Old joke:

God came to a Russian man and offered him one wish, whatever he wanted.  Before the man could speak, God cautioned him, “Whatever you ask for, I’ll give twice as much to your neighbor.  The man thought carefully for a long time, then said, “Pluck out one of my eyes.”

The first time I heard this joke, it was painfully funny.  Over time, it has become less funny and painfully true of too many people I encounter in person or read about in the news.  Whenever my wife or I see this behavior in ourselves or others, “… is a Russian” has become our shorthand.

As a stereotype, this is a truth but not a complete truth.  Not all of this kind of russian live in Russia and not all Russians behave like this.  Just enough for a stereotype.

War is all about trying to cause the enemy more loss than you sustain.  So winning is losing less.  Game Theory calls this a negative sum game.  All the losses and gains, if any, for both sides are totaled up and the result is always negative.  Most 2 person recreational games (e.g., chess, checkers) and many sports (tennis, baseball) are zero sum games. The total is one winner, one loser.  Positive sum games are win-win situations and things like New Games movement in the 60s.

What is the appeal of negative sum games?  In the joke above, the Russian chooses a negative sum game over a positive sum game.  He could have gotten something for nothing and his community could have gotten triple something for nothing.  Instead he chose loss for himself and his community.

I will admit to occasionally wanting to do harm to someone and being willing to harm myself in the process.  I stopped acting on the impulse and the impulse is decreasing.

Many politicians have found that appealing to this impulse, promising death/loss/affliction to some demonized/designated Other/minority wins votes and often elections.  And it’s much easier to implement than empowering or boosting the majority.

Millennia ago Moses told the people, “I place before you life and death. Choose life.”

In John 10:10 Jesus says, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.”

Lessons that few take to heart. The few times I have acted on what felt like a message from God, a Higher Power.  The result was more creative and abundant than anything I could imagine achieving on my own. I’m encouraged to follow these strange messages. If it wasn’t strange, God wouldn’t need to tell you.

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Sixer Prompts

In one of my writing groups, someone brought a prompt she described as a sixer, a story in six words: “Iris bloom around steps, house gone.”  From it I wrote a very good poem that is making the submission rounds.

Recently I volunteered to bring a sixer prompt for today’s meeting. This morning I had not come up with one of my own, so I searched the Internet. Six Word Memoirs seems to be Sixer Central. I browsed through quickly and found four suitable prompts:

  • Careful shepherds. You are the wolf.
  • Blue in life’s bowl of cherries.
  • Healed. Almost. Who would have thought?
  • Dog dies tomorrow. My heart, today.

In two rounds of writing, the five of us covered all four at least once. A useful resource to start writing if I’m stuck for an idea or spark.

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Cohen and Hayes

I’ve been reading Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin and listening to Leonard Cohen’s songs, particularly Hallelujah and Suzanne. Some of the sonnets are relentless, pedal to the metal all the way, though there’s always some breathing in them, between poems if not within a poem. There’s a lot of energy and intensity. Leonard Cohen lines, some grab me, some rest easy. Both artists’ work pull and push, move me. Neither lets go, drops the rope. Even after the work ends.

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Coping vs. Change

Several traditional Buddhists have criticized mindfulness training.  At first this seems a bit odd, but reading the whole critique explains the problem they have.  It wasn’t mindfulness practice per se, it is mindfulness only as a way to cope with the stresses of modern life or even to sharpen the predators’ edge.  The Buddha taught a way to transform individuals and society, not to prop up an unjust, predatory system.

Living by Meditation Alone lays out this view in more detail.

When one examines the place of meditation in the Vajrayana in particular, one finds again that it is not considered a self-sufficient means of spiritual accomplishment. It comes second in the triad of view, meditation, and action. View signifies the correct vision of reality that the Vajrayana master imparts to the student, and meditation signifies the subsequent development and stabilization of the glimpse afforded by this introduction. Thus, it is only through both view and meditation, together with their enactment and testing in action, that one could even approach spiritual accomplishment.

Note: Vajrayana is the Tibetan branch of Buddhism.  This teaching is central to all traditional Buddhist traditions.  It is only in secular, Western Buddhism that meditation only practice is encouraged.  Ethics has to have a place in the teaching or you get the perversion of the samurai—calm, efficient killers and militarism, e.g. Japan leading up to WWII.

In every religion, there is a tension between the institution that wants to cozy up to the power structures, whether empire or free market capitalism and the founder’s way of transformation, compassion, and justice.  Certainly we are currently seeing this also in Christianity, e.g., the evangelicals and other conservatives joining with political right.

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Prophecy by Pauli Murray

Powerful 1969 poem by Pauli Murray, still relevant.

I sing of a new American
Separate from all others,
Yet enlarged and diminished by all others.
I am the child of kings and serfs, freemen and slaves,
Having neither superiors nor inferiors,
Progeny of all colors, all cultures, all systems, all beliefs.
I have been enslaved, yet my spirit is unbound.
I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness.
I have been slain but live on in the river of history.
I seek no conquest, no wealth, no power, no revenge:
I seek only discovery
Of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.
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The gatekeepers have stopped
the barbarians at the gate.
They guard access
to empty pews.

The horde demanding entrance
is empty too.

Who are the gatekeepers for:

Some gatekeepers are going away or being circumvented

  • Non-denominational churches walk away from denomination rule, hierarchies, and gatekeepers, and establish their own.
  • Bitcoin end-runs governmental currencies and is backed by nothing beyond the ability to generate a valid one.
  • Discount brokers undercut full-service brokers.
  • Hedge funds and venture capitalists dance in and outside the stock markets.
  • Shadow banks are not legally banks, but offer many of the same services, e.g., loans.  Regulations are much less stringent.
  • Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing companies try with varying degrees of success to break the taxi company (and city permitting process) monopoly.  In general, the sharing economy does this too.

Disintermediation refers to cutting out the middle man, e.g. buying direct from the manufacturer’s Website.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Who will watch the watchmen?

I’m not advocating no rules, regulation, or gatekeepers. How do we keep those who keep out the unqualified and unscrupulous from becoming those who shield those inside from competition or criticism from outside. Who do we prevent those who guard/protect us from becoming our prison guards? In another context I asked, “Public Safety Officer or occupying army protecting privilege?”

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Appropriate? or Appropriation?

Austin, TX is a “humid, sub-tropical” climate.  In my daily activities, the “strenuously casual” dress of where I came from Davis, CA. It is a hot-summer Mediterranean climate, so drier than here. My clothing is less appropriate here, but a suit, even a tropical suit, is too hot and too dressy for everyday wear. For the Capitol, it’s different.

The guayabera originated in similar climates (Cuba and/or Mexico). It is lightweight, traditionally white, and left untucked. It has some populist connotations, especially when worn by politicians. It has been urged as a revolt against the European suits of the colonizers. Here, I find the actions of the “suits” in the capitol revolting.

It is appropriate for this climate. Is it appropriate for a straight white male of predominantly Great Britain origin? Or is that appropriation by a member of the dominant ethnic group? Or is it an appropriate way to distance myself from the ruling group?

This morning I watched a video of the governor of Hawai’i, David Ige, talk about measures being taken around the eruptions in Lower Puna. He was wearing a pressed, button down Aloha shirt. The two officials mentioned, Tom Travis and Mike Kaleikini, can also be seen in other videos making statements wearing similar shirts. In Hawai’i this kind of shirt is formal wear, replacing the coat and tie or suit and tie.

The Aloha shirt was a commercial invention by a Chinese merchant based on earlier designs by a Japanese immigrant made from kimono fabrics. So it’s an appropriation of an appropriation, typical of so much of current culture in Hawai’i.

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto
I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.

Terrence of Rome

Who decides what is appropriate use or appropriation?

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The Great Silence

At a writer’s retreat in a former convent, the leader, a Zen Buddhist practitioner, spoke of the Great Silence, a practice shared by many monastic traditions. Silence is observed by the whole community from dinner to breakfast the next morning. At the time I thought, “If I observed that, I’d be single before the year ended.” Monastics by definition are single, so that’s not a consideration for them.

In the weeks afterwards, I realized I can observe an Internet silence, no news or social media. Every night around dinner time I back up the day’s work and shut the laptop off. It is not turned back on until after morning coffee and Morning Pages. I only look at the weather prediction until after breakfast.

Austin Kleon, one of my favorite writers on the creative path, said “You can be woke without waking up to the news“. On our recent trip from Texas to Northern California, I sat with my back to the TV during breakfast. On several occasions we turned the sound down or off. We generally tuned it out. I wanted breakfast in peace. The glazed/hypnotized look on many of the watchers didn’t encourage me to turn around and watch. Mostly these were single people. Couples and families had an easier time resisting the “plug-in drug”.

Try a little silence. It will give you something to reflect on.

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Review: The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner

I enjoyed Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Tiffany Aching stories.  The first page always grabbed me and the climaxes made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  We lost a great writer when he passed away last fall.  The last few books as he struggled with Alzheimer’s were uneven in spots.  He wrote the important passages and his assistant stitched them together.  Even then, they were wonderful stories. His passing left a void.

His publisher is attempting to fill that void with The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner and Other Stories, the second collection of stories written when he was a 17 year old junior reporter for the local paper.  These are good stories, though juvenile as you would expect.  Terry was not a child prodigy.  There are bits that foreshadow his adult work, e.g., “Blow this for a lark.” The last story in the collection is the core of the Bromeliad Trilogy.

I bought this book, rationed the stories, and will now donate it to the library.  I will check out the first book if it’s available.  If not, I may wait until I’m hungry for any new Terry Pratchett book, even a 17 junior reporter’s one.

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La Bloga

First publication of the year, “Condemned”, published on La Bloga, “The world’s longest-established Chicana Chicano, Latina Latino literary blog.” Edward Vidaurre, Poet Laureate of McAllen, TX, read at the Austin Poetry Society’s Open Mike earlier this month. To continue the tone of his reading, I read the “Condemned” draft from my notebook. He liked it and asked me to send him a copy to post on the Poets Responding section of Facebook. La Bloga picked it up and included it in February 2018 Ends, Final On-line Floricanto Of the Month. It’s one of several poems, just keep scrolling til you find it.

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