Her Poison Pen

Dame Agatha Christie, 1890-1976

Dame Agatha Christie, 1890-1976

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Agatha Christie as the best selling novelist of all time. Over the years, I’ve done my part in helping to make her so.

Christie’s preferred fictional murder weapon was poison. Of the more than 300 people who died in her stories, at least 100 ate or drank something they did not live to regret. In a fun segment on last week’s Science Friday, Ira Plato interviewed Kathryn Harkup, chemist and author of A is for Arsenic: the Poisons of Agatha Christie.

From 1914 to 1918, Agatha Christie volunteered as a nurse at a local hospital, and worked in the dispensary when it opened. Back then, all pharmaceuticals were mixed on site, and none of our modern restrictions on drugs were in place, so of necessity, Christie acquired a detailed knowledge of theoretical and applied chemistry in order to pass her apothecary’s assistant exam in 1917. She learned what to do, and more importantly for her future literary career, what not to do with medicines. She was tutored by a local pharmacist who carried a lump of curare in his pocket, “because it made him feel powerful.”

Christie started writing in her twenties and did not meet with instant success. Kathryn Harkup gives an example of the plot complexity of her first published novel, A Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.

Spoiler Alert

The elderly victim is killed by with a lethal dose of strychnine, which at that time, was given, in measured doses, to the elderly as a tonic.  The killer, however, added bromide, a popular sleeping powder, to the solution, which caused the strychnine to precipitate out as crystals at the bottom of the bottle. The final teaspoon would be lethal, and the killer could arrange an airtight alibi.

Harkup’s research revealed that Agatha Christie had studied the effect of combining these two drugs as a lesson in what not to do, in the course of her apothecary training.

If you have ever watched a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple movie, or purchased one of the two billion copies of Agatha Christie books that have been sold, you’ll want to check out the Science Friday interview!

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The passing of a master

His Eminence, Choden Rinpoche

His Eminence, Choden Rinpoche

It is with mixed feelings that I write of the passing of Choden Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master, born in 1933, who spent 19 years under house arrest in a windowless basement after the Chinese takeover. He has taught the dharma to thousands of students around the world since his release in 1985.

I was fortunate enough to encounter Rinpoche in 2012, and posted This summer I met a hero after attending a series of initiations and teachings in June and July of that year. I was able to study with him during subsequent summers, through June of this year, but ominously, he ended his U.S. sojourn, normally several months each year, after less than two weeks, to return to Taiwan.  Several of us wondered then if his health was involved.

In August, reports confirmed this, and a large long life ceremony was planned for him at Sera Je monastery in India, on September 11. It seemed evident to me that it was Rinpoche’s time when his friend and superior, the Dalai Lama said, at the end of August:

“This life has reached a successful completion. Death is the inevitable end of birth; in that we are all the same…Rinpoche should have no regret for his activities he has done while alive. He has made his life deeply meaningful. So relax with a happy mind. I pray and make similar inner aspirations at all times.”

Choden Rinpoche passed on September 11, at 1:30 am, India time, after completing nearly a week of end-of-life ceremonies, and reportedly telling his closest disciple of plans to carry forward his work, and details of his next rebirth.  “Rinpoche” is a Tibetan honorific meaning “Precious One,” and is given to those who are confirmed to be past masters, male or female, who consciously took rebirth to continue teaching the dharma for the benefit of all living beings.

Before leaving the U.S. for the final time this June, Rinpoche promised his students he would return. That’s the good news. The bad news of course, is that it won’t be in this life.

May we all benefit from such an example, and aspire to live and die meaningfully, with sanity and compassion, in a world that desperately needs both.

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A kinder, gentler, Jurassic World

psittacosaurus, at the Prehistoric Gardens, Port Orford, Oregon

psittacosaurus, at the Prehistoric Gardens, Port Orford, Oregon

Dinosaurs continue to fascinate. My first ambition in life, after a trip to the New York Museum of Natural History, was to become a paleontologist. Eventually, my life goals changed, and the T-Rex envy faded.


Yet decades before Jurassic Park was a gleam in some screenwriter’s eye, Ernie Nelson, of Eugene, Oregon, did not outgrow his fascination with dinosaurs. He made them his life’s work in a most unusual way.

In 1953, Nelson gathered his family and left Eugene, where he worked as a CPA and owned a Mill supply company, to relocate to a valley near Port Orford, where rainfall averaged seven feet per year – he needed a rain forest.

In 1955, he opened the Prehistoric Gardens, and over 30 years, built 23 full size and anatomically correct dinosaurs. This unique roadside attraction is still in the family. Ernie’s granddaughter welcomed Mary and me in August, after we’d driven down from Bandon to see the dinos.

Not what you expect to see when you round the bend on the coast highway, but then, to paraphrase Monty Python, no one EVER expects a Tyrannosaurus!

Not what you expect to see when you round the bend on the coast highway, but then, to paraphrase Monty Python, no one EVER expects a Tyrannosaurus!

Nelson’s process was painstaking. His research was constant and thorough, and included a  trip back east to visit the Smithsonian. Each dinosaur began with a steel frame, which was then covered with a metal lath. A layer of concrete followed, and then another layer to define the visual features.  The Brachiosaurus, 86′ long snd 46′ high, took four years to complete and was his pride and joy.

Ernie working on the peterandon

Ernie working on the peterandon

The Prehistoric Garden’s website says the 23 sculptures were painted according to available scientific research. We normally don’t think of dinosaurs as colorful, though plenty of lizards, chameleons, and snakes in our world are.

I’m willing to trust Ernie on his color choices, but what I liked best was the aspect where I think imagination overrode research. Some of these critters are just so darn cute in, a wide-eyed sort of way.  I don’t want make Ernie turn over in his grave by calling his critters “cute,” but there’s just no other word for this triceratops, which has the same expression as one of my dogs!

triceratops small_edited-1

Some of us can remember the days of wacky roadside attractions on Route 66 or Hwy. 99 – giant oranges, strange animals, and gas stations designed to look like flying saucers.  There were animal parks, fairytale towns, and north pole villages in the days when Ernie Nelson moved his family to southern Oregon to shape his dream in concrete and steel.

The ichthyosaurus is suffering from the drought this year just like we are.

The ichthyosaurus is suffering from the drought this year just like we are.

Nowadays the most frequent sights, as we blow past towns on the interstate, are fast food joints and the same old big-box stores. Santa’s Village has long been shuttered, and the kids have video games and DVD’s to mitigate the boring view out the windows.

Like the dinosaurs, the Prehistoric Gardens speaks of a different era, one in which peace had come, America was unrivaled, and more people than ever before had jobs, cars, money, cheap gas, kids, health care, and paid vacations.

All those attributes can ebb and flow, but there is one precious thing we can always borrow from Ernie Nelson – the example of what an individual can do when he rolls up his sleeves, opens his mind and heart, and lets his creativity flow.

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The medium is…

Republican debate

“The medium is the message”, said Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, 1964. Fifty-one years later, I’m still not certain we understand media, but a light bulb went on for me Thursday night regarding McLuhan’s iconic phrase. While watching the Republican presidential debate, I had a minor epiphany; that television cannot help transforming politics into entertainment.  

I am not suggesting that either party has a monopoly on show business.  Yes, the Republicans are likely to be funnier this year, with their Jerry Springer moments, and The Donald, who’s public persona is a weird combination of Rodney Dangerfield and Don Rickles.  I expect the Democrats to be far less interesting, more like infomercials on the home shopping channel.

There’s nothing new about politics as entertainment. If we believe television and movie depictions of pre-television and movie campaigns, there was plenty of bunting, and bluster, and brass bands in “the good old days.” But every now and then, wouldn’t it be refreshing to see something real happen on political TV?

The last time I saw reality break through was during the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston.  The Democrats had barred one of my heroes, the late Senator Robert Byrd, from the podium. Byrd could not be trusted to stay on script. Massachusetts Senator Kennedy invited Byrd to speak at the Old North Church, where Paul Revere worshipped, and his address was broadcast on Democracy Now. Byrd held up his well-worn pocket copy of the US Constitution and warned us that it was under attack…

Politics, of course, is not the only thing that TV flattens out. I recall several surreal moments with TV news. One early evening in college days, when I was living in an off-campus house, my roomies and I were watching a shoot out on Mod Squad on an old black and white TV. I went to the kitchen to fix a sandwich, and when I returned, the shootout had grown more intense; the house where the bad guys were hiding was on fire. But it looked different.  “Did somebody change the channel?” I asked.

“Nah, man,” said a house mate. “The news cut in. The cops are having a shootout with those guys who kidnapped Patty Hearst.” The visceral difference between watching a fictional versus a non-fiction firefight on TV was nonexistent without the dialog or voice over!

In a very real sense, that’s simply the nature of things according to both western depth psychology and Buddhist psychology. Every experience we have, noted James Hillman, begins as an event in the psyche. And Buddhist thinkers will tell you that our so-called realities are far more like the dreams we have at night than most of us dare to believe. Yet, as a practical matter, in order to make the right decisions, we have to be able to tell them apart, and that means turning a critical eye on the stuff we see on television.

I have recommended it before, but as we begin another presidential election mini-series, I can think of no better guidebook than Neal Gabler’s Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, 2000.  In it, he says:

“the deliberate application of the techniques of theater to politics, religion, education, literature, commerce, warfare, crime, everything, has converted them into branches of show business, where the overriding objective is getting and satisfying an audience.”

Unless we choose to live with the wolves, we’re going to be part of that audience, but at least we can remember that wonderful Buddhist bumper sticker:  “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”

Posted in Buddhism, Culture, Current Events, Entertainment, News, Politics, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Inside Inside Out, a review of sorts

In a culture that imagines a sharp mind-body split, it isn’t surprising to see images of a smart inner being controlling our physical “machinery.” Inside Out gives us a committee at the helm. Among feature length movies, it is unique in this respect, as far as I know.


There are many points to ponder during the film’s 90 spectacular minutes of Pixar 3D animation, but given my background, I was especially caught by the movie’s alignment with a key post-Jungian view of the structure of the psyche.

Michael Ventura, a journalist who has written at length upon archetypal themes, and who co-authored We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse (1993) with James Hillman, said “There may be no more important project for our time than displacing the…fiction of monopersonality.” 

In Jung’s theory of archetypes, pre-eminent place goes to “The Self,” at once, the center of the psyche and it’s totality. The Self, for Jung, was the god image within us. The problem, according to both Ventura and Hillman, is that none of us ever experience ourselves this way. The idea of a unified, “monotheistic” Self is a longing rather than day to day reality, in Ventura’s words, “the longing of all the selves within the psyche that are starving because they are not recognized.”

Buddha came to a similar conclusion 2600 years ago, but Hillman, chose to rely on western models, and drew from Greek mythology to illustrate his conclusion that the psyche is “polytheistic,” with many archetypal centers.  A contemporary of Jung named these centers, “sub-personalities,” a term I have heard at least one Zen teacher use to illustrate the concept.

The Greek pantheon

The Greek pantheon

Thirty years ago, Michael Ventura wrote,  “It is crucial to every form of human effort that we forge a model of the psyche that is closer to our hour-to-hour experience, because, in the long run, as a society, we can share only what we can express.” (published in Shadow Dancing in the USA, 1985, now out of print but available used).

In the interim, nothing was actually forged – rather, a growing awareness of our “hour-to-hour” experience has emerged. How often do we say or hear others say, “Part of me wants to go left, but another part wants to go right?”

This awareness is now pervasive enough that it’s central to a summer blockbuster, aimed at a PG audience. Even if we don’t spend time studying differing models of the psyche, we understand Ventura perfectly when he says, “If you are alone in the room, it is still a crowded room.”

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Happy Birthday to the Dalai Lama!

On Monday, July 6, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, will turn 80.  Here is a great clip from last weekend of Patti Smith leading the crowd at the Glastonbury Music Festival in singing Happy Birthday.  It’s follow by HH giving one of his wonderfully simple talks on what really matters.  Enjoy!

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Ensuring Your Site is Mobile-Friendly

Morgan Mussell:

Useful information from wordpress.com on keeping your blog current with a Google search algorithm change.

Originally posted on WordPress.com News:

Today, Google released a change to its algorithm that gives higher search scores to sites it deems “mobile-friendly.” Curious WordPressers might be asking:

  1. How can I be sure my site is mobile-friendly?
  2. What can I do if my site is not mobile-friendly?

1. See if your site is mobile-friendly

Visit Google’s mobile-friendly test link and enter your site’s address (e.g., http://dailypost.wordpress.com or http://automattic.com). Google will then analyze your site and declare it mobile-friendly or not.

Did your site pass? YAY! Pass GO and collect $200 from the Community Chest.

2. What can I do if my site is not mobile-friendly?

If your site failed Google’s test, you might be using an older theme that’s not responsive. Responsive themes change their layout slightly when someone visits via tablet or mobile phone to ensure that important content like the site title, post titles, and post content can be read on smaller screens.

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Lest we forget


Last week, as I drove home on Hwy. 99, on the outskirts of a small central valley town, I saw a billboard similar to this one, marking the centennial of the 20th century’s first genocide. It is one of two dark centennials we will mark next week. Ones that no one wants to think of, but which we ignore at our own peril.

The Ottoman Empire had been in decline well before the start of the first world war. Their initial military efforts were disastrous. Six months after the start of fighting , they had lost the Balkans, and ruin threatened.

Well before the start of fighting, nationalist Turks and some religious extremists declared that to be saved, the Empire must purge itself of non-Muslim elements. By early 1915, as the government feared that Armenian Christians might seek a separate peace with Russia, it became policy.

On April 24, 1915, notable Armenians in Istanbul were rounded up, a move that historians agree was the first step in a wider plan of annihilation. One and a half million Armenians would die in 1915 and 1916, and the killing would not stop completely until 1922. Though headlines around the world reported the atrocities at the time, Turkey denies responsibility to this day.

No one would ever be punished, a fact not lost on a young German corporal named Adolf Hitler, who paid attention to world events. After the war, victorious nations, including the United States, found it more advantageous to seek trade agreements with oil producing nations than to seek redress for a scattered and decimated populace. The U.S. House of Representatives came close to a resolution condemning the killings as genocide in both 2007 and 2009, but Presidents Bush and Obama respectively, fended off passage of the bill, which they feared would upset our alliance with Turkey.

Denial is still the order of the day for nation states with strategic interests, but as individuals, we fortunately still have the option of recognizing the truth.

A poison gas attack in World War 1

A poison gas attack in World War 1

The other sad centennial we will mark next week is the first use of poison gas on the western front, on the evening of April 22, 1915, a day we now celebrate as Earth Day.

Seeking a tactical advantage at the second battle of Ypres, the Germans launched a two day artillery barrage. When the guns fell silent, instead of the infantry charge that usually followed such a volley, the British soldiers saw a white cloud moving toward their trenches.

One hundred and sixty-eight tons of chlorine gas wafted on the western breeze. Only when it struck did the soldiers experience the horror that hid in the cloud. Chlorine renders the lungs incapable of absorbing oxygen; the victim drowns in his own bodily fluids. Those who could ran for their lives.

The gas opened up a four mile hole in the British lines, the kind of breakthrough the warring armies always sought, but as usually happened, confusion and inept command kept the German army from exploiting their advantage, which was soon neutralized.

A British soldier with a background in chemistry, saw that the gas had turned brass buttons green. Realizing it was chlorine, he supplied the troops with an instant antidote – breathing through a urine-soaked cloth would neutralize the effects. Both sides rushed gas masks to the front, and any strategic advantage was lost.

Most casualties in “The Great War” came from artillery, but poison gas somehow haunts our imagination as we think of the conflict that opened the 20th century. Nations entered the war with 19th century illusions of bravery and heroism. Such conceits were swept away in the first few months of mechanized carnage.

For me, Earth Day, 2015 is a time to consider the warring impulses which live within the human heart. Every thought and every action of each individual matters. What can I do, now, on Earth Day, and every day, to aim in the direction of the world I would like to live in, rather then one where mass horrors on the evening news no longer cause us to raise an eyebrow?


Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview, New York Times.

A Century After Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens,” by Tim Arango, The New York Times.

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer

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