This too…

During a recent zoom teaching, Anam Thubten, a Tibetan meditation master I’ve written about before, told a traditional story to illustrate the Buddhist concept of “Impermanence:”

In ancient times, a certain wise king welcomed scholars, philosophers, theologians, astronomers, and so on, to his court. One day he gathered them all and requested that they tell him something that is true under every possible circumstance. The wise men and women conferred among themselves, and after deliberations, returned to the king with the one truth that met his criterion: “This too shall pass.”

That’s a comforting truth at times, but over the last few years we have all been traumatized by the constant passing and threats to too many things we love.

We’ve all known people who have sickened or died of covid. The hope for “herd immunity” has faded as new variants proliferate and reinfections become common. Our past ways of living and socializing are gone and won’t be back. I see hundreds of people online who share a personal story as well, the loss of a beloved animal who brought joy during the early days of the shutdown but whose beautiful presence is no longer with us as the bad news grinds on and on.

Our nation continues to tear itself apart and our “Supreme” court has become a mere instrument of a party that no longer bothers to hide its autocratic ambitions. Passing and past are the days when decent people could feel a genuine pride in their country as its birthday approaches.

These days too, when I go to the grocery store, I think of the words Lakota warriors would sometimes say before battle: “Today is a good day to die.” (1) Sacramento had one of the 246 American mass shootings recorded as of June 5. I remember my relief in learning it was gang related – a “reasonable” motive, as opposed to some teen with a weapon of war who was having a sad.

So what do we do in response? I’m sure we all have ideas that come and go. “Talk to people with differing views,” is a “rational” response that crops up now and then, but the day a homeless man in the park, who survives on Social Security and Medicare, told me that Democrats are trying to ruin the country, I had nothing to say.

The other problem with “rational” responses is that they miss the subtle, or hidden, or archetypal forces in operation now, as they seem to have been during other times of collapsing empires.

One statement sticks in my mind. In the Winter, 2012 issue of Self-Realization Magazine, Paramahansa Yogananda was quoted as saying, “Your love must be greater than your pain.”

In a world that hungers for the quick-fix, this statement at first did not seem satisfying. but thoughts that simmer gain power. Yogananda was fully aware of the power of ideas to change the world. As a friend of Gandhi, he witnessed one of the 20th century’s most dramatic examples of the power of Truth and Compassion in action.

“Your love must be greater than your pain,” is a far more fertile idea to live with than the mass of what passes for news as it floods us every day.

The Day the Blue Dog Turned Pale

George Rodrigue in his studio, 2009. CC By-SA 4.0

George Rodrigue, 1944-2013, was a Louisiana born artist of Cajun descent, best known for his “Blue Dog” paintings and prints. The series began when he received a commission to illustrate a Cajun ghost story. He chose the legend of the loop-garou, the werewolf, and modeled the image on a photo of Tiffany, a little dog who had been his studio companion and had recently died. The Blue Dog become his signature image and won him an international following.

“People who have seen the Blue Dog painting always remember it,” [Rodrigue] was quoted as saying. “They are really about life, about mankind searching for answers. The dog never changes position. He just stares at you. And you’re looking at him, looking for some answers, ‘Why are we here?,’ and he’s just looking back at you, wondering the same. The dog doesn’t know. You can see this longing in his eyes, this longing for love, answers.” (1)

On the night of September 11, 2001, when the nation was reeling after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Rodrigue went to his studio and began a painting which he finished at 5:00 am the next morning. He called it God Bless America and created an edition of 1000 large silk screen prints from the painting. He donated all the revenue from the print sales, $500,000, to the Red Cross.

“I first thought to paint the dog black, as if in mourning,” he said on September 12. “Instead I painted it without color at all, the blue joy drained by shock and grief. (Some people have commented that the lack of color reminds them of the television footage of debris-covered people running on the streets of New York City.) For many years the dog has had yellow, happy eyes. On this day, however, the eyes are red, indicating a heavy heart.

I am proud to be from the United States of America. It is our spirit, strong in the symbol of our flag, which will mend our broken hearts and allow us to use these events to strengthen our courage and compassion.”

Mary and I drove to Carmel in November of that year, in part to escape the news cycles. While we were there, we stopped by Rodrigue’s California gallery and saw these prints. I’ve never forgotten the image of the pale dog with its haunted eyes.

It was beautiful on the coast that fall. For a time, the nation was united and most of the world stood with us. When Randy Jackson almost single handedly led the Diamondbacks to their first World Series win that week, in (as far as I know), the first Series played in November, it was easy to pick up Rodrigue’s sense of optimism. Miracles could happen. Yes, our broken hearts would mend, and yes our courage and compassion would grow. Except things did not turn out that way.

George Rodrigue died in December, 2013, at the age of 69, of lung cancer. He blamed his use of powerful solvents in a small, unventilated studio when he was starting out as an artist. It’s sad to think of the work he was never able to give the world. At the same time, it’s almost a blessing that he never saw how we, as a nation, squandered the unity and goodwill that was ours in the wake of the first disaster of the new century.

I’ve long thought that as individuals and as groups, most of our learning comes either from wisdom or disasters. Wisdom is in short supply these days, and if a million dead of covid is not a big enough disaster to make us stop and question what we’re doing, it’s not pleasant to ask what comes next.

George Rodrigue is no longer here, but the pale dog remains. He hasn’t regained his color, and the happy yellow of his eyes seems a long way away.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE- WOODSTOCK- THREE DAYS THAT DEFINED A GENERATION [LINK TO DOCUMENTARY] — slicethelife

Quote

“It’s been a long time comin’
It’s goin’ to be a long time gone.” – Crosby, Stills & Nash

This week I watched the recent PBS documentary Woodstock- Three Days That Defined a Generation. It is excellent- it does feature the music- but also how the concert came to be and of course a lot about the young people who came and their experiences. I watched this and re-watched the Woodstock movie documentary- Director’s […]

via AMERICAN EXPERIENCE- WOODSTOCK- THREE DAYS THAT DEFINED A GENERATION [LINK TO DOCUMENTARY] — slicethelife

Notes from 2017 – A Funeral in India

Friends, family, and Indian government ministers at funeral rites for Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Hyderabad, India

Friends, family, and Indian government ministers at funeral rites for Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Hyderabad, India

Yesterday, hundreds of mourners held funeral rites for Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a 32 year old Indian software engineer who had called the United States home for ten years. A week ago, a man with with a history of alchohol problems yelled, “Get out of my country,” then shot Kuchibhotla as he watched a basketball game in a crowded bar in Kansas City. The shooter then wounded Kuchibhotla’s friend and a bystander who tried to disarm him. He reportedly told the bartender, “I killed two Arabs.”

In our recent presidential election, we didn’t just vote for candidates, we voted for their stories – both the stories they told and the stories told about them. The winning story played on our fears: the world is a dangerous place. Murderers, rapists, and terrorists are coming to get us. Other countries are “stealing our jobs.” We must close our borders, expel foreigners, hunker down, look after number one, and trust “a strong man.”

Stories can kill. People kill each other and go to war over stories. The narrative of hate that infected this country during last years election continues to grow and appears to have been a factor the Kansas City shooting.

The shooter didn’t just rob a family of their son. He didn’t just arouse the wrath of one of our key allies against us. He helped sink our nation’s prospects in the new century. He hammered a big nail into America’s rapidly fading greatness, both humanitarian and economic.

More than thirty years ago, in the right place at the right time, I joined Intel just before the tech boom really took off. The company, and its peers were oceans of diversity. The “best and brightest” from all over the world came to study at our universities and then go to work for the companies that sparked the revolution that changed our world. Indian engineers were probably the largest contingent at Intel and the other tech companies.

No longer. Srinivas’ brother also lives in American, but his mother said, “I will not allow him to go back. I don’t want to lose another son,” His father told the nation not to let their children come to this country. I wouldn’t if I was an Indian parent – would you? The president’s smooth sentence, read from a teleprompter last night, after a week of silence, will not convince a nation in morning that all is well in America. Indian politicians at the funeral held signs reading “Down with Trump,” and “Down with Racism.” The real message has been received.

Creativity is fueled by divergent viewpoints – it’s a heterogeneous soup from which marvelous things appear when the circumstances are right. The right circumstances are rapidly disappearing from an America that disavows science and cowers in fear of strangers.

The next big thing – clean energy, bio-technology, revolutions in food production, cures for epidemic diseases won’t happen here behind our walls, both visible and invisible. History tells us the fall of empires isn’t pretty, and they do not rise again.

Welcome to 1984!

This post from Ipledgeafallegiance is a tragic but pertinent summary of the fruits of a foreign “policy” that Jimmy Carter cautioned against 37 years ago. Saying we had a choice between national self-restraint and dependence on foreign oil, Carter said:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

To continue on this course, he said, was “a road to certain failure.” Read it and weep.

ipledgeafallegiance

I think that President Obama has done a good job as President of the United States. I know that not everyone agrees with me and even though I don’t agree with everything that President O. has done, our 44th elected President is about to do something that no other president in the history of the United States has ever accomplished.

He is about to become the only president who has been at war during all 8 years of his presidency! And when you consider that President G.W. Bush had the nation at war for the last 6 years of his presidency then the United States has been at war for the past 14 years, non stop…with no stopping in sight.

Hillary Clinton, should she become our next president, is well known in Washington for being a “war hawk” herself… and Donald trump, should he become our next Commander in Chief…

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Andrew Bacevich on “An Extraordinary Opportunity for Congress”

Andrew Bacevich

Those who follow this blog will know the high regard in which I hold historian Andrew Bacevich. In a 2012 review of his book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, I mentioned a few of Bacevich’s credentials:

Bacevich, a Viet Nam veteran, retired as a colonel after 23 years in the army. He holds a PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998. In March, 2007, he described the US doctrine of “preventative warfare” as “immoral, illicit, and imprudent.” Two months later, his son died in Iraq.

On February 14, Bacevich posted a brief article on Moyers & Company that I’d love to see more widely read. He likens the current administration’s middle-eastern initiative to Nixon’s 1970 “incursion” into Cambodia and says:

“How did we arrive at this predicament? Where exactly are we headed? What is the overall aim? How will we know when we have succeeded? What further costs will the perpetuation of the enterprise entail?

Back in 1970, when the predicament was the Vietnam War, those questions demanded urgent attention. Today, the enterprise once known as the Global War on Terrorism, now informally referred to as the Long War or the Forever War or (my personal preference) America’s War for the Greater Middle East, defines our predicament. But the questions remain the same as they were when Cambodia rather than the Islamic State represented the issue of the moment.

So President Obama’s requested Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) could not have come at a more propitious moment. The proposed AUMF presents the Congress with an extraordinary opportunity — not to rubber stamp actions already taken, but to take stock of an undertaking that already exceeds the Vietnam War in length while showing not the slightest sign of ending in success.”

Read it, and instead of weeping, pass it on.

To the barricades! No, the other barricades.

Printing, ca. 1568.  Public domain.

Printing, ca. 1568. Public domain.

“Right now, bookstores, libraries, authors, and books themselves are caught in the cross fire of an economic war. If this is the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed — by law, if necessary — immediately, if not sooner.” – James Patterson

I haven’t blogged about ebooks and independent publishing lately. Over the last few years, it’s become clear they are here to stay. Success breeds acceptance, and the “vanity press” stigma is gone. In olden days (ca. 2011), I found a kind of “blows against the empire” satisfaction in promoting ebooks, writing reviews, and encouraging Indie authors. The evil empire was big publishing. This was the time of the little guy.

I still like Indie authors, though the “righteous cause” fantasy is gone. Now suddenly, at least to a casual observer like me, the situation appears reversed, with Amazon in the role of bully-boy, and those same publishers (perhaps) fighting for their existence, and with them (maybe) hangs the fate of a lot of remaining brick and mortar stores.

I first learned of the Amazon-Hachette duel from Michael Koryta, a favorite action-adventure writer I follow on Facebook. On May 19, Koryta reported serious problems pre-ordering his new book, due out June 3, from Amazon. He said the situation goes far beyond the interests of one author, and provided some of the links posted below.

On May 29, USA Today quoted James Patterson as saying “the future of our literature is in danger.” Patterson says that “Amazon wants to control book buying, book selling and even book publishing,” and laments that federal anti-trust laws no longer have teeth.

Here are several editorials on the situation:

Amazon vs. Hachette: When Does Discouragement Become Misrepresentation? From the NY Times Blog

Amazon said to play hardball in book contract talks with publishing house Hachette The Washington Post

AAR Calls Out Amazon in Hachette Dispute, From a statement sent by Association of Authors Representatives to Amazon.

And if I was only going to read one account of this dispute, I’d chose this one by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords and early champion of ebooks, who believes in the vitality of a diverse writing and publishing world: Amazon’s Hachette Dispute Foreshadows What’s Next for Indie Authors

I’ve heard Coker speak on several occasions, and he’s a keen observer of a complicated landscape and future. His predictions on publishing tend to be right. In this post, he explains that the conflict centers on “agency pricing,” and who gets what profit margin for ebooks. Amazon is demanding a greater share. Here is what is at stake, says Coker:

“Books represent only one of hundreds of layers of icing on the cake of Amazon. Amazon can lose money on books while still operating a profitable business. Pure-play book retailers – Kobo and Barnes & Noble for example, must earn money from book sales. Unlike Amazon, they don’t have the financial resources to sell books at a loss forever…If Amazon can abolish agency pricing it will have the power to put its largest pure-play book retailing competitors out of business. This will make the publishers even more dependent upon Amazon, which further weakens their power.”

That’s the bad news. The really bad news, according to Coker, is that next they’ll come after Indie authors, just as they have in their audio book division, Audible. Gone are the 70% margins for authors that the agency model protects. Instead, exclusive Audible authors get 40% while the non-exclusive rate is 25%.

Coker winds up with with advice for independent authors, who, he says, are “the future of publishing.” It’s well worth reading the details in his article, but here are his main suggestions:

  1. Choose your partners carefully.
  2. Favor retail partners that support the agency model.
  3. Avoid exclusivity.
  4. Support a vibrant ecosystem of multiple competing retailers.

Remember the vibrant ecosystem of multiple competing book retailers? Though it is on the ropes, it’s not yet extinct. That’s worth thinking about and will be the subject of my next post.

Notes from the Wasteland

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Talk of drought in California isn’t uncommon.  Normally it means lower levels in reservoirs and thinner snowpacks in the Sierras.  Bad news for skiers, and boaters, and farmers, perhaps, and an earlier start to the fire season, but’s it’s January, and for those who don’t ski, or boat, or farm, it’s easy to ignore until summer. But this time it’s different. This year it simply will not rain.

Even in “dry” winters, you see warnings that river currents are cold and swift.  This year the river’s so low there is no visible current.  Half of the local lawns are brown, and those that are green invite visits from the “water patrols” the districts threaten to form.  They say the reservoir from which we get our drinking water is at 17%; that image isn’t easy to forget.

A year ago, I posted a report from the National Intelligence Council.  Every four years, the NIC, representing every US intelligence agency, collaborates on a summary of the world situation to give the incoming president.  They post the report online for anyone to read.  After the last presidential election, the NIC gave the administration a report called Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds:

Click for the text of the whole report

I discussed the report in detail in a post in December, 2012, but it’s worth reviewing one of the four “Megatrends” the report identified.  The CIA, the NSA, the FBI, and the 13 other agencies that compiled the report do not waste time debating climate change; they accept it as a given and factor it into predictions, saying that by 2030:

Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle-class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources. Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter and dry and arid areas becoming more so.

What gives you pause is their conclusion:

We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future.

At this time, if we have to depend on our “policymakers and their private sector partners” to be proactive, we’re screwed, but there are different ways to look at our situation.  As usual, I try to relate literal “truth” to archetypal patterns, and in this case, the obvious mythic story is that of the Wasteland.

The story relates how Camelot fell apart.  How the rift between Arthur and his queen threw the land into ruin.  How the ailing king sent his knights in search of the Holy Grail, the one thing that could restore the barren world.  Those who reached the Grail Castle found another mysterious king inside, wounded through the testicles, in constant pain but unable to die.  His only relief by day was to float in a boat on a lake near the castle.  For this reason, he was known as “The Fisher King.”  He could only be healed by the right knight arriving at the castle to ask the right question.

Antecedents to the story are ancient and predate the Arthurian tales, perhaps by thousands of years.  In writing his poem, The Waste Land (1922), T.S. Eliot relied on an anthropological study, From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston, who in turn, drew on The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazier’s study of sacred kingship.

In the mythic cycle Frazier explored, the earthly king was “married” to the Goddess of the Land.  His potency and the earth’s fertility were one.  When he became old and infirm or impotent, the health of the land suffered.  He was ritually killed and a new king selected.  We find echoes of this in Arthur’s estrangement from Guinevere, though of course by then, the era when monarchs submitted to sacrifice was past.

We aren’t ruled by kings anymore, but if we consider “governments” alongside the word, “impotent,” and if we ignore what Viagra can fix, we find these meanings: “weak; ineffective, powerless or helpless; having no self-control.”

Yet the news isn’t all bad, and that is a theme I plan to explore in a series of posts exploring the Wasteland.  For one thing, the Grail hides there and nowhere else.  For another, the old stories never suggest that rulers can save us.  Renewal comes from the outsider, the dummling, the fool, Parsifal the rustic youth, or a carpenter from Nazareth.  

There are literally thousands of people today, already in or ready to enter the metaphorical forest on a quest for better ways to live.  I plan to discuss a few of their stories here.

“Arming the Grail Knights” by Edward Burne-Jones, tapestry, 1890’s, public domain