The Bell Tolls

Sometime during the first semester of graduate work in psychology, our clinical practice professor made an interesting observation. “The funniest people I know,” she said, “have all deeply experienced sorrow.” Her words came back when I heard we had lost Robin Williams.

They say he suffered from alcoholism and depression, both progressive, fatal diseases that  can be arrested. Interestingly, the media has done much to remove the stigma from both conditions. Ted Danson, as bartender, Sam Malone on Cheers, helped normalize an alcoholic abstaining and going to meetings. And the constant din of TV antidepressant commercials has probably primed millions to “Ask their doctor” about this oh so modern affliction.

Untreated depression, like untreated alcoholism, puts a person at risk for suicide, accidents, and poor health choices that end too many lives far too early. It’s futile to speculate on why some people reach out for help and others do not, but no individual, not you nor I, is a statistic. We are not bound by any kind of odds.

In this world where information is so easy to come by, it is my hope than anyone who sees in themselves the conditions that took Robin Williams from us may hit google and check out the mountains of information on what they may have and what can be done about it.

Young Jimmy in Flanders

This day began on a solemn note. Personal business had taken me to the city where my parents are buried. I stopped by the cemetery on my way out, pulled some dandelions and left some flowers. Such a visit puts me in a reflective mood, but even seeing my dad’s WWII veteran headstone didn’t jog my memory and remind me of what a solemn day this is for the whole world.

Only during my ride home, with my iPod playing music at random, did I recall the importance of August 2 when I heard Andy Stewart’s song, “Young Jimmy in Flanders.” World War I began one hundred years ago today.

Andy Stewart

Andy Stewart was frontman for “Silly Wizard,” a Scottish folk-rock group. He also released four solo albums. Fire in the Glen, 1985, features a song about his grandfather, Jamie, who served as piper with a Scottish regiment in the first world war, and somehow survived.

There’s poignancy at the very thought of bagpipers versus machine guns, and Stewart pulls no punches in condemning the blindness and stupidity that embroiled the world in slaughter:

Jimmy went to Flanders so many years ago,
To the Somme, to Ypres, and Arras, not so many years ago.
He played his pipes to battle,
And the laddies died like cattle,
And the brandy was drunk in Whitehall,
A million miles away.

This week, by choice and circumstance, I was on a media fast except for CNN during the time it took to eat in the motel breakfast. That was time enough. Eggs and toast and chaos in Gaza for breakfast nook; war as reality TV; we’ll be right back after this message. Today, I reflected that “The Middle East,” as it exists today, is a direct result of the first world war.

On August 2, 1914, German cavalry crossed into Luxembourg to seize control of railway lines. In a very real sense, one could say there is no end in sight to the conflict that was ignited that day.

All trees must pass

George Harrison memorial tree, 2010 by Al Pavongkanan. Creative Commons

George Harrison memorial tree, 2010 by Al Pavongkanan. Creative Commons

George Harrison spent the last years of his life in Los Angeles. In 2004, three years after his passing, a memorial pine tree was planted in his memory in Griffith Park. Harrison, an avid gardener, would probably have enjoyed the irony – the tree was destroyed by beetles. Harrison once said his biggest break was getting into the Beatles, and his second biggest break was getting out.

A new tree will be planted beside the plaque which reads, “In memory of a great humanitarian, who touched the world as an artist, musician, and gardener.”

It is also an appropriate time to appreciate one of the great truths his music told:

The more things change…

As I looked at the front page of a recent local paper, featuring yet another account of the lurid sex/murder scandal du jour, I thought of the striking parallels to the situation in France 100 years ago.

By mid-July, 1914 the crisis building in the wake of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination was roiling Berlin, Moscow, London, Vienna, and Sarajevo, but the French remained focused on the murder trial of Henriette Caillaux, second wife of former premiere, Joseph Caillaux. Madame Caillaux was accused of shooting a newspaper editor antagonistic to her husband. The trial was a full blown media circus, the O.J. trial of the day, for then as now, it is much easier to gawk at messy personal lives than messy international conflicts.

Public domain

Public domain

Henriette’s husband, Joseph Caillaux, had lost the previous election to conservatives, and was running for re-election in 1914, insisting that France roll back its aggressive militarism. In addition, as a former accountant, he was convinced that an income tax was essential to run a modern state. The campaign grew vicious. The editor of the conservative paper, Le Figaro, obtained and published a letter Caillaux had written to his first wife, when she was his mistress and married to another man.

Henriette, who cared deeply about her position in society, was terrified at the prospect of publication of letters she and Joseph had exchanged when both were married to others. On the afternoon of March 16, Henriette rode in a chauffeured car to a gun dealer, bought a Browning automatic pistol, and had the dealer take her to a basement firing range to teach her how to use it. She then demanded to see the editor of Le Figaro, with the gun hidden in her muff. She fired six bullets, hit the editor four times and killed him.

At her trial, Henriette claimed she only intended to frighten the man. She closed her eyes, she said, and aimed at the floor, but missed and hit the editor. Her defense team must have been stellar, for as G.J Meyer put it, on July 29, “A chivalrous jury found Madame Caillaux not guilty, and France’s newspapers awoke from their trance to discover that Europe was on the brink of war.”

By July 29, there was probably only one man in Europe who could have averted war. Jean Jaures’ ideas paralleled those of Joseph Caillaux. As a socialist, he was beyond the pale of “repeatable” politics, but I think of him as the Jimmy Carter of his day. Meyer writes, As a leader, a thinker, and simply as a human being, Jaures stood out like a giant in the summer of 1914. Like Caillaux he was widely hated, but only for the most honorable of reasons: he had dedicated his life to the achievement of democracy and genuine peace not only in France but across the continent.”

Jean Jaures, 1904, by Nadar. Public domain.

Jean Jaures, 1904, by Nadar. Public domain.

Jaures was the greatest orator of his time, and clearly saw that a European war would be a disaster with no winners, only losers. In his last newspaper column, published on July 31, he wrote, “The danger is great but not insuperable if we keep our clearness of mind and strength of will.  If we show the heroism of patience as well as the heroism of action.”

That day he went to Brussels to speak to an emergency gathering of socialists, including a delegation from Germany. He and a group of colleagues spoke to Abel Ferry of the French foreign ministry, demanding action to stop Russia from mobilizing. Ferry said it was too late.  “Everything is finished, there is nothing left to do.”  When Jaures protested, Ferry said, “You won’t be able to continue. You will be assassinated on the nearest street corner.”

Two hours later, Jaures and a friend entered a cafe on the Rue Montmartre where an unemployed 29 year old named Raoul Villain recognized him.  Villain, though well educated, was aimless and confused. He had a gun and a plan to travel to Germany to kill the kaiser. Seeing Jaures take a seat with his back to an open window, he changed his mind. A few moments later he fired two shots into Jaures’ head. The next day, France and Germany mobilized and the following day, World War I began.


The first world war was a tragedy that no one wanted to happen. Accounts of the run-up to war read like a Thomas Hardy novel, where the smallest “innocent” action leads to a huge tragedy. More than any other historical event, the first world war haunts me with a sense of evil pervading human affairs. To be sure, in the next war, in the holocaust, evil is more obvious. We can point to a small group of bad men and believe, or at least hope, that we are different from them. That’s not so easy to do with world war I.

None of the heads of state wanted this kind of war, but they consistently made wrong decisions, which pushed the world over the brink. The litany of “if only’s” is haunting as well. If only someone had told the Archduke’s driver of the change of route, the “inciting incident” might not have happened. And what if some dark karma or twist of fate had not brought Raoul Villain to the Rue Monmartre at the same time as Jaures?

History gives a perspective missing from the present moment, but the history of July 1914 poses a fearful question – what sinister future may be coiling behind the scenes while we distract ourselves with this year’s latest scandal?


Notes on the Mind – Body connection

Subtle body from 1899 yoga manuscript. Public domain.

Subtle body from 1899 yoga manuscript. Public domain.

One of the key themes emerging for me this year, both in living and blogging, involves mental hygiene, in particular, watching what ideas and thoughts I dwell on. I tried to express it in posts like Guarding the Mind and The Wishing Tree Revisited. Cheri Huber a Zen teacher, sums it up like this: “The quality of your life depends on the focus of your attention.”

As I check out things online, I bookmark articles that look like they might lead to interesting posts. Several recent posts center on a parallel theme,  the intimate connection of mind and body.

The first comes from Julieanne Victoria’s blog, Through the Peacock’s Eyes. In a post called, Effect of Thought on Health and the Body, she describes a small book by James Allen, amazing because of its visionary nature – it was written in 1902 and published in 1920.

Nowadays we’re used to seeing people practice Tai Chi in parks. We find yoga classes at local gyms and hear of corporate executives learning mindfulness meditation. A discussion of the ends and means for lifting such practices out of traditional contexts is a topic for another time. The point is, general awareness of the mind-body connection snowballed in the west in the latter half of the 20th century. I think it’s just beginning, which makes James Allen’s conclusions, penned 112 years ago, all the more unique.  Check out Julieanne Victoria’s post. It is inspiring to read these words of a man who understood these truths before almost anyone else in our culture.

One manifestation of the mind-body connection that everyone knows about involves stress. Stress is bad and A-Types have it worst, right? What if you learned, as I did in a recent NPR article, that almost all of the studies that created “stress” and “A-Type” as modern words and concepts were funded by big tobacco companies, seeking to prove that stress and not cigarettes, cause heart problems and cancer? This article is an eye opener, and not because of this single topic. It’s illuminating to see how far money can go in creating the “truths” we try to live by.

The final post that caught my attention comes from the Scientific American BlogWhat does Mindfulness Meditation do for your brain. Leaving aside all questions of what might be lost in separating mindfulness practice from it’s Buddhist context, the benefits appear to be compelling:

“It’s been accepted as a useful therapy for anxiety and depression for around a decade…It’s being explored by schools, pro sports teams and military units to enhance performance, and is showing promise as a way of helping sufferers of chronic pain, addiction and tinnitus, too. There is even some evidence that mindfulness can help with the symptoms of certain physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.”

Beyond these experiential findings, the Scientific American post presents a powerful physiological finding. MRI scans of people after an eight week mindfulness meditation course show the amygdala shrinking. This is the brain’s fight or flight center, associated with emotion and fear. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex, “associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making,” becomes thicker. In addition, brain links are altered: “The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.”

These few posts are just the barest notes on a huge topic, but one I find fascinating. I’ll be posting more as I see more interesting stories along these lines.

Break out the tinfoil helmets!

From "Signs," 2002

From “Signs,” 2002

I find the tinfoil helmet image is always good for a laugh – don’t want those pesky aliens messing with our thought patterns! At the same time, we all know aliens aren’t the problem. I recently read a statistic that in the US, we see as many advertisements in a year as people 50 years ago did in their lifetimes. Advertisers explicitly set out to mess with our thought patterns. Now an NPR post reveals that “Facebook scientists” have messed with our thoughts as well.

The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

Here’s the gist of their experiment:

“For one week back in 2012, Facebook scientists altered what appeared on the News Feed of more than 600,000 users. One group got mostly positive items; the other got mostly negative items.

Scientists then monitored the posts of those people and found that they were more negative if they received the negative News Feed and more positive if they received positive items.”

Experimental methods rapidly followed the birth of psychology in the last century as social scientists sought acceptance into the real community of science. Freud, after all, won his Nobel Prize in literature, not science.

Back in the day, psych experiments were conducted on helpless animals and hapless college students who needed to make a buck. Now, Facebook Scientists (don’t you wish you could see their credentials?) can run such tests on all of us for free, because no human being now living has ever read the Terms of Service for anything online that they wish to join.

I actually find it interesting that this particular test confirmed a hunch I’ve been working out on this blog over the last few months:  Reading negative news makes me crabby, while reading positive news improves my disposition. Only took me four years of blogging to work that out, a truth that could also be summarized by these wise words of British author, Kingsley Amis:  “Nice things are nicer than nasty ones.”

Oh yes, and I was being precise when I said four years – I launched this blog four years ago on June 28. They say most blogs don’t last that long, and I know I’m posting less often lately – it seems like I always get lazy in summer, especially in June. But all of you readers keep me hunting for interesting things, or weird things (like Facebook scientists) to share.  So thanks, I appreciate it, and please stay tuned!

On this day a hundred years ago

“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” – Otto von Bismarck, 1888.

“To have to go to war on account of tiresome Serbia beggars belief.” – Queen Mary of England, August, 1914.

By all accounts, the summer of 1914 in Europe was the sweetest anyone could remember. To many, it seemed like the new century had ushered in an era of prosperity and peace. Everywhere, the middle classes were growing. Globalization was the order of the day. There hadn’t been a continental war in 50 years, and you could travel the world without a passport.

The Sketchers by John Singer Sargent, 1914, public domain

The Sketchers by John Singer Sargent, 1914, public domain

Below the idyllic surface, a storm was brewing. At the beginning, as at the end of the 20th century, the Balkans were the least stable region in Europe. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia from the Turks, whose influence was waning. Nationalistic fervor ran high through the region, and the Bosnian Serbs longed to reunite with the nation of Serbia. During the last weeks of June, 1914, six young Serbian men, members of The Black Hand, a radical nationalist group, slipped into Sarajevo with the intention of killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, on his scheduled visit to Bosnia. By a strange coincidence, five of the six would-be assassins were tubercular teenagers, including, Gavrilo Princip, 19, whose ambition was to die as a martyr.

On the morning of June 28, the six positioned themselves along the route Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, would travel by motorcade. The first assassin hurled a pocket bomb at the Archduke’s car, but the driver, alerted by the detonation of the bomb’s percussion cap, accelerated and the device exploded under a following car, injuring two other passengers. The motorcade rushed past three more assassins who did nothing; when they were captured, two made excuses while the third confessed that he’d lost his nerve.

After a speech at the city hall, Franz Ferdinand announced his intention to cancel the rest of the parade and go to the hospital to visit the two wounded men. Unfortunately, no one told the driver of the change in plans. He continued along the original route, past another assassin who did nothing.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie leave City Hall in Sarajevo, June 28.  Public domain.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie leave City Hall in Sarajevo, June 28. Public domain.

When the driver was finally alerted to his mistake, he stopped the car to turn it around – by a fateful coincidence, just five feet away from the sixth assassin, Gavrilo Princip. Princip fired two shots, hitting the Archduke in the throat and Sophie in the abdomen. “It is nothing, it is nothing,” Franz Ferdinand said. An hour later, he and his wife were dead.

Initially, the assassination caused little stir in the capitals of Europe – it was all too common in the early years of the century. In the previous two decades, presidents of the United States, France, Mexico, Guatemala, Uruguay, and the Dominical Republic had been assassinated, as had Prime Ministers of Russia, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Persia, and Egypt. So had kings, queens and empresses of Austria, Italy, Serbia, Portugal, and Greece (source: A World Undone by G.J. Meyer).

No one went to war over assassinations. Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, did not even like his nephew, Franz Ferdinand, who had become the heir after his own son committed suicide. The emperor seemed almost relieved that the Archduke was gone. First the nephew had defied his uncle by marrying Sophie, who, as “mere” countess, was not of a suitable rank to be wife of a head of state. Even more onerous, the Archduke espoused progressive ideas which his uncle, born in 1830, could not tolerate.

While the rest of the world and the Emperor himself moved on, other high ranking officials within the Austro-Hungarian government sought to exploit the assassination, as an excuse to punish Serbia. By the turn of the century, Austria-Hungary was a second-rate Empire in decline, economically, militarily, and in the eyes of the other western powers. Field Marshal Franz Conrad was convinced that the empire could only recover its standings by asserting itself in the Balkans, beginning with ending the “Serbian problem,” which ideally meant, ending Serbia itself. He had proposed war against Serbia 25 times in 1913.

Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austrian foreign minister, was a wealthy, pleasure loving aristocrat who owned a racing stable and was famous as a ladies man. “He was also widely regarded as weak, lazy, frivolous and unreliable,” according to G.J. Meyer. Knowing he needed to boost his reputation, he too saw war on Serbia as an opportunity. In Meyer’s words, he had become dangerous – “a weak man, determined to appear strong.”

Conrad and Berchtold drafted a 10 point ultimatum so strict they were sure the Serbs would reject it. For a number of reasons – internal wrangling as well as external political considerations – the ultimatum was not delivered until 25 days after the assassination, when its connection to the event had grown even more tenuous.

Serbia’s powerful ally, Russia, had been led to expect a milder response. Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, flew into a rage. “You are setting fire to Europe!” he told the Austrian ambassador. Advisors told the Tsar that failure to help their Slavic brothers in Serbia might trigger a revolution.

After almost a month of quiet following the Archduke’s assassination, the crisis burst upon all the nations of Europe. Forty-eight hours after receiving the Austrian ultimatum, Serbia announced it could not accept all of the demands. Diplomatic relations were severed, and both countries began to mobilize. Adding to the chaos at the end of July, “mobilization” meant different things in different countries.

In Russia, the process took weeks. Thousands of peasant reservists had to be notified, some living hundreds of miles from the nearest railroad. In sharp contrast, German mobilization was based on “the Schlieffen Plan,” which assumed the nation would face a war on two fronts. Mobilization meant war, with a lightning attack to the west, designed to defeat France in 40 days so the armies could turn east to face Russia. Frantic last moment diplomacy failed. Persuaded of the necessity by the military, Kaiser Wilhelm gave the order to proceed. On August 2, German troops crossed into Luxembourg, and the shooting began.

Fired by nationalism and 19th century ideas of honor and glory, young men in all the combatant nations flooded recruiting centers. French troops, boarding trains for the front, called, “A bientot” (“See you soon.”) to those who waved from the platform.

Not everyone was so sanguine. On August 3, after Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary stood at his window as dusk fell and the lamps were lit. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” he said. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

If we think of the current chaos in the middle east – the use of poison gas and the crumbling of national boundaries that were drawn in the wake of the first world war – we have to say that the lights have still not come back on…

Notes on an archaeology of our selves

Lego Indiana Jones by Tim Norris, 2009, Creative Commons

Lego Indiana Jones by Tim Norris, 2009, Creative Commons

Clear out your living space and you clear out your mind. And vice versa. I don’t remember where or when I picked up that bit of wisdom, but over the years, it has proven to be true. I’m back in the de-cluttering mode, a task I started in the spring, and continued in fits and starts since then.

Most of the stuff I’ve collected over the years is made of paper: countless boxes of books, piles of notebooks and journals, file boxes of essays composed during various academic forays, and a few portfolios of drawings. Layers of artifacts. One trunk is even filled with genealogical lore. My mother was into that. I am not, and yet I don’t quite know what to do with these small black and white prints carefully pasted into albums nearly 100 years ago. I recognize very few of these aunts, uncles, and distant cousins. I’ve lost track of anyone who might value the prints, and yet, there they are, my ancestors. It doesn’t feel right to just pitch them into the trash. So they’ll sit a while longer in the garage, taking up space.

I believe this is a good analogy to some of what clutters the mind – there is much we are attached to that no longer serves any purpose. It just takes up space. What we need is the wisdom and will to make a clean cut, an energy shown in traditional images of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom, whose right hand holds a flaming sword which can cut through our knots of confusion.


While sorting through old books, journals, and papers, I find that most have lost their meaning. A few mark important phases of life, and I hang onto them like graduation or wedding photos, or a favorite old coffee cup. Only a very small minority of items seem current. A rare find was this personal statement I included in a brochure for a local storytelling festival in 2001. It would fit this blog today.

“I believe we all tell ourselves stories almost all of the time, largely unnoticed interior narratives of what we are like and what the world is like. Telling or listening to stories in a “formal” setting, besides being pure fun, can invite us to re-imagine our own lives. Our lives may not be so different from the lives of the characters of Story. Anywhere can be the crossroads, and any voice can be the helpful creature by the side of the path, and the Water of Life may be nearer than we think.”

Archaeologists uncover pot shards and skulls and try to figure out what vanished people were like. I periodically sift through these relics and find myself wondering what my vanished selves were really like. There are threads of continuity, of course, but I think they’re a lot more subtle than I ordinarily imagine, like a fluttering movement, glimpsed at the corner of the eyes.

In the end, I really believe that these day-to-day selves come down to a matter of just which stories we favor and tell ourselves over and over. Which papers, books, and pot shards we keep nearby.

I think it’s a lot like the movie, Secondhand Lions, which is all about stories, when Hub (Robert Duvall) says, “If you want to believe in something, believe in it. Doesn’t matter if it isn’t true. You believe in it anyway.”