick in, that feeling of being surrounded by a force field, like I had the gift of temporary invincibility." (70) Losing his virginity in a car, John observes in front of the dashboard figurine: "Our bodies made slapping noises. The plastic Jesus watched it all, palms up." (161) A cuckolded lug wanders about his home disconsolately: "He was pouring stale cornflakes into a small saucepan" after a couple of days of abandonment by his gal. (182) Death's related effectively more by suggestion than exhaustion of its potential to move the reader as it has the teller. The book's last few paragraphs end the narrative beautifully with a primal image rivalling Joyce's Anna Livia, although again I'm not sure what to make of all the suggestive comparisons to earlier archetypes as the scriptural ones recede and the Celtic ones persist throughout the twisted, erratic course of this elusive array of tales.

Into this milieu, rumors of African witchcraft, demonic desecration, and everyday adultery invade Ballo town and Kilcody village. I wasn't clear often what exactly was going on in the narrative. While sparely and vividly told, the details don't seem to add up to a cohesive, linear novel. However, somehow I'm sure Murphy meant it this way; its meandering madness within an outwardly complacent context reminded me not only of the earlier, better work of Pat McCabe ("The Butcher Boy") but also Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke", Ardal O'Hanlon's "Knick Knack, Paddywhack," Patrick McGinley's "Bogmail" and "Foggage," and Jamie O'Neill's curious if little known fiction "Kilbrack". These all, in turn, nod to Flann O'Brien and perhaps Beckett in parts for their send-ups of conversation and quirk, reliable standbys for the Hibernian storyteller of strange doings behind closed doors pried open by nosy neighbors and corrupt criminals. As with such predecessors, your confidence as a reader who can figure out every motive amidst the stubbornly illogical course of events may be undermined, and this may be to your delight or your frustration.

(Review posted to Amazon US 6/23/09. 6/24: Happy Feast of St John if the Baptist and not the Evangelist. Lord knows as I do well how common a name this is or was, even among those of us less sainted. So's Murphy, come to think of it!)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Sin Chew Daily" meets "Garp"

Remember that scene in "The World According to Garp"? Today's my 18th anniversary; my wife sent me this tender story from this well-named Malaysian paper, life imitating art. I turned six the month "Sgt. Pepper" came out and hippies reminisce about hearing it played all around them that June; I read John Irving's novel, in the foil-colored mass-market paperback hyped in different colors. Mine was a masculine if royal blue, on my second plane ride and my first overseas twelve Junes later on my way to the kingdom itself and the Beatles' adopted city of London.

All around me, in those pre-iPod, pre-laptop, book-toting, cabin-smoking, pre-3/3/3 TSA rule flight days, I heard chuckles from fellow readers of this same bestseller. Never read anything by this middlebrow muse since, but when you're turning eighteen and encounter a frontseat oral sex scenario, you pay attention! Especially when it ends in fiction as badly as it did in fact:

Tuesday May 5, 2009
"Secretary accidentally bites off boss’ penis"
A SECRETARY accidentally bit off the penis of her employer while giving him oral sex in a car.

Sin Chew Daily and China Press reported yesterday that while the 30-year-old woman was performing oral sex on the man, the car was hit by a reversing van.

The impact of the crash, China Press reported, caused the woman to bite off her lover’s organ.

The daily reported that the incident occurred in a Singapore park where the couple met after work.

To make matters worse for the woman, her husband had sent a private investigator to spy on her after suspecting that she was being unfaithful.

The investigator said he had followed the woman and her boss to the park.

“On reaching the park, they did not alight from the car. Not long after, the car started to shake violently.

After the car was hit by the van, there was a loud scream from the woman whose mouth was covered with blood,” he said.

The woman later followed her lover to the hospital with part of the sexual organ.

The investigator, who called an ambulance to send the man to hospital, said that this was the first time he had encountered such an incident.

"Ex-stewardess publishes memoir."

The dailies also reported that a former stewardess has published a memoir of her sexual escapades in the sky.

The Singaporean stewardess, identified as Chew, 35, published The Mile Hi! Club: Memoirs of a Stewardess last Wednesday.

Chew confided that she had received more than 20 requests for sex from passengers in her years as a stewardess but claimed she had turned down all of them.

Other News & Views is compiled from the vernacular newspapers (Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese and Tamil dailies). Link to stories here.
Me again: I know "Chew" is some transliteration of some common surname into Chinglish, but note the repetition here. Also, as I asked my spouse, why would Stewardess (I like feminine endings for occupations, rapidly non-PC here as we'd have to say "flight attendant") Chew if she'd been so prim have any memoirs to publish? The Mile Hi[gh] Club's not named for the chaste.

Also, I know Singapore's a puritanical place, but their prime minister was urging couples to copulate to procreate more to boost that enclave's birth rate. You'd think given the cramped conditions of Asian cities they'd welcome fewer folks, but that's like Europeans getting chastised for low birth rates that, in that hippie age, people were told to adopt so as to spare our planet's dwindling resources, another conundrum that now puzzles me: we're blamed for lower populations as if it's economically sinful! Well, as randy teens are counselled by scions more permissive than certainly my adolescence found, "alternatives" to intercourse at least keep the pregnancy rate down.

Photo: with my Safe Search Mode on, I was curious what I'd find for an image linked to particularly evocative or explicit keywords. Comparatively tame "oral sex car" revealed little of interest over the first hundred images, only this, lots of snaps of clothed women, both sexy and sullen, and a bumper sticker "My car sucks but so does my wife." Although I think in America the laws on such PDAs in parked cars are enforced, in the public interest, I append the Sunday Mirror (Britain being more free-wheeling apparently) "Put the brakes on car sex" in the "Sex Doctor" 1 Feb. 2009 column by Dr Catherine Hood, with my chosen photo, for your edification.
Dear Dr Cath,

My boyfriend is very lively, both in and out of the bedroom. He wants us to have sex in the car, but isn’t this illegal?

Dear reader,

Having sex in a stationary car isn’t an offence, but if somebody spots you and complains then you’ll be in trouble.

Ensuring privacy can be a challenge, but it’s essential if you don’t want to get caught – so pick your spot carefully.

Having sex in a moving car, however, is most definitely illegal.

Some idiots like to drive fast and get sexual pleasure at the same time.

But masturbating, receiving oral sex or having penetration while driving a vehicle is dangerous.

Don’t be tempted – no matter how “lively"? your boyfriend is feeling.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Jean-François Revel & Mathieu Ricard's "The Monk & the Philosopher": Book Review.

Political philosopher, "Without Marx or Jesus" author, talks to his son, molecular biologist Ph.D. turned Tibetan monk. The result: dense, philosophical, fair-minded, and stubbornly opposed showdown. Empiricism confronts contemplation. While the results, as they've been since the Axial Age that found Socrates spearheading rational progress while the Buddha sought personal transformation, find neither contestant giving in, the two provide 300 stimulating pages full of insight.

They discuss in 1996, as Revel sums up halfway: "Buddhism's metaphysics, its theory of consciousness, its cosmology, and the repercussions of these great philosophical and metaphysical edifices on the conduct of human life" are the "problems" that engage Buddhists; Westerners, Revel contrasts, gave up "public debate" long ago on these issues, which may account for the interest aroused now in the West by the East. Revel, as a leading French intellectual and editor, finds that science took over from philosophy after the Renaissance; ethics seems to have been surrendered by philosophers retreating to academic quibbles, and religion has been consumed by its co-option with Islamic hegemony or its Christian desertion in most of today's Europe.

Jack Miles notes in his preface the lack of comparative coverage of Judaism and Christianity by Revel & Ricard; as Ricard served as the Dalai Lama's translator on a visit to the Carthusian monastery of La Grande Chartreuse, I would have also liked more than the page or two devoted to this fascinating detour. On one monk from the West who came East, Thomas Merton, Ricard puzzled me when he credited that dramatic 1968 pilgrimage of Merton "who was sent to the East by Pope John XXIII" (154)-- who died five years before Merton's final journey. Similarly, the previous dialogue between a Greek-trained positivist, Menander who ruled Bactria the second half of the 2nd c. BCE, and a Buddhist practitioner Nagasena, "Milindapanha" or "The Questions of King Milinda"--alluded to here but unnamed-- deserves clarification (and expansion) as an early predecessor for such a high-level meeting of minds.

Ricard's advantage? Unlike his monastic peers, he comes with a grounding in science and the West, as one from the unbelievers such as his father. Like his peers, his quarter-century of immersion in the Himalayan culture and languages affords him an enviable position for comparison and contrast with the Western ideas that formed him. Miles locates the clash of father's demands for Enlightenment-encouraged external proof for assertions as challenging the son's confidence that they can be traced along internal stages towards ego-dissolution into ultimately intangible but nonetheless existing-- if at a level beyond demonstration to an external device-- of nirvanic enlightenment. Miles defines "enlightened self-interest" as dynamically compelling Westerners on to a narcissism pretending to be a nirvana, one of "cultural autism" as we solipsistically confuse material gain for real wisdom. (x)

Ricard in my opinion's weak in refuting the Uncreated Creator argument, but he often gets the better of the contest; he provides a wealth of anecdotes and metaphors to balance Revel's tangible results via concrete reasoning. Metaphysics takes place on a different level, yet it's "an undeniable reality" as "contemplative experience" shows "the direct vision of a truth that the mind is obliged to accept because it corresponds, in that domain, to the nature of things." It's not irrational: "It simply goes beyond conceptual reasoning." (68) Revel can respect his son's assertions, but he denies their independently verifiable proof. Ricard counters that 2500 years of experimentation into the inner mind have revealed truths as persuasive as Revel's education that's built on 2500 years of progress into philosophy, politics, science, and ethics. Mind sciences in the East are not taken seriously by Revel-- and all but a handful of Ricard's former colleagues.

Revel constantly returns to the deleterious effects that an inward bent has done for the Eastern lack of progress, its despotism, its poverty, and its indifference to suffering on a physical level. For Ricard, the balance between medical progress and spiritual advancement's essential for the East, but he cautions how the Western consumers have lost their moorings in a welter of existential, Freudian, structuralist theory that cannot substitute for the loss of faith. He reminds his father that a prisoner must figure a way out of his chains before he can free his fellow inmates. Spiritual transformation within must precede the efforts of creating a better life for others; this follows, nonetheless, as an inevitable corollary for one is impelled to liberate others from suffering once freed. This teaching's a core truth to act upon for Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan bodhisattva models.

Perverted faith, they agree, has its dangers when monotheistic missionaries (Moghul India for Islam and Christianity) or polytheistic (as with the Hindu) regimes have decimated Buddhism in its homeland. Revel reminds us often of the failure of Marxism and political utopias; his skepticism about collective idealism whether in religion or doctrine, manifesto or dogma's bracing and relevant as Communist China's oppression of Tibet reminds both men of how power and profit strives to crush idealism and compassion. The rebirth by the painful transfer of teachings outside Tibet, as documented here sadly, may however allow more people in the West such as Ricard-- and us by extension who read this-- to learn or at least debate with the dharma. The Buddha himself told his listeners to test and sift what they heard, not to take on faith what had not been found true by experience, reflection, and application. This jibes well with Revel's rationalism, although he can never countenance Buddha's claims for an inner progress as provable by the same "scientific" proof as a lab experiment. Yet, Revel also tells us how the root of "theoria" itself rests in "contemplation."

The chapter on the dangers of cultural influences that dilute a spiritual tradition, however, proved skimpy compared to the satisfaction of earlier epistemological discussions, and the parts on Buddhism in the West suffer by comparison with their lack of heft. The second half of the book's markedly easier to read, however, after the foundations of investigation and debate have been built. I encourage readers to persevere until chapter seven. The scope shifts from interior to exterior terrain and the altitude's a bit easier to breathe in for those less skilled in moral and scientific discourse than these two formidably learned men!

For instance, psychoanalysis is lauded by Revel while Ricard warns: "It's no use to keep on stirring up the mud from the bottom of a lake if you want to purify the water." (260) Ricard offers the Buddhist alternatives to free one from the delusions of the ego; "the only good thing about negativity is that it can be purified and dissolved. All those sediments down in the unconscious aren't made of rock. They're just ice-- ice that can be melted in the sun of wisdom." (264)

Revel's not having any of this without measuring results: "All just metaphors!" Ricard hits another target with a fresh aim when considering how novelty drives the Westerner towards always another item, another idea, another goal that then itself recedes as one tries in vain to grasp it so as to prop up the ego, the "personality." Sacred art, he shows, doesn't let the imagination run riot. It calms the mind, whereas "Western art often tries to create an imaginary world." Rather than arousing passions, sacred art, dance, and painting give one objects to meditate upon "to penetrate to the nature of reality." Which, for a Buddhist, pulls beyond the commonsensical relative truth to an ultimate emptiness in a welcome void.

The nihilism that distorted 19th c. translations of Buddhism for Westerners Ricard corrects throughout; there's no escape from the world but a non-theistic, non-coercive re-orientation of the viewer towards its insubstantial nature vs. the everlasting quest for inner freedom from the tangibles that trap us. For Revel, these material gains outweigh the spiritual journey taken by an individual; the social progress and practical demands impel an activist to trust in real-world progress and not illusory esoteric exercises.

Perhaps, there's an impasse remaining at the conclusion. Two centuries of Westerners pursue "the idea that all human problems-- questions of personal happiness, personal development, wisdom, the ability to bear suffering or be rid of it-- could be solved through historical dialectic, as Hegel and Marx said." Anything interior or personal became demeaned as "ideological fantasies, illusory remains of the belief that happiness and equilibrium could be attained on an individual level. That desertion of personal wisdom in favor of collective transformation reached fever pitch with Marxism." (276) Revel knows intimately the dangers of true belief by non-believers in conventional faith. The intransigence and dogmatism endure within many even as popes and pashas are overthrown. The lack of morality and personal wisdom left by secularism in the West-- on both sides of the Iron Curtain-- account for the appeal that Buddhism may be finding today.

Both men would agree we live in a dissatisfied state. They differ on how to regain our comfort. Both stress morality, kindness, and compassion. Out of these common goals, the direction where they follow their paths converge. As Ricard sums it up: "What Buddhism could help to change is the overall attitude that consists in giving priority to 'having' over 'being'" (138); Revel agrees, but he also fears that Western distortions of Buddhism may lead to its dilution before its inner, if frustratingly for him, untestable promises can bear fruition. Ricard, calmly, invites us to try the path inside the mind to test his confidence in its healing: he cites the Buddha's "it is up to you to follow it" by one's own personal experience that leads into silence. Revel might prefer to see a brain scan, for his knowledge must be documented externally. Out of this standoff, the two men part ways, one on the way to wisdom, one to "scientific certitude."

(P.S. See Daisaku Ikeda's chapter on King Milinda in "Buddhism: The First Millennium." Also compare Pankraj Mishra's "An End to Suffering" for a post-9/11 perspective from an Indian who compares especially post-Enlightenment Western intellectual history to the Buddha in his historical and contemporary socio-political contexts. I reviewed both of these books on this blog and at Amazon US in August 2009; here's the link to Revel + Ricard for 6-29-09.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Earr an Earraigh

Tá earr an Earraigh inniu. Titeann bláthannaí shaicarandaigh go talamh. Ag imeall mo theach, féicim siad ag titeadh anois agus ansin.

Súim. Féachaim. Éistim.

Eitilíonn bláthannaí labhandair go tobann suas. Tagann siad suas gan rabhaidh. Tumann siad chomh má bheadh ag fáil báis. Muise, faigheann siadsan le hadhairt a fháil.

Caithfidh muid ár ndóchas a choinneáil gach uair. Smaoiním go mbeadh siad beo fós ar aghaide mo shúile, mar sin féin. Fanann muid i measc na beo idir an dá am.

Cruinním aon bláth tite nuabhainte. Iniúchaim sé go grinn é. Coimeádaim sé ina láimh agam.

Is cosúil é lena páipéar Seapanách go cuanna. Scrúdaím pistil aige istigh leis fionnadh is lú. Tá siad mothal mínchatach gruaige go domhain nach beag in íochtar.

Chríochnaíonn an bláth seo. Tosaím luach blátha sin a ardú amháin anois ar scor ar bith. Is cosúil é go beo breis agam níos faide an bás anabaí le déanái de.

Tá lá is faide inniu. Éiríonn an gréine is airde ar spéir gorm os ár gcionn. Titeann bláthannái anuas go lag ach go socair suaimhneach. Foghlaimíonn muid ag tuigeann faoi caitheamh ama. Béidh an lá a rugadh mé eile leis ceithre laethanta.

The End of Spring.

It's the end of Spring today. Jacaranda blossoms fall to earth. Around my house, I see them falling now and then.

I sit. I look. I listen.

The lavender blooms fly down unexpectedly. They come down without warning. They plunge as if death's finding them. Indeed, they themselves meet a natural death.

I think they may be still alive before my eyes, all the same. We must hold on to hope against hope. We remain among the living in the meantime.

I gather one freshly fallen blossom. I scrutinize it carefully. I hold it in my hand.

It resembles elegant Japanese paper. I examine its pistil inside with tiniest cilia. They're a fuzzy head of hair deep down almost at the bottom.

This blossom's finished. I start to appreciate the value of that bloom only now, however. It seems more real to me beyond its recent sudden death.

Today's the longest day. The sun rises highest in the blue sky above us. The blooms fall down slowly but quietly and peacefully. They teach us to understand the passing of time. It will be another birthday for me in four days.

Ghriangraf/ Photo: "Bláth shaicarandaigh ar mo ghloine gaoithe"/ "Jacaranda flower on my windscreen" le/by "Dalinean" 2007.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pankaj Mishra's "An End to Suffering": Book Review

It's a triple convergence: a Northern Indian writer's coming of age, an account of the Buddha from the same region from whence his followers were eradicated or assimilated centuries ago, and an attempt to align Buddhist philosophy within a Western, secular framework. Mishra's worked hard on this book, but it feels as if its penultimate draft. His reflections, however, may inspire readers towards insights that transcend the clichéd East-meets-West recitals indulged in by many who write about India.

Mishra sums up with equal facility the thoughts of the historical Buddha and Nietzsche; he compares David Hume's warnings about happiness bound too closely to suffering with the Four Noble Truths of dharma. He explores secularism's appeal with Marx and sets this against Vaclav Havel's caution. He integrates a survey of dharma within subcontinental unrest among his compatriots. Encouraged by modernism, his father's post-independence peers broke with tradition, but their heirs face a steep climb towards material success-- already gained by millions of Westerners who've reached the top already. In his Himalayan retreat, Mishra reads and writes, trying to become a journalist and thinker, separating himself from his humble roots yet resenting those who, like a blonde Sausalito scion, seem to parade before his native gaze their Buddhism and their immersion into the customs of his homeland as if "indulging their privilege."

This tension permeates Mishra's analysis, and enriches what strives to be a presentation of Buddhist contexts, Indian culture, and Western ideas. It's an uneven blend, but there's nourishment in these ingredients. Still, you never grasp fully why Buddhism all but vanished beyond the obvious Moghul invasions, and there's surprisingly scanty coverage of the "untouchable" Dalits who converted en masse to Buddhism halfway through the 20th century. The notion advanced then of a "Red Buddhism," or how Sri Lankan leaders conflated Buddhism with nationalism, stay marginalized at best.

More successfully, Mishra connects his student love of Nietzsche with his curiosity about the Buddha's roots, and out of this fresh juxtaposition, there's enough to keep you interested. Even if the attention given, say, Buddhism in the West, is scanty. Many ideas and scenes come retold from his sources rather than refreshed and made vivid through his eyes as he lands in England, or travels in San Francisco or treks among the Taliban: you want more of his personal impacts with culture clashes.

He describes sights simply: a scribe in a deserted temple first gets him thinking about Buddhism; a village nearby scatters down steep, rocky slopes. He lets you hear the leaves of the pipal tree such as under which the Buddha gained his breakthrough; he shows you the loneliness of an Indian woman who he visits in London for the first time. He equates energy sustained across the material world with a consciousness that can never be extinguished once created. He compares de Tocqueville's diagnosis of frontier restlessness and American faddishness with the Buddhist sense of "trishna." The book cries out for more extensive attention to spiritual tourism. He offers a marvellous quote from Nietzsche about the "precondition" of Buddhism that's perfect for Prius-driven, coastal California: "a very mild climate, very gentle and liberal customs, no militarism; and that it is the higher and even learned classes in which the movement has its home. The supreme goal is cheerfulness, stillness, absence of desire, and this goal is achieved." (qtd. 362)

Mishra finds his voice late on; chapters on "A Science of the Mind" and "Turning the Wheel" earlier do explicate finer points of dharma vis-a-vis Western concepts well, but the direction after wobbles as he ruminates his own maturation within a 1990s-era globalization that consumes more than he's already digested. Notes show the wide range of his research, but more time may have been needed for such a formidable array of ideas to have been distilled by-- in this narrative-- yet a young writer and thinker. For instance, I was anticipating E.F. Schumacher's "Small Is Beautiful" localized economics to make an appearance. While it did, like many appropriate references, it proved only a glimpse. Follow-through, with Havel, with Schumacher, with the impact of Buddhism on such figures as the Western nun Helen from Marin County, the fate of his friend Sophiya who preceded him to London, would have helped.

When Mishra contrasts Nietzsche's "passive nihilist" reaction to the Buddha with his own conception of Shakyamuni as a true "superman," you feel that the writer's finally on to a novel concept. Gautama uses, Mishra argues, the ego to free the ego. By this personal liberation into renunciation, which needed even more emphasis than the rather over-subtle final pages display in their understandable touches of humility and reticence after candor earlier, the book finally arrives at its thesis.

The Buddha wasn't removed from his tumult; he showed his listeners how to jump off from the wheel of "desire, hatred and delusion run rampant." (402) There's glory in immersion in modern comforts and gadgets, but there's great suffering and brutal chaos. The place of control exists within only our mind. Freedom comes not from the breakup of feudalism and the profits of capitalism, but from a way to overcome the impasse set up for Mishra and his generation of Indians. They, no less than ourselves in the West, have been offered ideological and spiritual and tangible rituals of consumption. But these, Mishra realizes, infatuate rather than reward us.

Instead, rather than pitting individual frenzy vs. social aggression, both identities remain interdependent. The Buddha "challenged the very basis of conventional human self-perceptions-- a stable, essential identity-- by demonstrating a plural, unstable human self-- one that suffered but that also had the potential to end its suffering." (403-4) Mishra concludes: "An acute psychologist, he taught a radical suspicion of desire as well of its sublimations-- the seductive concepts of ideology and history. He offered a moral and spiritual regimen that led to nothing less than whole new way of looking at and experiencing the world." (404) Half a page later, the account ends; we can only surmise by reading his story back into the previous four hundred pages how Mishra himself perhaps gained transformation as he came to appreciate the Buddha and "to discover him as a true contemporary."

I'm not sure, finishing this, who the ideal reader of this book may be. As one from California, with an interest in Buddhist history, Indian travels, and Western intellectual reflection on belief and politics and popular culture, Mishra's combination proved the right book at the perfect moment. He has seen the temptations of the West's chattering classes, the degradation of the East's leaders, and he seeks an alternative for all-- no matter where they live and die. Freedom rests not on solidarity with class or caste that will be driven by revolution (or religion?), but a humbler kindness that occupies itself with "the mind and body of the active, suffering individual." This concern redirects "individuals from the pursuit of political utopias to attentiveness and acts of compassion in everyday life." (335)

Autonomy, the Buddha preached and showed, comes not from self-directed individuals or economic imperatives, but from a radical departure from the myth that once we choose and pursue our desires in the marketplace, we will then attain fulfillment. Mishra warns that this delusion constitutes "the hypothesis which lies even now, in an age where mass manipulation is a respectable industry, at the basis of modern civilization." (331)

P.S. For readers unfamiliar with Buddhism, I'd recommend a primer before this, such as Karen Armstrong's or Daisaku Ikeda's short lives of the Buddha, or Damien Keown's "Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction"; an intriguing counterpart to the Indian odyssey that mingles Western countercultural seekers with native reactors may be the Irish writer Manchán Magan's "Manchán's Travels" (all reviewed by me on my blog and Amazon US). (See also Jean-Francois Revel & Mathieu Ricard's 1996 dialogue: "The Monk & the Philosopher, which I am now reading, for more on Western science & politics clashing or merging with Buddhist philosophy. Review of Mishra posted to Amazon US 6-16-09.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Buzzcocks' "Time's Up": Music Review

This was recorded for 45 quid one afternoon when I was fifteen; I heard their début LP a year later, but I always wanted these October '76 demos. At sixteen, "Another Music From a Different Kitchen" hit me perfectly; I sought it on import and unlike any other punk recording, it's stayed freshest for me. The earliest formation of the band also sounds spiky and snarly and witty and, as Greil Marcus' liner notes (cribbed from his typically over-reaching, half-intellectual, half-gushing "Lipstick Traces" that tried to place countercultural denizens within the tradition of Ranters and Levellers from Christopher Hill's Marxist revision of 17c Anabaptists and roundheads and rebels, and back to mystics and alchemists and heretics) put it well enough, "spidery" and "prickly" to boot.

This was a bootleg, although four songs appeared as the very first self-promoted DIY ep, "Spiral Scratch", sold for a pound by New Hormones label in Manchester. There's certainly the impact that, dramatized in "24-Hour Party People," can be seen at the Lesser Free Trade Hall Sex Pistols gig that supposedly galvanized the Buzzcocks into action, along with Warsaw (later Joy Division), and I suppose Mark E. Smith and The Fall, and the unlikely, given his legacy, crooner Simply Red. And, like Woodstock, probably another thousand punters claiming to have attended that concert.

Like The Fall's MES, you can hear in one of the best tracks, "Boredom," the ascending vocal "-uh" at the end of a line that made both Howard Devoto and Mark E famous-- well, semi-so vs. Simply Red or Ian Curtis-- for a Mancunian inflection. Dessicated, ripe, and arch, this tone of autodidactic students and artsy types from the North entered their edgy, febrile, bristlingly suggestive tunes. Full of cast-off but carefully learned references, the lyrics of such as The Fall and Buzzcocks may in Marcus' reading be "overdetermined," but given Mark naming the band after Camus' novel, and a fascinating interview of Devoto with Johnny Rachy in 1977 reprinted here, you cannot gainsay the smarts behind the sneers.

No, Devoto tells Rachy, not Van Morrison or Iggy Pop, but Des Essientes, Dostoevsky's underground man, and Camus' mythic Sisyphus inspire him. "Breakdown," one of the other standout cuts, for Devoto's set within "metanoia;" this "two-minute epic" encourages the listener to join the speaker's "potential for ego-expansion" within the "trials and tribulations of boredom, waiting and nascent enlightenment." Unsurprisingly, "Time's Up," inspired by standing in an endless line at Safeway to purchase bananas ("beans" does sound better in the song!), has Devoto explicating his attempt to articulate "waiting for ages like a Buddhist waiting twenty years for nirvana as an extreme." Not sure exactly what he means, but that lack of precision in turn suggests the imperative of the song and album's title: "the suspension of the self."

He adds: "But it never worked out so basically it's just a song about being pissed off at spending so much time waiting." This struggle against and within the mundane characterizes Buzzcocks; Devoto's notebook for lyrics filled with random insults while after he left to form the post-punk pioneers Magazine, Pete Shelley took over vocals with his quavering iambic delivery that gave more humor to, say "Orgasm Addict" vs. his predecessor's dryer, if equally strained, approach to singing, or more accurately, delivering the frenetic, unravelling, jittery tunes with annoyed voices over them.

The songs, given they're demos, lack of course the little polish that Martin Rushent would provide for the three studio albums. "You Tear Me Up" and "Love Battery" resemble album versions to come, while the warbling "Friends of Mine" deserves a higher status in their playlist. Unlike Marcus, who hears a raving from 1646 alluded to in its lyric, I lack as much enthusiasm (in the root sense) for "Lester Sands," although it features acerbic aspersions that match those of "Boredom's" couplet (not reproduced in the liner notes): "Who you trying to arouse?/Get your hand out of my trousers!" as one inspired pair that I doubt any other pop song's tried to convey so pithily, if at all!

The later songs that October afternoon seem to stretch out although many fail to reach even three minutes. The energy packed into tunes that rise and wail and fall and crest crazily, as if you're putting your ears through the amps, astound in what must have been very primitive recording conditions. Already, Devoto's interviews and lyrics convey the end of punk's purity and the start of its commodification; the pace of evolution and compromise among the tiny scene in '76 found very soon an end to idealism that had barely begun. Like The Fall, Joy Division, and Magazine, Buzzcocks would struggle to express their young yearnings gleaned from the detritus of decaying urban Britain, the paperbacks of Continental literature, and the conversations of passers-by and the posing of part-time punks and media caricatures.

Showing that teen punks could remember predecessors, Buzzcocks turned to those who tried to shake up rock music ten years before. The cover of the Troggs' "I Can't Control Myself" seems more an application of their guitar assault to proto-punk; it reminds me somehow of the Ramones or early Undertones who shared such influences. Captain Beefheart's "I Love You, Big Dummy" also shows inspiration, and it's more pummelling (later covered similarly by Magazine), although it's not the best song for the three artists involved. The final track, "Don't Mess Me Around," if only 2:35, feels sonically endless, foreshadowing the experimental attitude of the last original album, presciently called in the spirit that always animated the band, "A Different Kind of Tension," when Shelley and Steve Diggle and amazing deconstructing drummer John Maher (joined by Steve "Paddy" Garvey) would continue the philosophical excursions and paeans to thwarted romance that made them the pop-punk champions of the late '70s. (Posted today on Amazon US.) Cover painting of band (without Devoto, tellingly given its title) by Phil Diggle on this 2000 reissue on Mute Records.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Céline's "London Bridge": Book Review

Unpublished during Céline's life, left behind in WWII France by the author when he fled to Germany and Denmark, this sprawling sequel completes the earlier fragment "Guignol's Band." At three times the length, not much changes or happens! Late on, the author's stand-in "Ferdinand" reflects that in the WWI mayhem, "I didn't know how yet to doodle out seven hundred pages like that in crazy quilt patterns." The work combined's about that long, but little plot development occurs.

The themes can be summed up. In a novel whose setting remains hermetic, stuffy, and simple, not much of the City breaks out to show itself to you until the final scene. Most of the novel's a thundering set of arguments, fights, and snits in closed rooms, labs, and bars. You see little of wartime London itself. Under fear of air raids, the people seem to be herded inside to rail and rant with little resolution and little reason; a claustrophobic atmosphere permeates this thick novel. While Céline conveys the pressures of such a life, the fiction fails to rise above it much.

There's not much social commentary or description of events that readers may expect from other novels of this time. The war causes chaos at the home front as well as the trenches where Ferdinand's been wounded: "social conditions had turned the whole world topsy-turvy...morals were out the window...customs too."(212) Cornered, Ferdinand fights against whatever system he can find to resist.

He excuses Virginia's lack of standards, given the situations they find themselves trapped in: "all of us crazy to live life to the fullest, give it everything we got, and today not tomorrow, nobody has a single second to waste, on your feet or on your back, that's the law of the world...There's no room for lame ducks...can't let them be a drag on our delights...They're just left with their imaginations, with beating their meat for all they're worth, hunkering down, keeping a low profile..."(225)

I cite this to show Dominic diBernardi's ability to render the 'metro emotif' style of Céline better than the English translator of "Guignol's Band" (1944) did in 1954-- this tone does capture Céline's verbal assault well, although it resonates feverishly and endlessly over nearly 450 pages here that may exhaust those less devoted readers! You don't find a character to pity, or latch on to: all are tainted, all whine, and all carry on for pages rarely broken even by a pause between paragraphs in this book without chapters. It's a daunting narrative to take on.

More so than Céline's best works, "Journey to the End of the Night" (1932) and "Death on the Installment Plan" (1936), the lack of story and concentration on urban, if far from urbane, London tends to make "London Bridge" and "Guignol's Band" monotonous. Even the character of Sosthéne de Rodiencourt, who at least enlivened the final pages of the first part of this fiction, turns tedious in his ranting and dancing. So, too grows the garrulous narrator, during his hallucinatory descents into a night at the Tweet-Tweet Bar, and his imagined caprices as a war-horse possibly under the influence of deadly gas, and his carrying-on during his saint's day's evening's debacle along the docks while a zeppelin attack occurs over the City.

These three scenes elevate the tone from mundane bickering and brawling to more of the same, if under the influence of the narrator's war wounds, perhaps. The plot, such as it is, remains simple. Sosthéne's flim-flammery takes him and the narrator where "Guignol's Band" left off mid-scene; the novel opens with the pair arriving at Colonel O'Colloghom's place to test gas-masks. The narrator falls for the Lolita-like fourteen-year-old nymphet, Virginia, and she becomes pregnant soon enough, although it seems he only had one go at her; she seems more experienced than she lets on to him amidst the pimps like Cascade and prostitutes like Curlers who return from the previous novel to prattle and battle endlessly.

The presence of the corpse of Claban, who in the "Greenwich incident" of the earlier novel, also complicates matters in the last part set on the docks. The narrator must decide if he's to go off to the Americas or stay with his pregnant companion and Sosthéne, even as the police appear to be set by the publican Prospero, or Cascade, or even Claban's companion Delphine, on the trio's trail for the narrator's involvement in the death of Claban. "Just because you say 'America' doesn't mean it's all going to work out!" (373) Whether or not Ferdinand will jump ship or cross London Bridge with his elderly charlatan and pubescent charmer constitutes the climactic scene in this "crazy quilt pattern."

(The three other novels by Céline have all been reviewed by me on Amazon US; I reviewed "Guignol's Band" earlier this month on this blog also. This review posted by me 6-16-09.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Paul Foster's "Beckett & Zen": Book Review

This aim nears an elusive target. Foster aligns Beckett's dilemma-- there is no God vs. we must seek God-- with the adjacent attempt by Buddhism to veer away from a "monorail" linear quest that traps his characters to see only before or behind themselves in their existential exiles. Foster argues that their author, like his subjects, lacked the ability to turn off this doomed road, where Beckett's dilemma's solved by leaving it and a/theism and existence as we know it and cannot know it otherwise all behind. Rather, the true adept rejects mental constructs of a panicked ego, for a Zen search for immersion into that beyond anguished thought, careless diversion, or misleading faith: into One Mind, the ultimate Unnam[e]able.

In fact, Foster could have called it a "trilemma," for not two but three horns rise. We face a world of senselessness without God, we lament our impotence to change this abandonment, and we endure our lives without solace. Foster, a longtime practitioner of Zen who returned to academia to write the 1980 dissertation that became this 1989 book (published by a Buddhist-themed press), employs Beckett's examinations of the mind in his major prose texts as a spiritual tool for exposing the ontological strengths, and ultimately weaknesses, of what happens when, like Beckett dared, you sit and contemplate your fate. Without bowing to a god, without killing yourself, without either total despair or total comfort. A grim scenario for many of his characters and we his readers, but Foster bravely delves in to formidable narratives to apply his Zen-mind to Beckett's men and women who hesitate to make the "great leap" demanded in Buddhism of those who would gain power over their impotent selves.

In "Murphy," hints of Buddhism surface, but I agree with Foster that these are passing and rather inconsequential. As with Scripture, one can read back into Beckett a myriad of critical intentions that the author may not have intended at all. For "Watt," sophistry parodied wearyingly may veer near a Buddhist solution, however unintentional, when it comes to nothingness. "The difference is between the two is that where the one ends in brilliant but brick-wall theory, the other finds a way over the wall in practice. Where the one, like Watt, screams in an impasse of despair, the other initiates a revolution of mind that transcends both self and impasse." (150)

The prose trilogy that Foster takes on causes him, no less than any other than the most shallow commentators, problems. As with the previous two novels, with "Molloy" and "Malone Dies" he ends both his chapters on the first two installments at what to me appears very much like a brick wall. Both novels break down, and while Foster excels at extracting fragments to shore up against ruin of the agonized narrators, I sense that he cannot solve the dilemmas that Beckett through his prose confronts without being able to resolve. The honesty of Beckett prevents him from doing so.

Foster, to his credit, as with his subject, does not back down from what Beckett sneered or sighed at as "always the big questions," and "the big answers" that we all seek in our own exodus from meanings that comforted our ancestors, and soothe our neighbors. For those among us who cannot be eased by such resolutions, the prose trilogy stands as an articulation of our refusal to submit, and of the pain this defiance by its honesty causes within the psyche. Can one say soul?

For Foster, no. As a Zen adept, he knows that Beckett's confrontation prevents the author from overcoming the dilemma that tangles him and his creations. "The Unnamable" tackles this in what superficially at times nears a Buddhist stance, but Foster knows that, given the cryptic and unstable narrative stance through which we hear the story, we cannot ascribe so reductively or summarilly any pat solution to the momentous portents and baffling situations the protagonist-- if he indeed acts at all in the final judgment-- expresses so forlornly. It seems that Beckett steps back from the abyss, from what Zen would offer as obliteration within the One Mind.

I might add here a problem with Foster's presentation (an index would have also helped, and typos mar the text along with an inconsistently formatted bibliography). Beckett has been said to gain whatever knowledge of Buddhism he revealed via Schopenhauer, but that philosopher appears to have confused the One Mind direction of Buddhism with more of a Hindu "atman" into Oversoul version that distorts Zen teaching. In turn, as Foster does not treat Schopenhauer's interpretations of Buddhism at any length, one's left to puzzle over what echoed philosophies of Mind and Nothingness Beckett inculcated. Here's a point where more elucidation would have helped ease what, given the textual and intellectual challenges, remain tough questions to address let alone resolve.

In the last text treated, the despairing (even by previous standards) "How It Is," we're faced with faceless terrain that Foster well compares to a prehistoric creature clawing through primordial mud. Meditation does approach the "monster silences vast tracts of time perfect nothingness" (cited 238) of "How"; Foster finds the abandonment of the narrator approaching that required by the contemplative. Yet, Beckett draws again away and thus this text as with his work's a "tragedy."

It's all "doomed to failure," for the monorail perspective locks his narrators into infinite space and time without change, undeviating from "mental tedium" of memories. The failure's not artistic, but mental. Foster compares our self to an onion, peeled down to its own essence but leaving us with emptiness at its truest core.

This impasse, Foster argues, presents us with a poignant encounter with how far Beckett comes, yet also how far he still had to go. Beckett failed to overcome the predicament that ties him and his narrators to the demands of the questioning ego, the relentless inquirer, the despairing pawn. No practitioner, he may be by Zen reckoning indeed doomed if he cannot escape "samsara" and the ties to the flesh, ego, and stubborn soul that keep one tethered, dragging, or bound to this tedious, dirty, barren, yet intermittently beautiful and fleetingly dazzling, plain of plain existence. (Posted to British and Amazon US 6-16-09. Happy Bloomsday yesterday, by the way, via this tribute by way of Joyce's one time suffering servant!)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Earr an tsaoil

D'fhoghlaim mé faoi an bás mháthair shean-carad agam inniu. Dé Domhnaigh seo caite, fhreastail Léna agus mé go raibh ar shochraid mháthair eile. Bhí sísean an máthair shean-carad againn.

Ar ndóigh, ní faigheann bás fáilteach linn. Ach, bhí saol sásta an bheirt bhan seo. Thóg oiliúntúna linbh go ghrá.

D'imigh Léna agus mé ag tiomaint ar an leithinis Pailise Uaine. Ní dheachaigh ansin breis agus daichead blianta nuair bhí siad óg. Is cósta na mara ag líonadh leis tithe mór-- agus go minic go gruanna! Mar sin féin, is maith linn a faigheann spléadach ar cladach na farraige.

In aice leis, tá teampall cáiliúil suas an cnóc ansin. Is é "Séipéal Taistealaithe." Bheartaigh sé le Lloyd Wright, mac Fhrainc, i 1951.

Tógail sé chomh an bord leis fuinneoigaí chomh glan le spéir os ár gcionn. Chruinnigh céad duine le luí na gréine istigh. Bhí earr an tsaoil mháthair na ár cairde.

Súigh muid ar h-uair síos an radharc leis crannái deargaí seang agus cúfrógái storrúil. Fásoidh solas go lag. Le comhrac lae agus oiche, chuala muid adhmholadh gharmac.

D'inis buachaill orainn faoi a sheanmháthair. Éist sí ar amhrán le Eilvis Preseli ar an leaba an bháis aici. (B'fhéidir, bhí seo "Siochain ar an Ghleann" go raibh ag seinmeadh a críochnú an séirbhís.) Chríochnaigh an ua sin an scéalín agam leis céist.

Ina dhiadh ag cloiste an amhrán, bhí go ciuin léi. D'oscail sí a súile ar an den uair dhéanach. Fhiafraígh iníon a máthair aicisean féin, a sheanmáthair féin, ar feadh ciúnas critheaglach seo. "An bhfeiceann tusa Dia?"

"Sunset of Life."

I learned about the death of the mother of an old friend of mine today. This past Sunday, Layne and I attended a funeral of another mother. She was the mother of an old friend of ours.

Naturally, death never finds us gladly. But, this pair of women lived happily. They reared loving children.

Layne and I went away driving to the Palos Verdes peninsula. We had not gone there for forty years when we were young. It's a sea coast filled with mansions-- and often ugly (ones)! Nevertheless, we like to glimpse the shoreline.

Next to it, there's a famous church [Irish denotes a Protestant one differently!] up the hill. It's "Wayfarers Chapel." Lloyd Wright, Frank's son, designed it in 1951.

It's built like a boat with windows as clear as the sky above us. A hundred people gathered there at the setting of the sun inside. It was a sunset of life for the mother of our friend.

We sat an hour under the view of slender redwood trees and sturdy cypresses. Light grew weak. In the meeting of day and night, we heard the grandson's eulogy.

The boy told us about his grandmother. She listened to a song by Elvis Presley on her deathbed. (Perhaps, this was "Peace in the Valley" that was played to close the service.) The grandson finished his little story with a question.

After hearing the song, it was quiet with her. She had opened her eyes for the last time. Daughter asked her own mother, his own grandmother, during this breathless silence. "Do you see God?"

Ghriangraf le/Photo by Joey Ikemoto. From the site/le suíomh "Séipéil Taistealaithe"/"Wayfarers Chapel."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

June Gloom

Not so gloomy for me. I welcome overcast diffusion rather than glaring heat and dust. I've never acclimated to my native L.A. My theory: you inherit ancestral blood; thousands of rainy Irish summers permeated my DNA, my circulation, my pale complexion.

If I had my preferences, I'd never have moved to my hometown. This contradictory remark betrays my wish for cooler climes. I find it easier to bundle up than take off, and I look better in bulk than bare. I wonder if Northern Europeans adapted to sartorial desires that made them lust and long after those mates similarly swaddled. Then I consider the stereotypical Scandinavian model, or recently post-glasnost her curvaceous Russian neighbors, and those images deflate my theoretical balloon.

The sun's out earlier today, so halfway through the month that often finds the marine layers persisting despite the solstice's nearness, it may be over for the ten days or so that's been "unseasonably" below the average temperature. When I'd driven to pick up Leo from his school tucked at the base of the mountain range twelve miles north, it's been drizzling or misty up there each time. I keep washing my car, confident I'll never see another cloud until November, and then it keeps showering-- always precisely enough to smear my car with dirt dislodged but never with enough water to sweep away the emissions-darkened urban grime.

Last summer, the same summer this picture was taken by "Kevin Collins 123," we visited Cambria; Layne and I walked above the coast in a sanctuary that a month or two before must have been bursting with lavender or wildflowers, early enough to beat the sun's daily conquest on its frontier where it battled the eternal sea.

Then, we drove up to San Francisco. Staying across the street from Buena Vista Park, the bay's view may have been not so "good," but I enjoyed the chance to wear my UCLA sweatshirt on morning walks while watching the fog lift slowly, hoping it would not end before my hour-long, rather strenuous trek three times around. It's a natural workout in this tilted corona under a miniature forest, given a circle that tipped up the hill and down, a route placed on the slope like an off-balance table holding a stain left by the ring of a coffee-cup; you trudged up and down the skewed elevation as you circled around the base of the hill the park surmounts. Many of those resident there, however, must have found this wearying in their perambulations up and down from the attractions of the Haight, marking the park's northern border.

I also remember, the day we left Mount Hermon on that same vacation, getting even on the morning of July 4th for the first time ever in California to wear my sweatshirt at least in the morning, on my final breakfast outside under the redwoods. It did get hotter soon, nearly ten degrees as soon as we left the arboreal cover on the tiny hill that calls itself a Mount, a couple hundred feet above the riparian plain, for the flat heat that, as we drove south, steadily rose with every mountain range we topped until the numbers neared a hundred, when they'd started in the low seventies on that protected peninsula off the Coast Range above Santa Cruz. We live so far inland that we never see a seagull, never sniff the salt breeze, never feel the drop in the air that signals when the ocean, even if still unseen, nears. That's why I cannot see growing old in palm-treed arid L.A., although Layne fears if our dream comes true that we'll shrivel and shiver as we wither amidst dripping pines.

Wikipedia reports that this term's indeed a local one; I'd never heard, however, its predecessor "May Grey." The entry concludes: "June Gloom has been reported by some Californians to bring on symptoms consistent with seasonal affective disorder. It is often cited as a time of depression." For me, however, reverting back to atavisitic patterns of comfort, I embrace the chance to wear a sweatshirt so close to my birthday, a time just after the year's longest day that always brings to mind sweltering ovens of baking furnaces, smog and sun and weary dog days if five weeks before Sirius the Dog Star's zenith at the arrival of the Perseid meteor showers.

Wikimedia photo caption: "Coastal clouds hovering over Southern California around 1:48PDT on June 12, 2008. Such clouds are involved in a weather pattern known as June gloom that occurs in late spring and early summer."