Sunday, August 31, 2008

Palin, Obama, Plate o' Shrimp.

For a plague on both your houses voter like me, disenchanted with both parties, at least the race has been shaken up by McCain for once acting as the maverick he's supposed to have been all along. I never saw "Slacker," but if Obama can be counted among GenX by its caffeinated technorati, I guess I can too. Too young for the smug boomers, too old for the raised-by-video millennium Generation "Why." Inspirational quote from film: "withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy."

By no means am I punching the chad for him and Sarah Palin, but at least it'll throw off the momentum Obama's picked up last week at the convention. Of course, God's pretty mad at New Orleans once again, and looks to be using Gustav to splash down on Crescent City again to rain on the parade of the GOP. I thought He liked the GOP better than their secular humanist nemeses. To think that the Republicans scheduled their shindig in the city of St. Paul. Rick Warren better get his game on and rally the faithful so Haiti's inudated instead.

From today's pretty dismal Los Angeles Times, a few tidbits of note in these dog days. As Layne and I predicted separately, vocal training as well as coiffure intervention's needed stat. Palin's PTA mien and whine may make listeners think of another Palin, Michael, and his Python routines. When I heard the news of her selection on the radio, a snippet of her blather accompanied as a soundbite, and she sounded like the schoolmarm she looks. She reminds me of the nailed-down, lacquered-up, and business-suited middle-aged middle-management drones at work who spout the platitudes of the higher-ups to us little guys. You wonder if she unpins her hair, if she tells cruel jokes, if she laughs at rather than with other people, and you wonder. [Update: three days into her campaign, already her tresses tumble to her shoulders in a redo.]

I think of me being the same age roughly as her and Obama, and I strain to place them among people I'd have hung out with, let alone befriended in the days of bigger hair. But, I've always been the aloof one. Palin would sweat as a jock and Obama would brood as a dweeb. They'd both have ignored me; doubtless I'd have returned the feeling.

Bob Drogin's "She Starts Making U.S. Rounds" observes at her ballpark debut in a Pittsburgh suburb:
But Palin's speech -- the same one she gave Friday -- was less well received. Because of either ballpark loudspeakers or just nerves, her voice cracked and at times rose to an uncomfortably high pitch. Midway through her talk, some families could be seen leaving the park.

So much for the hockey-mom vote.

Marjorie Miller's "Palin Fever Comes to Town" describes her hometown:
Wasilla, about an hour north of Anchorage, is in the Mat-Su Valley, a place of sweeping lakes and rivers where clouds of mist lie low in the fields and snow-striped mountain peaks jut from the clouds. It is a town of fewer than 10,000 in the middle of a region that is home to nearly 80,000. Charmless strip malls with big-box stores line the main highway; lakefront homes open onto dramatic views.

Sarah and Todd Palin, who have five children, have a home on Lake Lucille, according to former neighbor Ray Pursche. When he moved to Wasilla in the early 1980s, he said, the town had one blinking traffic light and a few stores. That began to change while Palin was on the City Council, starting in 1992, particularly during her two terms as mayor.

"She's been very helpful, always bringing business into the city," Pursche said.

When Palin's mother, Sally Heath, answered her door Saturday, she apologized for not being able to chat. "I'm just trying to follow protocol," she said. "I guess life really has changed." She said family members were to meet with the campaign in Anchorage later in the day to confer on what they might and might not say.

This reminds me of Bonner Lake, where I passed through last year about an hour out of Seattle, along another exurb belt where formerly rural weekend getaways were being drawn into the suburban maw. We drove on our way to the back entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park down a straight arrow road, no longer a two-lane that once had ambled through forests and meadows. Now, it had been widened for the same franchises you see in every middle-class thoroughfare. The parking lots had been hacked out of the groves, SUVs swarmed with stocky families waddling about, and the same ambiance had been lost that so many in the GOP-- and among their rivals-- hail as essential to our supposedly rootsy, local, friendly small-town mythologized way of life, if you can call such concrete expanses and commercial devastation organic.

You also see in this excerpt above the shift that will befall this charmless stretch of progress. That is, if as we're all told we must never stop building, spending, and getting in the ways of the world too much with us. We spread samsara and call it nirvana. Palin's utter opposition to preserving her own state's Last Frontier, her nearly total rejection of the safeguards some have tried to keep in place against relentless development of "resources" rather than "open space" can be seen in miniature in her hometown. The pressure to change under the winds not of Gustav but of media scrutiny in the service of capitalist juggernauts thunder down on the Northwest, Alaska, and New Orleans. Whatever's fresh succumbs to homogenization, and no cream rises to the top. Palin will be branded, or refurbished into a type as when she was Miss Congeniality. You also contemplate how her family and her neighbors will begin to warp and furl as the media descend, to probe every nook and cranny of Palin's past. Layne could not find any beauty contest pics last night on the Net.

Similarly, over in Obama's neck of the cyberwoods, we find spin control. You cannot log in to his website unless you register. You can not find, as I tried to tell my now-deaf father of 91 yesterday by scrawling with a Sharpie in a notebook, easily a snapshot of his mother, or details of his father's bigamy, procreative activity, drinking, or death in a car crash after he ruined his life by the bottle. His story, told at the fittingly named Pepsi Center last week, has been shaped and packaged as carefully as will Palin's. Still, for exoticism, ignoring the decidedly tract-home chic names of Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and baffingly Trig, her children's part Yup'ik heritage may make them as multicultural as their bi-racial opponent.

Finally, in a multiracial megapolis such as mine, far away from sylvan vistas of any kind let alone mooseburgers or salmon (unless you find the latter in a market), there's the "25 Best L.A. Films of the last 25 years." Nothing I had not heard of, although I have not bothered to see many, as I'm tired of the (#25 reluctantly) "Crash"-type of epiphanies undergone as did Paul Haggis-- inspired by the '91 carjacking of his Porsche (not Pursche) outside a Wilshire video store-- to tell us how, gasp, we live in our cars, and wow, can't we all get along in our improbably coincidental group-hugs to replace equally contrived rivalries choreographed by New Yorkers, Brits, and awestruck hicks who come into our city to tell us what we already know.

Scott Timberg selected as #8, however, one that I'd pick. (And I agree with "L.A. Confidential" as Numero Uno, featuring as part of its ambiance "around Elysian Park where pockets of period-perfect architecture still stand" a cinematic millisecond glimpse of our own "Owl House" where Layne lived when we met and fell in love.) Timberg comments about another slice of down-and-out, non-Porsche El Lay, 1984's "Repo Man":
This is the City of Angels in the wealthy '80s, but it's far from glitzy: L.A. is filled with guns and almost no vegetation, a huge swath of the population seems to be unemployed, racial tension is high, buildings and lots are abandoned, and every convenience store we visit is in the process of being knocked over. Instead of responsible adults we have homeless savants, televangelists and blissed-out ex-hippies. Years later, the film -- a kind of hinge between "Taxi Driver" and "Pulp Fiction" -- shows an L.A. that doesn't seem that far from where we're heading.

I agree with that. A preposterous movie, but more memorable than many of the homilies about the meaning of life as understood by moguls and/or Westsiders, ghetto yoof, or Ice-T, who's the missing link between these demographics with his 35,000 square foot mansion in Woodland Hills. The rest of us non-actors, or as Variety puts it, "non-pro," muddle along and occasionally, as momentarily as the shot with the "Owl House" in the background of the Echo Park basement house, recognize where we live.

Caught in traffic, bewilderingly diverse, millions of us and more never stop coming. 1 in 31 Americans live in L.A. County. We're in the "far from glitzy," long past the forest-to-minimall stage of evolution, and "almost free of vegetation," as the construction surrounding my home helps eradicate even the chaparral. And, in such a concrete perch, down the street a supporting actress on "Everybody Hates Chris" parks her Beamer. She's part of the business that surrounds the rest of us.

Earnest filmmakers keep coming to lecture us and perhaps inspire us local yokels. Even though director Alex Cox hails from outside Liverpool, and now lives in Oregon (I'm jealous; I guess he misses the rain), I do forgive an outsider's intrusion. His punk-addled heart was in the right place, and he preferred the quirky to the bombastic, less Obama and more Otto. His Pogues-sponsorship in the dreadful follow-up "Straight to Hell" and perhaps his misguided "Walker" (pity he botched a great story idea) merit mention if not as much as "Sid & Nancy."

That reminds me of fish, in tangential "Repo Man" style. Its in-house philosopher, Harry Dean Stanton, would understand; Sarah Palin labored one summer packing crabs, as do many Alaskans apparently. Probably more "working class" than her rival's extramural occupations at the height of Greed is Good decade. Did Obama ever work a job to pay for grad school expenses the year after he and I graduated college, still for minimum wage? I doubt if he did, at Harvard Law. But I did so when "Repo Man" came out. Had to go all the way to the Beverly Center-- maybe even down Wilshire in this era when the video store was barely beginning-- to see it in a tiny cubicle of their multiplex. And it wasn't in a Porsche. Only Westsiders, you see, were deemed the target for an arthouse angle on the low-lifes before gentrification changed "La Vida Loca" (didactically unwatchable, but filmed down the block from "Owl House") into the coffeehouse hipster mecca that even today defies the collapse in real estate, so eager are new arrivals to settle there and yammer on about what we natives again already know. Such jaw-flapping, in fact, suits the shaggy-dog narrative of the silly scenarios that permeate the city's underbelly in "Repo Man."

And I still remember "plate o' shrimp." In fact, as such a coincidence, in "Crash" fashion if less ideologically loaded, came yesterday as my dad had the Shrimp Trio Platter (an outrageous $12.79) at Coco's. Don't blame me. He likes it there. Strip malls. Exurbia. It was his choice.

Wikiquote by "Miller," the repo lot's "groundskeeper," played in "Repo Man" by Tracy Walter:
A lot o' people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch o' unconnected incidents 'n things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice o' coincidence that lays on top o' everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you're thinkin' about a plate o' shrimp. Suddenly someone'll say, like, "plate," or "shrimp," or "plate o' shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.

Photo: "Shot of Plate O' Shrimp." "In the City of Angels in the wealthy '80s," I saw this diner in the heart of Latinized downtown, perhaps around Broadway. However, I cannot pinpoint its location even on this site: Bob Cantor's Repo Man Links Page. As trivia notes: Later, the two Latinos who've stolen the "Asimov" car park outside a diner which features a huge sign in one of its windows reading: PLATE O' SHRIMP $2.95.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Uwem Akpan's "Say You're One of Them": Book Review

You can read other Amazon reviewers (where this review was posted today) and the synopsis from the Washington Post there for an overview of the themes and their author. What no other previous entry has conveyed is the power of Akpan's language. He rarely pauses from dialogue or moving the story along often intricate lines, so when he does notice the landscape, it's for a telling detail. These scenes allow the narrative to "catch its breath" and to pause for dramatic effect. Since most of the stories included here rush along often into truly harrowing scenarios, these momentary shifts towards the horizon only intensify the punch of these unflinchingly brutal, poignant tales.

My favorite comes on p. 74, about thirty pages into the novella (130 pp.) "Fattening for Gabon." The children do not know yet why they are being fussed over and threatened alternately. But, note how the details compress traditional with globalized Africa near the border that separates them from their fate, and match the transition from pastoral safety to menacing journey under powerful forces-- a trail that Yewa and the narrator Kotchikpa follow unwittingly:

"The fisherman at sea spangled the water with their lanterns, like stars. Yet there was no sea, no sky, no land, only points of light dangling in a black chasm. The night had eaten the coconut vistas too, except when the canoe lanterns, moving, were periodically blotted out behind the trees. The sea blew a strong kiss of breeze, warm and unrelenting, through our neighborhood. In the distance, we could hear the hum from the no-man's-land market fizzling out for the night. We could also hear the semitrailers and trucks coming and going from the border, backing up or parking. Sometimes, from where we sat, we saw the beams of their headlights sweeping the skies of neighboring villages, like searchlights."

Akpan's skilled at what his Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius, called the practice of "discernment." The author's able to imagine himself into the scenes he depicts, and they unfold from his imagination weighted on imaginative levels that deepen their immediate references. They convey a spiritual gloss that reminds me of many of the stories of similarly "paralyzed" youngsters and adults in Joyce's "Dubliners." Perhaps the difference is that Fr. Akpan believes in what James Joyce sought to transmit by literary rather than salvific means to the reader seeking, along with the characters, enlightenment. For both Akpan and Joyce, we get the machinations of the grown-up world filtered often unbearably through the perspectives of those too young, too powerless, or too overwhelmed to cope with pure evil and utter chaos.

In each story, often subtly and deftly, he manages to refer to Christian themes that his characters briefly recall within their terror or wonder. I only gave this four stars because "What Language" to me while a good story fell short of the mark set by the other four, and out of these, the other novella, "Luxurious Hearses," appeared at times to be too schematic, almost as if "Things Fall Apart" by his predecessor Chinua Achebe (also reviewed by me) needed to be updated within a framework either too long or too short for the pages given to it. Yet, the story ends as gracefully, or as awfully, as most of the others here. Akpan spares no sense in making you feel, as potently as did the Jesuit preacher in Joyce's "Portrait," the hold the imagination can have over the pinioned and gibbering soul.

Other places in his fiction, luckily, Akpan shifts towards a degree of grace, if often tempered with irony as the expectations of faith are always tested to their utmost, and many of the characters find their fate one of flight, exile, or a kind of martyrdom for their convictions. The earlier Amazonian comparing Akpan to Flannery O'Connor hit the mark. A quick example later in the story: "The plantations and sea loomed behind the road, and sometimes it looked as if the plantation were on the sea or as if the people on the road were walking on the water, like Jesus." (130)

This writer, I predict, will only improve with his next stories, and a five-star rating will surely be earned. The stories demand attention, and the unfamiliarity that Western readers will have with the Africanized syntax, loan words, French and untranslated native dialogue, plunge you in, appropriately, to the dilemmas of a continent undergoing dramatic upheaval. His characters may not find much luck; but we are lucky that Fr. Akpan can convey their drama to us in stories that often prove to be, despite the risk of cliché, ones you cannot put down much as you wish you could forget their carefully described patterns of darkness and light, despair and hope, grace and damnation.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Na Síneach in aghaidh an Bíobla.

D'inis Léna ort faoi na Síneach agus an Bíobla. Is mian réim Sínigh go mbeidh ag dul chun chinn a chosc le misinéirí ansin. Ceapaim sí go mbeadh Cumannaíthe ceart go leor. Ar rud ceart a déanamh?

Measaionn Léna go rabhthar ag dul amú futhú. Deir sí go mb'fheídir go creideamh i nDia ná raibh sé rúd eagnai i gcónai ar chor ar bith. Tá barúil go aisteach sin uirthi.

Is í a tuairim ní bhíodh maith le cumhlacht Sínigh. Tá sí barúlach go saibhreas na Síneach ní bheidh níos mó mura go raibh a chosc córas eile leis An t'Sín. Mar shampla, comhairlíonn sí orm fúthu go bhítí in t-Sín ag fásadh is rathúil gan iomaíocht mhíchneasta.

Mar sin féin, is cuimhne liom faoi na Tíbeadaigh. B'fhéidir, fuair 1.3 mhuilliún duine bás nuair thithe siadsan idir láimh an namhad Sínigh. Dhúnmhairionn Sínigh idir fiche agus daichead milliúin duine a chuid féin ar feadh Réabhlóid Chúlturúna freisin. Chuir ceithre millúin tiarnaí talun daortha chun báis i 1953. Níl fhios againn go cruinn.

The Chinese vs. the Bible.

Layne told me about the Chinese and the Bible. The regime in China will need to block progress by the missionaries there. She thinks that this should be very correct for the Chinese. Is this doing the right thing?

Layne reckons that one may be mistaken about this. She suggests that belief in God many not be always a wise thing at all. That's a droll claim of hers.

It's her opinion that it may not be well for Chinese power. It's her assertion that wealth of the Chinese will not be more unless China may block another system. Of course, she opines to me about these (things) that one may be in China growing wealthiest without the unfair competition.

Nevertheless, the Tibetans come to my mind. Perhaps 1.3 million died when they fell into the hands of the Chinese enemy. The Chinese murdered between twenty and forty million of their own people during the Cultural Revolution. They executed four million landlords in 1953. Nobody knows precisely how many.

Captean/Caption China's biggest bible factory:(Reuters): A worker packs new English language Bible books at Amity Printing factory in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, July 8, 2008. Amity, China's biggest Bible producer has made over 5 million Bibles for officially recognised Chinese churches in the past two years and exported about 5 million in roughly 75 languages. The factory has produced 30,000 copies of the New Testament (Chinese-English bilingual edition) for free distribution during the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet": Book Review.

Subtitled if boldly "Conversations with the Dalai Lama," this combines interviews and commentary about Tenzin Gyatso's homeland with Laird, who offers a popular history of the embattled nation. I stress "nation": this collaborative work stresses the claims that Tibet's entitled to its own independence, as it was taken over somewhat as a client state by the Mongols and then the Manchu rulers in tandem with China, not as a vassal of China itself, but around the same time, if in different contexts, from the larger subservient entity around present-day (if greater) Mongolia. This may smack of nitpicking, but in fact it distinguishes Tibetan rights to be recognized as its own sovereign state, rather than the dubious PRC (following the Kuomintang Nationalist government) argument that China should incorporate Tibet "back" into its empire.

If you have little interest in such a treatment, you'd best go elsewhere for more romantic or more propagandistic fare. This book, written for a wide audience, nonetheless devotes considerable space to debunking not only the illusion (held by some New Age admirers today) that a strife-free, non-martial Shambhala materialized in medieval times, but the common leftist riposte that it was a corrupt realm of cruel monks, feudal savagery, or serf-perpetuated ignorance. It's not always a grippingly narrated tale, especially in long stretches of tedious medieval and early modern sections, but the novelty of hearing Tibetan history echoed and elaborated by the Dalai Lama via Laird's own knowledge, interpretations, and comparisons to Western models makes this an inherently valuable document.

Laird's careful to assert his own Western understanding of how politics can infiltrate into the purportedly religious condition into which the Dalai Lamas have been born. He serves often as a skeptical foil for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama's hesitant disclaimers and introverted aversions to his leadership role when-- as a youth of sixteen-- he found himself set up by Mao to be manipulated, perhaps, into the Communist's potential dupe as their prize convert to collectivist purity and Marxist fervor. This poignant story of the current Dalai Lama's predicament's terribly deepened. You learn what's far too little taught: about 20-40 million whom Mao and his regime killed of their own people, and the 500,000-1.2 million Tibetans murdered since the triumph of Marxism. We in the West prefer often to ignore these facts, but such data have been compiled.

From Tibet, as Laird notes, we can predict how China may treat other minorities and neighbors, and how determinedly the PRC manipulates spokespeople from East and West whom it favors or monitors to tell its sanitized story in our media. This spin-doctoring proves relevant. It tells us if we care to hear beyond the commercials and the glitz many serious lessons amidst our global post-Olympic awe at China's supposed human rights "progress." The Dalai Lama's eloquent at times and then bitter when he summarizes the idealism of the early cadres, his own admiration for what he was promised would accompany Marxist reforms, and his own disillusionment at the spiritual and physical distortions that befall those Chinese who warped after young optimism for a cause curdled into deceit, invasion, and thuggery.

The brief accounts of torture, slaughter, and destruction inflicted on Tibet by China here humble you, and one must ask if China's advances economically and socially rest indeed on a legacy of rapine and plunder no less savage than that done by imperialists elsewhere. The Tibetans-- facing capitulation or extermination-- have been left with little choice. Despite the claims that many modern nations admire non-violent resistance more than revolution against tyranny, which countries stand by Tibet today? Out of all the United Nations in 1950, only El Salvador sponsored, as Laird shows years ago, a resolution in the UN condemning China's invasion, and such protests mattered in the long run about as much as may a few banner-waving activists in the Olympic Stadium a few days ago, I suppose, vs. the clout that 1.3 billion people hold over the silence of 6 million natives of Tibet. I hope I am disproved in the future.

One intriguing aspect of this story of overwhelming force vs. principled resistance emerges in how the Dalai Lama had to survive with next to nothing of worldliness or a knowledge of realpolitik let alone the outside world when he had to deal with being a prize captive-- or hostage so to speak-- of Mao and his minions in the early 1950s. Laird prods the Dalai Lama to reveal more of his own reactions to this dangerous diplomatic situation in which he suddenly found himself. Eager manipulations and nimble retellings of history by the PRC belie their frequent mendacity regarding the status of Tibet today and historically. What the Dalai Lama articulates historically-- in talks with Laird-- as a patron-priest relationship of Tibetan rulers with their Chinese contacts and Mongol emissaries, akin to popes and emperors in medieval Europe, becomes more the predecessor for the Mongol-Tibetan and then Chinese-Tibetan power-sharing rather than the hegemony willed by China, past and present.

Regarding critiques by other (Amazon US, where this was posted today) reviewers, I found that Laird never strikes a worshipful tone or a credulous stance towards what the Dalai Lama explains or what Tibet's defenders counter. Laird gives as good as he gets, and he holds his own ground against what he regards now and then as the naivete or intransigence of his formidable interlocutor, one of the very few people alive who, as Laird comments, has dealt with every president from FDR on. The Dalai Lama and Laird talked at length over a period of years, but they never become over-familiar. It's a meeting of two smart people, rather than inspirational claptrap, conversational blather, or pat platitudes. It's a study in how the world works, vs. how some of us less wordly would like it to work.

The appeal of Buddhism also permeates parts of the Dalai Lama's exchanges with Laird, a skeptic at best. Even he is moved by the compassion the Dalai Lama embodies. He sees what we cannot: a double vision of the common and the uncommon. This fits not only with Buddhism acceptance of transience and impermanence, but with, as Laird cleverly shows, many Westerners in their acceptance of the Resurrection despite its clashing with "facts." If billions can believe in the rising of one from the dead despite our everyday knowledge that what's dead stays dead, then, looking at Tibet through the Dalai Lama's eyes, we can better perceive the multiple perspective appreciated by him and other Buddhist adepts.

Such similarities and contrasts with our own culture and mindsets make this one of the book's strongest appeals for readers curious, unfamiliar, or mystified by the continuing appeal of Tibet in the judgment and dreams of so much of the world today. Tibet's not a mystical playground, but it has amassed a cultural patrimony and spiritual legacy worth preserving, and its defense should -- in an idealistic world again-- remain our priority even in our debased condition! You don't have to be Buddhist to learn many lessons here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Braun Aqua Express: Product Review

A review first! As a loyal drinker of tea each morning, I was discouraged when I returned from Canada, a land where not everyone drinks Tim Hortons yet, to find that in my absence, mysteriously our electric kettle went on the permanent (lack of) blink. I was reduced to heating water in glass measuring cups in the microwave until Layne found Braun's WK200, model 3217, to be exact. While I had liked the Procter-Silex model I'd used at our rental in Toronto a month ago, it did not garner the Amazon ratings that Braun did, over four hundred and mostly five-star. Layne made an end-run around my wish-list, and since Niall wanted a particular kind of doohickey ice cream maker that attaches to a Kitchen Aid mixer, she added the water boiler. I gave it four stars, as you can read why, for a couple of cautions, but I'm happy to have an efficient dynamo of my own!

This does heat up rapidly, as most reviewers concur. It holds up to seven cups, and even at full capacity boils up faster than earlier machines I used took to heat less than half this amount of water. You can fill it with the lid shut as well as open, a thoughtful feature. The lid can also be locked, of course. It's a bit heavy when there's more than a couple of cups worth of water in it, but it's solid and feels durable.

I like the separation of the base from the water container. There's less exposure to contact points that can get wet than with some other models. The cord certainly is short, no more than a few inches even if uncoiled from its wraparound base, but this keeps in many kitchens I suppose the risky apparatus from tipping near the sink, as has happened with my previous electric kettles, which wound up getting in countertop puddles inevitably, hastening those machines' demise.

I was about to purchase a similar, and far cheaper one, but this Braun, made in the Czech Republic, has European workmanship combined with clever touches-- for instance, there's a reinforced hand protecting layer where your fingers will come into contact with the plastic container. The rest of the surface, outside of your hand's reach, will get quite warm, more so than other kettles, so be forewarned. The power involved in the boiling means this is a device for serious cooks, not only tea-drinkers. My kitchen-savvy wife can use this for heating up lots of water fast to expedite cooking demands, and I can employ it for my less-intensive cup of tea preparation.

So, as with many such items in a well-stocked kitchen, this may be at the higher side of the price range, but after having worn out two less expensive electric kettles, I predict this one will live up to its reputation and outlive its predecessors, with care and cleaning. There's an anti-calcification filter that detaches (it can come off if you're fumbling around the spout, so be careful) and this added feature can prolong the life of the machine, as well as periodically boiling the minerals out of it.

The double-sided see-through level indicator shows the planning involved in a higher-quality appliance. The dark blue shade's a bit too artsy, blocking faraway view of how many cups are inside bubbling away, but this may be for shielding purposes, who knows? The water level turns out darker, but not as easily contrasted with the area where there's no liquid. Seems to me some sort of brightly floating spirit level bubble would have been preferable to minimize squints.

The base is wide enough to discourage tipping, while the plug's brevity may cause you to rearrange space for it on a counter away from a faucet's hazard. A safety factor, and you can always put it on an extension cord, although it's a one-way triple grounded plug. Its large capacity and solid feel should convince many to invest the few extra dollars in it. Since many buyers will be using it at least once daily, it's worth finding the better crafted product.

Daniel King's "Chess: From First Moves to Checkmate"-- Book Review.

Looking in my large public library for an introductory book to teach myself chess, I could not find any appropriate title on the adult shelf. Many sports and games sections tend to be ransacked by borrowers and often titles have been stolen or at least gone missing as far as I can tell! In the teen section, I was surprised to find only Daniel King's primer.

The alluring combination of computer-generated graphics and simple text attracted me. I cannot judge the accuracy of King's technical remarks, but as an absolute beginner, I can attest to the helpfulness of his presentation. The book's only about sixty pages, with lots of art and minimal text. Very little on the game's origins and evolution. But, the board's diagrammed in an easily discerned series of illustrations, taking you from how each piece moves quickly into notation (a very brisk presentation that may well need supplementing with other materials), check and checkmate, and en passant and castling. These latter two options are not always given much detail, however, and the same note as for the notation applies.

Part two enters into what to do once you know how the pieces move. After all, many primers devote much time to what can be memorized, frankly, in a few minutes. King's concerned about openings, whisking you into the charts for forks, pins and skewers before attacks, sacrifices, and draws. He then offers training exercises and test situations (with answers on another page) to hone your knowledge.

The latter part of the book surveys the world of championships, famous players, and fun facts. I'd have preferred that some of this content have been supplemented by more detail on developing a learner's understanding of beginning, middle and end-games, but it's a handsome picture book that lies (in hardcover at least) flat for easy reference (often a point overlooked when you want to prop open a smaller paperback) and can be easily seen at a short distance, enabling you to practice on a board while you read. This feature may prove its utility as well as display its beauty.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Manchán Magan in h-Aoifric

Chuir Manchán Magan orm cóip a leabhair nua faoi An Aoifric. Is é "Fiabhras Trucaile." Scríobh Manchán chuigam tiomnú dea-chríoch: "le beannacht agus buíochas ucht de chuid tacaíochta (Lúnasa 2008)." Tá mé corraithe ar bronntanas seo air. Bhí mian liom a léamh seo. Tá mé ag bheith faoi bunús as Béarla. Cén fáth?

Críochnaíonn Manchán trí cuntais as Gaeilge, agus ag aistriú as Béarla, anois. Ar dtús, nuair bhí sé féin ach fiche blian d'aois, thaistil Manchán ar troma Aoifric leis lucht siúil bithíunochái Sasanach ar feadh ríocht Bhean uí Thatcher. Cuireann leabhar as Gaeilge i 1998 le "Manchán ar Seachrán: ó Bhaile Átha Cliath go Nairobi i seanleoiraí airm."

An chéad uair eile, d'inis sé féin faoi a h-eachtraí ag imeall ina Hiomoleatha agus an taobh thiar thuaidh na hIndia. Seo é "Baba-ji agus T na G: Seachrán san India," as Gaeilge i 2006. As Béarla, léirmhínigh mé "Turas Mhanchán" (2007) ar An Amazon agus anseo ar mo bhlog. Is maith liom leabhar seo go leor. Is mian liom a foghlaim me féin faoi lascannaí idir idéalú India agus Thibéad leis Éirinn agus na Ceilteach sa fichiú céad déag--agus go dtí anois.

An trí uair eile, rinne sé féin taistealaí go Meiricea Theas. Chuaigh sé timpeall na hAindéas. Ansin, d'fhág sé go dtí Meiricea Thuaidh. Chuir síos air go maith ina spiorad ainrialaí ina Sléibhte Easannaí ina gceantar Cholóim Briotanach. Faigheann tú leabhar seo as Béarla le "Áingeal agus Confadh." (2006) Ábalta tú fáil mo lhéirmeas faoi áiteannaí céann go raibh ag raite os cionn.

Cád as bun dóibh? Ar cosúil leo an dhá teangachaí? Níl mé ábalta feiceáil orthu as Gaeilge, mar sin "Manchán ar Seachrán" agus "Babi-ji agus T na G" go bhfuil is iannamh ina Stáit Aontaithe, ar ndóigh. Fhiafríonn air faoi seo!

D'oscail mé an leabhar nua inniu. Bhí mé ag déanamh seo sula mhúin mé. Dúirt mé leis mac léinn Afrocach faoi Manchán ann. D'fhiafraigh sé orm faoi An Nigeir. Is é chlann Yoruba. Tá sé igcónaí ina priomchathair Abidjan. Pléimis an úrscéal cáiliúil le Chinua Achebe, "Rudaí titeann as a chéile." Múininn mé sin ar ár ollamh!

Ar An Nigeir go mbeidh ina leabhar nua Mhanchán seo? Níl fhíos agam fós. Measaim go rachaidh fírinne faoi ann. Feicfaidh mé féin faoi seo gan mhoill.

Manchán Magan in Africa.

Manchán Magan sent to me a copy of his new book about Africa. It's "Truck Fever." Manchán writes regarding me a heartfelt dedication: "with blessings and thanks for your share of support (August 2008)." I'm touched at this gift from him. I've been wanting to read this. I'm wondering at the origins of the book in English. For what reason?

Manchán finished three accounts in Irish, and translated into English, now. At the start, when he was but twenty years of age, Manchán travelled deep into Africa with a band of English ruffians during the reign of Mrs. Thatcher. He put this into a book in Irish in 1998 as "Manchán on the Loose [hard to express in English-- combines footloose with having lost one's bearings?]: from Dublin to Nairobi in an old army lorry."

The second time, he himself told of his adventures around the Himalayas and the north-west of India. This is "Baba-ji agus TnaG: Travels around India," in Irish in 2006. In English, I reviewed "Manchán's Travels" (2007) on Amazon and here on my blog. I like this book a lot. I myself want to learn about the links between idealization of India and Tibet and Ireland and the Celts during the twentieth century, and up to now.

The third time, he himself did travel around South America. He went around the Andes. Then, he left for North America. He captured well the anarchic spirit of the Cascade Mountains in the district of British Columbia. You can find this book in English as "Angels and Rabies." (2006) You are able to get my review about it in the same places that I told above.

What's the origin of them? Are they the same in the two languages? I'm unable to look at them in Irish, since "Manchán ar Seachrán" and "Babi-ji agus T na G" are very rare in the United States, of course. I should ask him about this.

I opened the new book today. I was doing this before I taught. I spoke with an African student there about Manchán. He answered me about Nigeria. He's from the Yoruba tribe. He lives in the capital city, Abidjan. We discussed the famous novel by Chinua Achebe, "Things Fall Apart." I used to teach that at our university!

Will Nigeria be in this, Manchán's new book? I don't know yet. I reckon that there'll be truth about it there. I will see for myself about this soon.

Ceannaigh leabhair agus léigh faoi Manchán anseo/ Buy books and read about Manchán here:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Na Deochannaí t-údar is fearr liom.

Tá deochannaí difríulaí agam. Is maith liom leann dubh Ui Mhurchú-- ar ndóigh!-- nó póirtar. Beathaím agamsa féin leann Beilgeach ó am go chéile. Measaim siad go bhfuil is fearr. Tá leanntaí dó An Bheilg anois agus aríst agamsa féin. Tá blas toraidh acusan. Ceapaim siad go mbeadh cósuil le fíon agus blas na gcaor air go minic. Bíonn i ngá fíon dearg le déanaí. Cén fáth? Caithim go bhfuil ag breathnú mo chroí.

Go nádúrtha, ólaim deochannaí éagsulaí. Ar moch ar maidin, d'ólfainn cupan tae te leis bainne agus siúcra. Tabhairfainn buideal inaithnuaite uisce (ní dúirt mé uisce beatha) liom nuair muinim. Ar mo shuipéar, ólfaidh mé gloine beorach. Beidh mé go n-óla mé fíon dearg, mar sin féin. Beidh sé sin de réir mar a thitfidh faoi aimsir agus bia ansin ar ár mbord.

D'ól mé bainne go leor nuair bhí mé óg. Anois, d'fhoglaim mé go raibh mé i gcontuirt na coilestorail olc go bideach. Mar sin, ithim im níos lú. D'ith mé uibheachaí friochtaí go minic. Níor ith mé feoil ach ithim sicín agus iasc, ar chor ar bith.

Ní maith liom caife. Is boladh gránna air orm. Ní mé ábalta ól caife. Is blas is searbh air agam. Ach, níl duine eile go leor ina Stáit Aontaithe go mbeadh cósuil liom.

Tá iontas mór orm faoi roghannaí ina Éirinn. Faighim Éireannach go raibh siad ag ól Budweiser nó Heineken nó Carlsberg ina teachtaí tabhairne. Is iontach liom go bheifí ar slí seo. Caillean siadsan féin seans a ól leann blasta. Beidh beag beann ar leas do thir dhúchais fós. Ní cosúil ach oiread go leann Meirceanach nó Eorpach go raibh blas níos fearr. Níl a fhíos ag ceachtar go cinnte againn.

My Favorite Drinks.

I have different drinks. I like Murphy's stout ['dark ale'] -- of course!-- or porter. I nourish myself with Belgian ale occasionally. I reckon that they are best. Beverages from Belgium now and then I myself have. They themselves have a fruity flavor. I think that they'd be like wine with a taste of the fruit often. I (habitually) lately have been in the way of red wine. Why? I must look after my heart.

Naturally, I drink various drinks. Early in the morning, I should drink a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar. I may take a renewable bottle of water (I did not say "water of life"-- i.e. whiskey in the literal Irish!) with me when I teach. At my supper, I shall drink a glass of beer. It might be that I may drink red wine, all the same. It may be depending on what comes to pass about the weather or the meal there on our table.

I drank a lot of milk when I was young. Now, I have learned that I may be in a tiny danger of worse cholesterol. Therefore, I eat butter less. I ate fried eggs often. I do not eat meat but I eat chicken and fish, at any rate.

I don't like coffee. It has an terrible smell for me. I'm unable to drink coffee. The flavor of it's bitter for me. But, there are not many other people in the U.S. who may be like me.

It's a great wonder to me about the choices in Ireland. I see Irish people who may be drinking Budweiser or Heineken or Carlsberg in pubs. It's a surprise to me that they may be this way. They themselves lose the chance to drink tasty beer. It may be a bit unpatriotic, too! It's not like the American or European beers that may be tasting better. None of us know for sure.

Photo/Griangraf: Face-in-a-Pint/ Aghaidh i bPhíonta.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

J.C. Hallman's "The Devil is a Gentleman": Book Review

Warning: a serious study, but for the "educated general reader" rather than theologians or those looking for earnestly subversive fringe-cult press ravings. It's admittedly a quite misleading title for this book. [Subtitled closer to the topic: Exploring America's Religious Fringe.] The phrase comes from a William James quote that if the devil is a gentleman than God is certainly no such character. But, it may set up expectations that this is a salacious prowl around the netherworld of bizarre cults and sinister devotions. (Admittedly, the Satanists alternately tongue-in-goateed cheek and in deadly intent intersect with this stereotype of tweaking taboos.) Even with them, however, Hallman labors to excavate the scholarly foundation for devil-worship and its appeal within today's society. He takes his interviews seriously but knows when to lighten up or bear down. The result's a thoughtful, sustained comparison of James' pioneering efforts to understand religion as a human construct within the context of the past American century's diversity of newer religious (and one anti-religious) sects.

The search starts with curiosity, as Hallman investigates, respectively, Uranian seekers of alien contact, revived Druids, and wrestling evangelicals. As he learns more about James' own thought, Hallman begins to ask deeper questions, from the heirs to LaVey's Church of Satan, and tests Jamesian tenets against the technocracy asserted by Scientologists. He begins to grow more wary, and perhaps restless, as he pits James' own elasticity of categories with the determinedly "anti-religious" faith community known as the American Atheists, at their national gathering. Then, moving towards a more deeply informed understanding of how beliefs shift and transform as a new self-definition of a specific religious sect emerges, he explores the progress and alteration of beliefs among neo-Pagans and Goddess worshippers in Seattle. Finally, Hallman meets both skepticism and acceptance of how a religious community must look into itself and ask hard questions if it wishes to survive without deceiving itself or distorting its credo. This emerges with the neo-pagans as they must adjust their earlier claims for pagan origins and supposed continuity in the light of recently discovered historical fact.

He finds this self-scrutiny occuring most powerfully with the Orthodox Christian monks of New Skete, living among and inspired by their best-selling dogs. Hallman, a lapsed Catholic, intersperses a biographical arc that links a critical introduction to James with his own travels at America's "religious fringe." While his lack of stimulating chat with some of these groups makes for only intermittently engaging insights, Hallman is honest about those he interviews. If his informants are limited by their robotic recital of a "sales pitch," a sound-bite, or their own mantra, Hallman separates their sought-after beliefs from their mundane, calculated, or cynical presentation. He respects those who trust him enough to speak with him, and learns to distinguish the charlatans from the sincere, no matter how outlandish their outward claims of interior revelation may be. Much of this book, in the early and middle sections, is slower going as Hallman warms up to the quest and labors to understand James' difficult concepts. It picks up the pace as it continues, reaching with the pagan and monk chapters, for me, its most rewarding insights.

Hallman writes thoughtfully and carefully, but at times there is simply too much cogitation on James, other times too much of the mundane boilerplate on the cults and their often dull spokespeople. Many of the chapters read as if moderately engaging, intellectually sophisticated articles that might appear in media like The Atlantic, Harper's, or the NY Times Magazine. This itself is not a criticism, merely an observation: the book is pitched at the serious reader with a solid education who's able to grasp theology, sociology, philosophy, and theology. But, not every term is explained with the clarity it needs; James as cited by Hallman does not always speak with the elucidation one would wish. James can waffle and baffle. Hallman can get tongue-tied in interpreting James; this is not his own fault, but it does show the complicated intellectual maneuvering of James and how challenging "Varieties" remains for readers today. Therefore, sufficient patience to re-read and cogitate their reports is needed to appreciate this narrative.

Hallman's combination of theological student and sociological adept makes his own struggle to find meaning as complicated as that of William James. You share Hallman's frustration with James' own refusal to be pinned down. You also may be bored or indifferent to more than one of the religious or irreligious Americans Hallman hovers about. Still, this is about as close as most of us will come to 'Varieties of Religious Experience' as re-examined a century later; Hallman labors to interpret James' own convoluted attempts to define what the purpose of belief is. Hallman agrees with James. Religion and belief should matter more that they work 'pragmatically' (a loaded term for James) for the individual seeker rather than as scientifically verifiable assertions.

Late in the journey, among the neo-Pagans, Hallman applies James' distinction between the "healthy souls" who are optimistic and live life without questioning the tenets they affirm and the "sick souls." Many drawn to read this book (as with I suppose Hallman, James, and myself), will find themselves in the latter category. Any belief we hold positively or negatively must be wrestled with and won through painful searching; we are not blessed with (or we have lost with our education, life experiences, or maturity) the gift of solid faith. Hallman learns that the academic and rational "old idol of hypothesis verification was its own over-belief, the way it had divvied all of us up into a babble of scientific cants and lingos, had made us fanatics blind even to our own fanaticism, unhappy and seeking, desperate to try anything that tasted like truth." (245)

America is the sick soul. How can we, he wonders, tell each other what this truth would be? Hallman, inspired by James, comes to assert: "the religion he stands by must be the one which he finds best for him, even though there are better individuals, and their religion better for them."

This book also, if in passing, finds what happens as the groups on the margins grow, bicker, and try to prosper. Hallman, weary after seeing over and over how various fringe groups struggle as they are co-opted into the mainstream, notes precisely how scripture becomes Scripture: when the teachings of the original founders are divorced from their context, and applied to circumstances that are removed from that context. This is not an inspiring transition, at least as Hallman witnesses this discourse. I leave it to you to find out which group enacts this wrench out of context!

Hallman reminds us how "cult" groups and "extreme" factions either keep splintering or survive by adapting to the monotheistic template of the West: even if they oppose it bitterly, these groups and factions are driven to take on its legal trappings (chaplains, dogtags, governmental recognition, tax-exempt status), demographic indicators (atheists asserting their same "rights" as a recognized community as do believers), and managerial attitudes (how to perpetuate the ideals and rituals after the founders depart or the original predictions fail to be fulfilled).

Even if one rejects religion, one must address "the attendant dilemma of curiosity": this, Hallman derives from James, is the definition of religion. Hallman suggests that our consciousness forces us into "the great side effect" of "metaphysical quandary." (247) The neo-Pagan chapter seems to signal Hallman's breakthrough into this humbling realization that humans must create their own religion (or anti-religion, which only confirms this humanist tendency) and, furthermore, acknowledge that they are doing so rather than receiving a revelation from above. This takes courage.

The neo-Pagans mature by similarly having to re-define themselves as their origins are de-mythologized and they find that they really are a modern invention and not some attenuated survivors from a spurious Burning Times or an untenably matriarchal Eden. The Wiccan Goddess is still real, however, "'because human energy goes into making Her real. . . . She is a metaphor because, great though she may be, She is finite, like any other concept, whereas reality is infinite.'" This Wiccan theologian that Hallman quotes sums up our modern conception of belief and our necessity for such-- despite our inability to "prove" it. (248)

In the last visit, to New Skete, the splits that bedevil the tiny monastic community show how, whether in semi-permanent daily communal fashion or in the conventions and conclaves that the previous lay groups have all constructed, the difficulty of humans getting along with each other as they seek to agree on a common path towards spiritual maturity remains.

The author builds a narrative that aligns his geographical journey with his intellectual inquiries. As he sums it up (in a remark not included in the book itself): "Really, I imagined the whole thing as an arc, beginning with curiosity, moving into interest with the wrestlers and satanists, disillusionment with the scientologists, quandary with the atheists, and then recovery with the monks and witches." I agree that the neo-Pagans and the monks emerge as most fully aware of their "religious experience" in their honesty as to their failings and advances towards spiritual maturity. Hallman enters these encounters, therefore, nearer the culmination-- but don't expect a "road to Damascus" epiphany-- of his own parallel quest for meaning. They both fit his narrative and impel his own realization of his own "variety" of the individual's religious search.

There are memorable comparisons between dogs and humans and God from James that appropriately gain elucidation at the later stages of Hallman's search. Perhaps more attuned to this section being myself a dog lover, I found that the canine-divine analogies are astonishing and merit reflection. Perhaps, like James then and the monks later speculated, we relate to the divine as dogs act towards us: fearful, awed, confused, embarassingly eager to fawn and flatter, utterly in thrall to a greater power whose intentions and actions we are both wrapped up in totally and helplessly even as dogs have no idea, literally, what we are doing with the rest of our lives when they do not directly encounter us. I fumble to understand this with my own analogy: it's like a dog having no inkling that our term for his species is God backwards; the connection if only by happy coincidence etymologically exists, but as a dog has no idea of this, so we humans literally have no inkling of how we truly fit in to a divine plan far beyond our daily powers of limited perception and constrained comprehension.

Hallman concludes his study after his visit to New Skete, going as far as he could go with James as his mentor. The "cash value," again with Hallman's analogy extending James' analysis, varies by believer, and we will not always hold dear the same beliefs as our neighbors. But, this understanding comforts Hallman within a modern "world pluralistic by accident rather than by design." (309) He starts where he ends, uncertain of his spiritual destination, but with James as his guide, he feels a bit less baffled and marginally less confused at why we have such a hard time-- at least we sick souls-- in our conflicts with our own postmodern, secularized, lack of easily attained and confidently defended belief.

(Written back on Dec. 27, 2006, but I found it today when I encountered by accident his earlier narrative, "The Chess Artist," and I wanted to read what I'd penned about Hallman earlier. A gentleman himself, he kindly corresponded with me about this review and I incorporated his phrase about the book's "arc" here for clarification of a point I'd limned in my original Amazon comments on "Devil.")

Donald W. Mitchell's "Buddhism": Book Review

This textbook "Introducing the Buddhist Experience" covers the essentials that a Western reader might expect, but it goes deeper than a recitation of facts, dates, and names from the past 2,500 years. Anyone curious about the beliefs, the culture, and the practitioners of dharma will benefit from this attractively designed presentation. It covers its origins, Theravada and Mahayana "vehicles," and then explores in separate sections how Buddhism spread into Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, China, and Tibet.

Included you'll find additional aids for understanding what can be for a newcomer like me (therefore I cannot pass judgment on doctrinal or academic debates that may arise from a specialized familiarity with this subject) daunting obstacles. The textual legacy of each national expression of Buddhism gains elucidation, with excerpts from verses, illustrations (unfortunately all monochrome, but the costs are kept down as a result), and the best part: testimonies from current practitioners of the Thai, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and American-- from a convert who became a monk-- "cultural experiences." These, as well as panel sidebars with brief narratives or anecdotes by scholars and believers that retell stories or lessons, enrich this volume.

I also like the attention given to morality throughout the text; this concentration, blended with more focus in the second edition on the U.S. transformation of Buddhist practice, makes the mentions of the influences of feminism, ecumenism, ecology and globalization also relevant. In fact, I wish more space had been devoted to each of these topics, but the limit to eleven chapters, so as to fit a semester or even a quick quarter of a course, may have necessitated a narrower scope. However, each part concludes with an up-to-date reading list. There's also a technical glossary of terms with accent and vowel markings to guide pronunciation of what can be formidable terms for teachers and students alike.

Again, while I cannot weigh in on the demerits (if any) of this textbook's scholarly claims, for an introduction, this deserves attention beyond the required textbook list on a syllabus. Libraries and seekers and followers all can find, I predict, valuable information made more accessible. Westerners often think Buddhism's detached, secretive, or nihilistic, but a careful grasp of the multiplicity of how its precepts come into daily practice to assist others, and its emphasis on the social impact of its teachings, may help change many prejudices we may have about this ancient, resilient, and flexible approach towards compassionate wisdom and spiritual fulfillment.

(I review the 2nd ed. (c) 2008, on Amazon today.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Na Biannaí t-údar is fearr liom.

Tá lóntaí difríulaí agam. Is maith liom slí bheatha níos cúinge, mar sin féin. Beathaím agamsa féin leis arán dubh nó seagal. Ithim gránach go minic ar an maidin. Bíonn i ngá min choirche le déanaí. Cén fáth? Caithim go bhfuil ag breathnú mo chroí.

Ithim súthaí talún go leor ar mo bhricfeasta. Brúim silíní, nó súthaí craoibhachaí, leis yoghurt freisin. Ní maith liom caora finiúna an oiread. Tugann mé úll milis nuair bainfidh dom ag obair. Iosfaidh an tortha chomh lón agam.

Faighim go bhfuil ag ithe is fearr i ndiadh tiocfaidh mé ar ais ar mo theach. Fillim ar an tráthnóna. Beidh ocras orm. Bheinn ádh mór mura ag déanamh cócaireacht dinnéar againn ar an oíche sin!

Ithimid suipéar ar cheile mar is gnách. Iarraidh Niall agus León feoil; do thuismitheoirí sicín a ghlacadh de rogha ar réim feola mo bhean a ite a tí agus mé féin. Tosaím a thabhairt do iasc thar idirchúrsaí go hidéalach. Ach, tá mé go raibh mé ag fanacht amháin anseo ar an mbord.

Ar íosfaimid milis? D'ithinn brioscaí rionnt mhaith. Go deireanach, bím go n-ithe mé siad níos lú. Beidh maith liom brioscaí leis míreannaí seacláide fós. Déanann Léna agus Niall siad is fearr.

My favorite foods.

There's different nourishment for me. I like a narrower path to health, all the same. I feed myself with dark or rye bread. I eat grains often in the morning. I lately need oatmeal. Why? I must be looking after my heart.

I eat strawberries a lot at my breakfast. I mash cherries, or raspberries, with yogurt often. I do not like grapes as much. I will take an "eating apple" when I will take off for working. I will eat the fruit as my lunch.

I find that I am eating best after I will come back to my house. I return in the evening. Hunger will (usually) be upon me. I should (habitually) be in a great fortune if Layne will be cooking dinner for us on that night!

We eat supper together usually. Niall and Leo ask for meat; for their parents chicken is to be called for as the choice rather than a meat dish eaten by my wife and myself. Ideally, I choose from fish as a entreé. But, I may be the only one who should be staying at the table here.

Shall we eat sweets? I used to eat cookies quite a lot. Recently, I (customarily) may eat them less. I will like cookies with chocolate chips, still. Layne and Niall make them the best.

Photo/Grianghraf: Our Food Pyramid/ Ár Pirimid Bia. Eachléim, Clochar, Béal Átha an Fheadha, Co. Mhaigheo, Éire

Sunday, August 17, 2008

My Little Read Blog vs. 3 QuarksDaily.

Peering in vain for certain erotic engravings by Henry Fuseli on line, even defying the Google Safe Search's warning and overstepping the danger zone into the red light district but shuffling back to my patrolled family-friendly playground with nothing but a Tate drawing of a menage-a-trois by the Swiss Romantic artist to show for my right hand's pains, I did stumble across a notable site. I deserved it after so long a frustrating trudge past dozens of his haunted, Blakean images.

Science, art, literature, leftist politics, and a notable slant towards Middle Eastern and Indian-Pakistani affairs amidst the usual highbrow NYRB/LRB types of reader: it's 3QuarksDaily. Contributors span the globalized intelligentsia, with a notable contingent from English-cognizant Asia. It's the usual grad school suspects, coffeehouse exiles, and untenured scribblers with fancy degrees from all over the Ivy League. However, they range across the First and Third Worlds. This distinguishes it from, say, my blog, me mulling over Ireland, this land I live in instead of it, or spiritual realms related only to my own mental peregrinations. Erudite humanists, 3Q contributors scour the Net in search of content for smart people. Nice contrast to opening my server on AOL each morning to be greeted by Britney's post-natal tummy or Brangelina's handfuls.

3Q's listed as winning a "Best Non-European Weblog" award. Brainiac Stephen Pinker, biologist Richard Dawkins, and Talking Head David Bryne blurb gushingly about its work-delaying potential. On the other hand, in a bow to middle-brow demographics, you face a banner ad (at least it's on the side panel) for Paolo Coelho's New Age folderol "The Alchemist." What it also added-- as I expected under "About Us" for my nominal Irish dhá pingin-- an explanation of where quark came from!

When Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig postulated the existence of three new subatomic particles in 1964, Gell-Mann decided to name them "quarks", an unusual word meaning "croak" or "caw" which James Joyce had used in Finnegans Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark!" In present-day physics, there are more than three quarks, and some are said to have properties named strangeness and charm, which, we think, describe this weblog as well. We have also used the name to symbolize our connections to science, art, and literature; and because we mistakenly thought it short and memorable.

Works for me as an aide-memoire. I add that Hawkwind had an album, in the start of their long decline post-Lemmy, called "Quark, Strangeness, and Charm." Great title, as is the one for the blog du jour.

At the intersection of where Third World meets First, corner of politics and literature, I find an Aug. 14 3Q post there of a poem. I appear to be the sole inhabitant of my hometown if not nation unmoved by the Olympics. Although in a restaurant today I did admire fleetingly the Logan's Run-look of the fencing outfits, electronic beekeepers. Here's a typically laconic, open-ended reflection on the legacy of China. The boot crushing the face endlessly? Or, harmonious free trade, liberated from human rights, environmental doom, or outsourced, offshored consequences anywhere else in First or Third Worlds desperately laboring for handouts from capital? What happens when you do not need-- contrary to the lessons in my Cold War classrooms-- democracy to ensure prosperity?

Heaven Watches On
by Bai Hua

Twilight falls
My homeland dries out
A line of soldiers pass outside my home
Five willow trees stand before the gate

I sit bored by a window
Watching a man in the street eat beans
Someone opposite is ramming the earth
Someone stands around for no reason
Gazing at the hills opposite

The day is about to go out
Landlords will soon be killed
Let them do as they please
The Reds are on their way

Translation -Simon Patton 2008

Painting of Mao and his Little Red Book.

Something's Not Kosher?

I've been following in the "Forward", the leading weekly newspaper for the Jewish American community, the debate over the INS immigration raids and the PETA activist undercover spies who combined, if more by timing than coordination, to bring Postville, Iowa, into the national spotlight. May 12 found the INS raiding the factory and arresting 400 illegal immigrants. It's since come out that some had given papers claiming that they were old enough to work, but were underage. The trials of the workers have been criticized for their rapidity. The Catholic parish there has served as a sanctuary and recently rabbis, ministers, and human rights advocates rallied there in protest of the INS raid and the plant's practices.

In defense, the owners have turned to PR, an explanation that they cannot be held guilty for the false documents presented when the laborers were hired, and that the restaurant workers' union's been engaging in its own duplicity in setting up the raid. They claim the union, liberal rabbis and church leaders, and pro-illegal immigration defenders have conspired against them. Additionally, as reported earlier in the "Forward," a smear campaign or a boycott on moral grounds, depending on your point of view, has been brewing since earlier this year, fomented by sneak videos taken by PETA infiltrators.

I reckon few of you may know about this coverage, so that's a bit of background. Most markets outside of the (sub-)urban Jewish demographic don't carry much in the way of kosher products. If you want meat, chances are that a few fryers or cuts in the freezers in stores near where I live will sum up the total of kashrut. And, odds are that they're from Aaron's or David's brands straight outta Postville. (Stephen G. Bloom, by the way, published a book predating this latest fracas, titled after the town, as exemplifying the Latino and Third World culture clashes in the heartland, as Hasidim from New York City and Guatemalan peasants brought Iowans face-to-face with considerably exotic faces, sounds, and cuisines.) The Rubashkin family's firm distributes kosher fare to most U.S. chains and it's pretty much the only alternative you'll find beyond the Pale of Settlement, so to speak.

Now, Leo had asked me a few months ago if I tried to stop eating meat (four-foots, but that's a start, right?) for moral or health reasons, and I demurred. But, reflecting on his question, I'd probably say both, with attention to how animals are killed according to kosher standards-- or halal as Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" movingly describes-- in a manner that ensures the beasts must be conscious as they die, so as to better realize their fleeting mortality and lost chances. Rushdie's vignette disturbed me when I read it six weeks ago, and as we ate at Harris Ranch as is our family custom on the way back from SF to LA-- surrounded by enormous, smelly feed lots fittingly south of a prison or two alongside desolate Interstate 5.

So, since I still gobble turkey and nibble chicken and adore fish, am I a hyprocrite? Thanks to a picky palate and a distaste for greens, I'll never munch salad, nor can I unfortunately live as I'd like on bread and berries and beer alone. All I can say is that I am progressing, and the discipline for nearly two decades of keeping some loose degree of kosher in the broad "biblical sense," as liberal Jews finesse it, has made me more conscious of my body, my regimen, and my responsibility.
That, to me, is the "reason" for kosher-- not out of fear of some Levitical deity's wrath, but to foster an awareness of one's relationships with nature, and the possibility for one's self-control over one's appetites. And, as I still miss shrimp and loved pork chops, I still feel the sting, as I should, now and then.

So, I understand that kosher to me fits into the category of dicta told in the Torah as not a rule applicable to all people, nor one based on reason. It's a third type, the command you follow just because It Says So. I have no problem with this, despite its lack of logic. Paths towards betterment which promise spiritual rewards expect you to heighten your conscience and your consciousness. The controversy swirling over the kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa involves, then, a relevant opportunity to examine what we mean when we talk about kosher.

Adherence to Torah-true standards of killing animals and salting meat? Inclusion of fair labor laws, wages, and legal status for workers? Not eating, as some in the Jewish Renewal and environmental movements argue, meat at all, and going back to the pre-Noachide state that we were meant to begin our life on this earth with, when we ate fruits (watch that apple) and grains and vegetables in our Edenic garden?

Here's a variety of snippets from The Forward's articles on this vexed topic. In July 31st's piece,"Marching with the Faithful in Iowa," Micah Maidenberg visits the pro-workers rally.

Outside the plant gates, Rabbi Harold Kravitz of the Adath Jeshurun synagogue in Minnetonka, Minn., spoke about the Jewish basis for worker rights. As Kravitz spoke, Getzel Rubashkin, a grandson of the owner of Agriprocessors, emerged and stole the attention of many reporters.

“Agriprocessors doesn’t have any positions on immigration. Agriprocessors doesn’t have positions on ethical culture,” said Rubashkin, who had a curly beard and glasses. “It’s a business.”

Hasidic workers wearing yarmulkes and knee-high rubber boots came out from the plant to listen in, some of them smiling curiously. Responding to questions about potential legal troubles his family may face stemming from the raid, Rubashkin said, “God watches out for people who do good.”

From "Kosher Fight Turns Rabbis on Each Other," Aug. 14, Anthony Weiss discusses the bitter words between liberal and conservative Jewish leaders on the ethics of the raids and boycotts vs. the morality of eating kosher meat. The Lubavitchers have, as Bloom explored in his book, attracted considerable media exposure for their factory expansion in Iowa:

“I think there’s a general feeling that in the Orthodox community, in many Orthodox communities, and especially in the more Haredi, more extreme Orthodox communities, there’s more concern for the strict rules of halacha, for how you cut the animal’s throat and how you examine the lungs,” said David Lincoln, rabbi emeritus of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue, on a recently broadcast episode of the “Rabbis Roundtable” on The Jewish Channel television station. “They’re not really concerned about whether you’re stealing, or whatever, or going into court and perjuring themselves.”

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, on Aug. 14 in "What We Saw at Postville," eloquently defends the inspections of the Orthodox rabbinate to the plant. This article responds to a critical editorial. The whole piece is worth reading, but if I cited every relevant reference, I'd wind up repeating the in-depth attention that the "Forward" devotes to this important topic.

The Rubashkins do indeed have a history of past behavior, but it is far from the checkered one portrayed by the Forward. Aaron Rubashkin and his wife are famed for treating everyone with dignity. They dispensed food and charity to Jew and gentile for more than four decades. Anyone who grew up in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn surely remembers the Rubashkins’ restaurant, which has fed more non-paying customers than real patrons.

Postville’s mayor and the local Presbyterian minister reported that Aaron Rubashkin is still up to his old tricks: He helps with the local food bank and the families of the workers who have been detained still live in Rubashkin housing, many paying discounted rent. He contributed to the construction of a non-Jewish community center in Postville. As the Presbyterian minister told us, “everyone knows if they have an event in the community you call Agri and they are willing to help.”

But no matter. The past is no indication of the present, and so I and two dozen other rabbis and community leaders went to see for ourselves.

Anthony Weiss, June 5: "News From Postville May Be Treyf, but Kosher Customers Keep on Buying," quotes sociologist Steven Cohen. Of course, most buyers of kosher meats are Orthodox or at least very strict Conservative; many of these shoppers appear to shrug off their choices. They contend that any slaughterhouse engages in the same practices as in Postville, and that there's no alternative available most places. Surprisingly, many observant Jews have not even heard about the raids and charges.

Rabbi Daniel Isaak of the Conservative-affiliated Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Ore., said that one congregant e-mailed with concerns about Rubashkin’s meat but complained that the only alternatives were to give up kosher meat or stop eating meat altogether, neither of which was desirable. Isaak said the e-mail was the lone mention of the issue, though he estimates that 20% to 25% of his congregants keep kosher in some form.

[Sociologist Steven] Cohen suggested that buying patterns might not change unless a clearer message emerges from pulpits and organizations about the moral implications of eating various kosher meats.

“People are unclear about whether all kosher meats are ethically tinged or some, or whether there was a problem in the past and it’s cleared up,” Cohen said. “And people who are committed to eating kosher and having kosher meat as part of their rituals are loathe to give up a part of their religious identity for a point of moral principle.”

If we get around to cloning meat, might this end the three-thousand-year-old halachic problem? Could any vegans return from pecking at nut burgers to devouring Whoppers? Perhaps not. Yet, if most people could eat safeguarded, and perhaps "naturally" produced-- if from cells in a lab rather than in a cow's belly!-- meat without stunning it first and then knifing it, perhaps the Orthodox would well shun the results as halachically unsanctioned, and perhaps their tie-dyed cousins might agree, for environmental reasons.

I wish they'd make soy patties tastier, and as for fish and birds, I do confess I regard them at least as further down the food chain, and give me credit as it took me four-and-a-half decades to overcome my the first half of my meat-and-potatoes palate. Yet, I suspect, as with the harried consumers interviewed in the "Forward" (and there's a lot more in the way of articles there on the subject), many would scarf down whatever flesh proves cheapest and tastiest. We do follow our grazing, animals ourselves. The Torah knows we should know better, but even it makes room for human weakness. And, in Canaan, it'd have been much harder to pass up the fatted calf kebab passed around the communal campfire. As for illegal immigration, forged documents, and exploited workers, that's another debate or two.

Photo from a Trader Joe's, 2006. From an informative site, itself gaining a quarter-page by Anthony Weiss (again!) on July 24th, "Blogger Focuses on Orthodox Foibles," analyzing traditional Judaism from the inside-- by an ex-insider:

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Dalai Lama's "The Way to Freedom": Book Review

Reading this short introduction to the heart of dharma, it struck me: the author uses "we" to include himself amidst his fellow humans who by definition according to the tenets of his teaching, long to become freed from our "untamed mind." You often forget, given the esteem in which the author's held by many, that he's still caught up in the same karmic whirlwind as anyone else. This down-to-earth acknowledgment of basic shortcomings of human character permeates this short treatise. He also raises insightful comparisons, based on first-hand knowledge to be sure, of how idealism and good intentions, as with Mao and Chinese Communism, can lead one awry if one's inner nature cannot find its own unselfish fulfillment. This perspective enriches the relevance today, sadly, of this 1994 edition. It's based on Tsong-kha-pa's 15 c. "Lam Rim," or "Stages of the Path to Enlightenment," itself an elaboration of Atisha's 11c. "The Lamp on the Path..."

This textual ambiguity confused me at times. The Dalai Lama includes his own comments, while at other times he paraphrases or summarizes (I suppose, as Tsong-kha-pa's never quoted verbatim) the "Lam Rim." Therefore, when reading, I was unsure who was telling me what. Also, there's no index or glossary; a newcomer like me finds it easy to forget what, for example, the "three trainings" were deep into these short but intricate chapters. (Try Thubten Chodren's "Open Heart, Clear Mind" as another primer, from an American convert who became a Tibetan Buddhist nun; it's also reviewed by me.) Perhaps this Western wish for academic clarification pales before the Eastern message. Not who said what, but what is said remains the "core teachings of Tibetan Buddhism," as the subtitle indicates.

It's an insistent, and often severe message. You close this short explanation better informed about the essence of Buddhism, but also you might be discouraged at how difficult it can be to overcome karmic imprints of bad habits, how deeply scarred we may be from past actions and indeed past lives that pull us back from bettering ourselves now and in the future, and how severely Buddhism regards unethical behavior. The path, we learn, must be taken if we are to escape our suffering, of course, yet it's a daunting labor of endless mindfulness and relentless self-scrutiny. This isn't a feel-good collection of jolly platitudes. Those expecting light inspirational encouragement will instead find stern warnings to begin immediately to practice compassion, engage in altruism, reject delusion, incorporate renunciation, and to prepare for death's separation from all we now hold so dear.

"To practice Buddhism is to wage a struggle between the negative and the positive forces in your mind. The mediator seeks to undermine the negative and increase the positive." (1) So this work begins, and the work of any who take the formidable challenge of living up to the encouragement of, and chastisement of, dharma seriously. The powerful passage on pp. 61-63 imagining our death, from the perspective of a palliative doctor's bland assurances to our self vs. the warnings to prepare for the funeral to our relatives in the next room, captures for me the impact of this catechism. It packs quite a punch behind its innocuous title and unassuming format.

Morality, to the surprise perhaps of some seekers, as the Dalai Lama conveys it, obligates sexual control, meticulous examination of conscience, and scrupulous adherence to right behavior, fulfillment of vows, and committment to the compassionate care of others before one's own satisfactions. It's more in line with ascetic practices in Islam, Judaism, or Christianity than you might expect, with the key difference that sins accrue over eons and no confessor or intermediary's there to ease our burden. There's, by the way, no ecumenical outreach in these pages. From the context and the culture, it appears this is pure Buddhism distilled as strong medicine.

The weight of one's past can prove quite an impediment, and the heroic way to liberation opens, as the author cleverly puts it, with our re-orientation of ends and means to tilt in our favor, and that of everyone else.

"I often remark that if you want to be selfish, you should do it in an intelligent way. The stupid way to be selfish is the way we have always worked, seeking happiness for ourselves alone and in the process becoming more and more miserable. The intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the welfare of others, because you become a Buddha in the process." (154)
Shades of Jesus enjoining his followers to make friends with those of this world, so as to acquire treasure in the next life?

Speaking of Tibet & Freedom: 3 months ago: A Tibetan exile takes part in a candlelight vigil to support a freedom call in the northeastern Indian hill resort of Darjeeling April 25, 2008. Thousands of Tibetan exiles in India marched on Friday to demand the release of the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism, who they say has been a prisoner in China since 1995. Reuters. For those of you less than enchanted with the spectacle in Beijing, under 300,000 new surveillance cameras funded and installed with the eager help of Wall Street and our military-industrial complex. The Cold War's over, and communists and capitalists celebrate our harmonious co-existence prosperity sphere. We make friends with Mammon.

Friday, August 15, 2008

John Riley Perks' "The Mahasiddha & His Idiot Servant": Book Review.

I'm probably in the minority, coming to Perks' earnest and rambunctious account via my research into Celtic spirituality rather than Buddhism. So, I had no bias really one way or the other starting this brisk book-- regarding the reputation of his idiosyncratic "mahasiddha." Having known only of Chogyam Trungpa's reputation by its coverage in Rick Fields' "How the Swans Came to the Lake," read over a decade ago, Trungpa's hazy to me. Francesca Fremantle, a student in the same era as Perks (although she's unmentioned by him here) and co-translator with Trungpa of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead," mentions him with affection in her preface, but somewhat gingerly regarding "crazy wisdom" in her scholarly commentary on the TBoD, "Luminous Emptiness" (also reviewed recently by me). So, when I found out Perks' current interest in "Celtic Buddhism" via a websearch, I tracked down this autobiography of the servant and the man he served.

It's advisable-- as probably the vast majority of readers will already possess-- surely to know about Buddhism first. As one of the few opening this narrative with rudimentary understanding, it helped that footnotes explain most of the terms. The book does skip about, and it's wise that Perks interspersed short chapters analyzing his earlier escapades from a somewhat more chastened perspective. It's fast-paced, if heavy as many such first-person, small-press tales tend to be, on whatever the author wants to chat with us about at the moment.

As another reviewer found to his disdain, but I thought typically off-kilter for Perks' attitude towards his adventures in its unexpected profundity (but I have an unpredictable mind too), the juxtaposition of a consideration of oral sex with our passage through the birth canal showed how Perks' erotic and spiritual tutelage under one who appeared quite experienced in the sacred as the profane had progressed to fruition. However, Perks' embrace of the promiscuous and the liberated under the guise of enlightenment and privilege also led me into growing unease at the course such an example might have effected the trust of many followers, not only Perks from his intimate level of observation.

Perks, as Elbert Porter's detailed review summarizes, covers his checkered past with vim. Our protagonist's obviously quite a conniver, and he reckoned Trungpa'd be no match for him when he stumbles across him in the early days of hippiedom in Vermont. But how, I kept asking myself, did such an extended lost weekend sustain itself practically? I did wonder, reading the jet-setting flights, the frequent globe-trotting holidays, and the considerable expense that kitting out a retinue of servants and hangers-on as the entourage of "Shambhala" masquerading as the royal retinue of Bhutan cost, as it trundled across the Aquarian Age into the Me Decade. How many students paid tuition for a three-month "seminary" retreat in good faith that these funds would be furthering serious investment in Buddhist teaching in America? I wondered at what seemed to me the play-acting, the role-playing, the debauchery and drinking and drug-taking under such auspices.

Perks does wrestle, as anyone with a conscience, with such dilemmas, even if he does not in the text articulate the ethical conflict as I have. It's more visceral: Trungpa's alcoholism and his decline. I sensed when I read Fremantle's carefully worded longing an echo of the feeling that the master must have inspired in his servants, but I also wondered about the damage done by such a leader in the eyes of those not as skilled as the inner circle of Shambhala's court jesters. Perks circles around this delicate matter, but I wanted him to take it on directly.

Perhaps, like Fremantle as another intimate, Perks cannot do this wholly. The contradictions may be too painful. The moral relativism of the Seventies certainly presents a far different guru than the Dalai Lama's monkish asceticism, and I understand intellectually Perks' struggle to reconcile the hedonistic "holy fool" with his relentless testing and teasing of his self-appointed butler.

Still, there's a jarring gap between ideals and reality here, and no wonder Perks felt he tempted madness in navigating between subservience and dominance of quite an unstable individual. I wonder what ever happened to Max's poor dog, Myson? I get the point of Trungpa's lesson in attachment and renunciation, trust and discipline, but it does appear needless cruelty to a trusting pet to teach Perks his dharma lesson. Did Myson ever return from running out the door into a Vermont chill?

That being said, the narrative does give, in perhaps inevitably uneven fashion, how one gets initiated into wisdom as a devoteé of a guru. It's an unsettling tale for those of us less courageous or daring, but the insider's entry into a heightened state-- with or without drugs-- I found engrossing. Not sure how Perks' respectful if irreverent story compares with Stephen Butterfield's equally controversial version of his stint under Trungpa, "The Double Mirror"!

I was also intrigued by Perks' extended "dream" of Celtic and Buddhist goddesses. I wanted more, given my druthers, on the fusion of these visualizations, and how they came about. But, except for a hint early on that his mother was a Wicca healer when he grew up in Kent around WWII, there's nothing much until very late about Trungpa's encouraging him to look into Celtic parallels. Not even any (if any) significance of why his middle name's Riley. The book does touch upon Celtic matters, but only superficially. A page on an Irish visit and half of that's a guy spewing up Guinness. I'd have expected more clarity and depth here.

Then, suddenly, a few pages discuss "Celtic Buddhism" again-- but only in general terms near the end. However, the blurb tells us that Perks now's writing a book on this subject. I wish I learned why he felt he had to break with the Tibetan teachings to form what appears to be a new grounded in Celtic tradition, but perhaps this upheaval awaits his sequel. I'll be reviewing it, certainly.

(Posted to Amazon US today with the heading "Before P. Diddy, another butler, another celebrity.")