Late Night Thoughts: Richard Feynman, Flirting, Contrary People, Big Ideas, and More

(About a 13 minute read)

To oppress a mother is to oppress a democracy, for it is mothers who teach the value of democracy to their children.

◊◊◊

Some years ago, if I heard a pounding on my door around 11:30 on a full moon night, I could reliably guess it was Suzanne come by to demand that we go for a midnight hike in the mountains.   I always went for — after all — how often do you get to risk becoming a mountain lion’s next meal?  Besides, the mountains are magic at night.

Suzanne was, and still is, highly intelligent, creative, beautiful, and resilient.  At the time we were taking midnight hikes, however, she was also largely dysfunctional due to an untreated bipolar disorder.  That kept me from developing a genuine emotional intimacy with her, for it’s difficult to feel genuinely intimate with someone who — for whatever reason — is wrapped up in themselves.  Nevertheless, we did pretty good as casual friends.

One crisp night, we set out for a trail head, but when we got there, a noisy group of about seven or eight people were setting off down the trail, so we decided to drive on.  That eventually landed us on a dirt road high up in the mountains.  Since it was about two or three in the morning, and no one was likely to be traveling that narrow road but us, we parked the car in the middle of the road, put the top down, and threw a blanket over us in order to stargaze.

The moon soon enough went down behind the mountains.  The sky blazed with what seemed like five thousand stars, and Suzanne and I fell into silence.  After 45 minutes or an hour, Suzanne spoke.  “Why do I have to be in love with Jeff?”

“I don’t know.  Have you figured that out?”

“Not yet.  I just don’t understand why I get along with you better than I get along him, but I’m in love with him.”  After a moment, she went on,  “I love you too, of course; just not in the same way.”

Jeff was Suzanne’s boyfriend.  Like Suzanne, he was highly intelligent.  He was also abusive.  Whenever we were together, Suzanne would sooner or later start talking about him.   Usually, she spoke of his most recent outrages.

I knew, by that time in my life, that criticizing someone’s partner — even someone’s abusive partner — would most likely achieve nothing more than cause them to rally to the defense of their partner, so I carefully avoided giving Suzanne any hint of how profoundly I loathed Jeff for his abuse of her.   “That does seem strange”, I said as evenly as I could, “I mean that you get along with me better than him.”

“I do love him.”  She turned to look at me.

“Is he good for you?” I replied, looking at her and trying my hardest not to make my question sound like a challenge.  I thought that, if only she would ask that question, sincerely ask that question….

“But I love him!”  She protested.  “That’s got to count for something, right?”  She’d done exactly what I feared: Taken my question for a challenge, rather than genuinely think about whether he was any good for her.

Suzanne was twenty years younger than me.  She had yet to learn the difference between genuinely loving someone and merely being emotionally dependent on them.   Nor was there anyway I could have explained those things to her that night.  Although she never would have expressed it this way,  on some level, Suzanne believed the world was fair and just, and that Jeff had to sooner or later come around if for no other reason than she loved him so much.

In time, Suzanne came to her senses and dumped Jeff.

◊◊◊

Today, May 11, is the anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth.  He was born 1918 and died 1988.  Probably, I think, not only one of the greatest physicists of the 20th Century, but also one of wisest people of that century.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.  — Feynman

◊◊◊

I think Sarah was fifteen when I met her.  She and I were both regular customers at the coffee shop and we often enough sat together at the sidewalk tables.  Sarah was one of a small handful of girls who would keep me company even when I was not sitting with any handsome boys their own age.  She also struck me as generally cheerful, optimistic, and sensible.  The sort of level-headed, but occasionally mischievous, young person who gives you hope for the future.

One sunny morning,  about a year after Sarah and I first met,  I was sitting by myself when I happened to glance down the street towards the local high school.  About two blocks away, a woman was walking towards the shop, and though I couldn’t make out her face at that distance, there was something in the way she walked that made me recognize it was Sarah.  I think it might also have been the style of skirt she wore, for Sarah favored long, flowing skirts with a certain kind of print — almost paisley.

As I had guessed, it indeed turned out to be her.

When she arrived, she came straight to my table, and we were soon discussing her jewelry for no other reason than to pass the time of day.   “I have the worse luck, Paul.  Every piece I own has lost its partner.  This ring — see the naked man?   This silver ring had a naked woman that went with it.  That way you could divide the ring into two pieces, and give one piece to your lover.   But I lost the woman.  An ex of mine wouldn’t give it back when we broke up.”

“And you see the man in the moon in my earring? I used to have another earring just like it, but I somewhere lost it.”  She grinned.  “Now I have the moon in one ear, and a dragon in the other.”  She turned her head one way and then the other to show me.

We went on like that for an hour or two it seemed: Simply enjoying the sunny, but cool weather.  Eventually, she had to go back to school, for though her high school had an open campus policy, she was of course expected to attend classes if they were not study halls.

A few weeks later, Sarah and I were again at the coffee shop together.  At some point in our conversation, she decided to draw a dragon for me.  She explained as she was drawing it, that she had practiced and practiced drawing the dragon until she could almost draw it blindfolded.

“Ah! Well executed!  I know you like dragons.”  I remembered her earring.

“Oh yes!  Did I tell you about my dragon lamp?  I have a lamp that a candle fits inside.  When you burn the candle, it casts dragon shadows on the walls.  I love it! I use it as a night light.”

It all came together for me one evening a few months after that.  Sarah and I were once again at the coffee shop, but this time it was towards dusk.  Another man had joined us  — a guy about my age, which was twenty-five or so years older than Sarah.   He and Sarah were flirting with each other, which rather more bored me than anything else.  I became absorbed in watching the sunset.

Presently, the man left to go home, or go to his job, I don’t quite recall which now.  Sarah soon turned to me, “I love flirting with older men”, she said.  “I know I won’t let it go anywhere.  The age difference makes that impossible.  But you can learn so much!  Should I be ashamed of myself, Paul?”

I don’t remember now exactly what I said to her, but she responded by almost pouting — a very unusual expression for her — and then playfully suggesting that I was a public killjoy for refusing to flirt with people, especially with her.  That so surprised me that I felt I needed to make amends!  Hence, within a few days, I composed a simple poem just for Sarah.

She’s a woman in the grace of sixteen summers
With skirts flowing in the morning sun
And she speaks of the silver man ringed naked
A dancer who dances alone
For her jewels have all lost their partners
But the moon still laughs in one ear
And she sleeps in the shadow of dragons
With a heart uncorrupted by fear

◊◊◊

Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.  ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

Some “religious” people are just contrary.  They profess to be Hindus or Christians, Muslims or Jews, Buddhists or Taoists, but their real religion is simply to find fault with other people.

God, enlightenment, the Tao are to them little more than concepts that they imagine give them ultimate permission to condemn folks, to dehumanize them.  “I speak for God”, they imply.  “I speak for the Tao.”  Such strange people: Always hiding behind some pillar like “God”, peeking out only to snarl!

But such people are not confined to religions.

No, you find them in the lunatic fringes of every political and social movement, every ideology — including the better ones.  What sort of person makes it their life to condemn others?  What sort of person lives for it?

It is part of the comedy of our species that we often give them the time of day.

◊◊◊

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.  ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

To me, the ultimate goal in life is neither meaning nor happiness, but to be as true to yourself as you can be in a socially and environmentally responsible way.   The way I see it, if you shoot for that, then you’ll find what meaning and happiness there is for you in life, like icing on the cake.  But I don’t see how living falsely can bring about either meaning or happiness.  Of course, all I really know is that it works for me.

◊◊◊

I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.   ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

Top 40 Lovers

I listen to the radio play those old two songs:
“How I love him more than life itself” and “How she did me wrong”.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple lover
If the goal’s a cosmic truth.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple friend
If we’re lawyers in the end.

◊◊◊

Humans are natural born cartographers.  We make maps of the world, which we call “beliefs”.   It’s what our species does.

Sometimes, our maps are more or less accurate.  And sometimes, they are fantasy maps, like the ones we made as children to show where a pirate’s treasure lay buried in our backyard.

The accuracy of our maps often matters less to us than the fact they are ours.  Because, for most of us, our maps are something we think of as us.

◊◊◊

I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.  ― Richard Feynman

◊◊◊

“Hullo?”

“Don, this is Paul.  We’re rich!”

“We’re what?”

“Rich, Don, we’re richer than our wildest dreams!”

“Are you kidding me?  What happened?  Did you win the lottery?”

“Lottery?  You can’t depend on lotteries, Don.  This is so much better than a lottery.  This is Big!  Huge!  I’ve had an idea, Don.  An idea!”

“Paul, I have always believed you are capable of having good ideas.  Which is why I am still patiently waiting after all these years for you to actually have one.  But if this is like that last ‘good idea’…”.

“Don’t worry, Don, this one can’t miss.  It’s huge!  What is the number one complaint people have about foods, Don?  The number one complaint?”

“Paul, where is this leading?”

“Don, I’ve been researching this, and nine times out of ten, when people complain about food, it’s because they don’t like the taste.  It’s a scientific fact, Don.  Nine times out of ten!”

“So what?”

“Six words, Don, six words:  Spray-cans filled with liquid nitrogen!  Zap that awful taste right out of your mouth!  Instantly!  Never worry about a bad tasting meal again!

“Don we are going to get rich here!  We are going to get so rich!  I’ve already called some architects, asked for designs on our office building.  Are you excited, Don?

“Don?  Damnit, Don!  You’re a going to have to get a new phone.  Yours keeps dying on me!”

Late Night Thoughts: Socialism, Theresa and Carlos, Kindness and Tragedy, Poems, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

Thunder has been rolling off the mountains since the afternoon.  The breeze has carried the scent of rain for hours, but there’s been no rain.  It’s once again warm enough to leave the doors and windows open to the night air.

◊◊◊

Someone was telling me that judgmental people are always jealous people.  If that’s so, I haven’t noticed it.  But it sounds like something that could be true.  And if it is true, I wonder if the converse is also true: Are jealous people always judgmental people?

◊◊◊

Waking Up in a Coffee Shop

The sun slants geometric on the floor,
Van Morrison drags the air,
Serbian troops surge forward,
And two old women sit and tell
The lives of relatives —
Their jobs, their marriages,
Births and deaths
Recounted at a trot
With shoes kicked off —
Statistics on estrogen.

The cup of Kenyan is just enough
To provoke the thought Don and Becky
Like the smell of leather better than most religions
And a good walk better than the rest:

Then it’s time to do the laundry.

◊◊◊

I might have been 14 or 15 the first time I heard that socialism fails because people are not equal in their abilities.  Of course, the truth of the statement, “people are not equal in their abilities”, is indisputable.  But does any prominent socialist assert that people are equal?  Not that I know of.  The argument seems to be a straw man.

So far as I know, socialists only assert that people should have equal economic, social, and political rights and liberties — not merely in theory (as under capitalism), but in practice.

Nor do socialists typically hold that everyone should receive the same compensation for their work as everyone else.  Rather, compensation typically varies according to the principle, “To each according to their contribution”:

The term means simply that each worker in a socialist society receives compensation and benefits according to the quantity and value of the labor that he or she contributed. This translates into workers of high productivity receiving more wages and benefits than workers of average productivity, and substantially more than workers of low productivity. An extension of this principle could also be made so that the more difficult one’s job is—whether this difficulty is derived from greater training requirements, job intensity, safety hazards, etc.—the more one is rewarded for the labor contributed. [source]

◊◊◊

Surely, a sense of humor has prevented more murders than a sense of morality.

◊◊◊

As I understand it, there are four major religions that contain within them some kind of a fundamentalist movement: Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  According to one scholar at least, the four fundamentalisms are united in that each is a reaction against modernity.

That would seem to make sense to me.  But I would go a bit beyond that to speculate that the fundamentalisms are also rooted in the same psychology as political conservatism.  Over the past several years, a growing body of psychological research has demonstrated that liberals and conservatives tend to have differences that run deeper than mere politics.  That is, their differences tend to be rooted in their psychologies.

For instance, studies have shown that conservatives, when compared to liberals, are among other things:

  • More orderly
  • More anxious
  • More attuned to threats
  • More self-disciplined
  • Less open
  • Less novelty seeking

One seems to find the same pattern in the four fundamentalisms.

◊◊◊

Some years ago a friend of mine, Theresa, saved enough money while working as a $1000/night erotic dancer in Los Angeles to start her own small import/export business.  For a reason I no longer recall, she specialized in trade between the US and Costa Rico.   It was in Costa Rico that she met her husband.

Theresa is athletic and is in the habit of running every day, regardless of where she is in the world.  Consequently, when she was getting her business up and running in Costa Rico, she would run each day, taking the same route, at about the same time in the morning.  As it happened, her route took her by a bank.

Working at the bank was a young man who I’ll call Carlos here because I’ve forgotten his real name  (Sorry, Carlos! But I’m bad with names — even though I recall how handsome you are!).  One day Carlos noticed a beautiful blond woman running past the bank’s windows.  But it wasn’t just her beauty that stopped him in his tracks.

Carlos, you see, had had a dream in which he’d seen a beautiful blond woman running past the bank’s windows.  In fact, it seemed to him that the woman he was watching run past the windows that day was the very woman of his dreams.

He soon became aware of Theresa’s routine and began watching for her around the same time each day.   A month went by.   Then one day, Theresa was not there!

Carlos looked for her the next day, and the day after, but she no longer passed the bank each morning.  What Carlos didn’t know is that Theresa had found a local partner, and had consequently returned to the US.

Seven very long years went by for Carlos.  His friends and family worried he would never get married.  They — especially his mother — put pressure on him to find a woman.  But Carlos resisted.  It was not that he was waiting for the blond woman, though.  Carlos had given up all hope of seeing her ever again.

Instead, the blond woman had made such an impression on him that he didn’t feel any other woman he met during those seven years quite measured up to her in beauty or physical grace — and for Carlos, those were deal breakers.  He wondered if he would every feel differently, but he was adamant not to marry a woman he didn’t want at least as much as he had wanted the blond woman.  That would not be fair to any woman, he thought.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Theresa had long ago cashed out her share of the import/export business and was now a partner in an L.A. restaurant.  One year, though, she decided to take a vacation, and what better place to take it than the lovely country of Costa Rico?  She arranged a month long lease on a house there.

Carlos looked up from his desk one day to see the blond woman running past his bank’s windows!  He was so sure it was her that he didn’t hesitate even a second. Instead, he dashed out the door after her.

Theresa realized someone was calling after her to wait up, but when she looked, it was a stranger, so she kept running.  He couldn’t possibly have any real business with her.  Nevertheless, the man caught up with her.  As they ran side by side, he begged her to stop.

She didn’t stop.

So he sputtered out his story as he ran beside her.  She was the most beautiful girl in the world!  Theresa rolled her eyes.  He just had to meet her!  Theresa picked up her pace.  She was the girl of his dreams!  Theresa pushed herself even faster.  She must stop for he could not bear to lose her for another seven years! Theresa suddenly thought he must have known her from years ago — and remembered her!  Curiosity brought her to a jogging standstill.  She turned to face him.   “Who are you? Have we met?”

The two were married within a year or so.

◊◊◊

Kindness is our most powerful rebellion against tragedy.  – George Wiman

◊◊◊

The Hands Remember

The hands remember
More than the mind your skin

They think of their own will,
“This was the shape of her”,

When they find themselves cupped
Or curled in a certain loose way

Around the curves
Of you no longer here:

The left hand
Especially so.

Yes, I know
now
My left hand
Knew you one way,

While my right hand
Knew you another.

Was either best?

◊◊◊

Once upon a time, a god wanted something to laugh at, while a goddess wanted something to weep for.  The two created humans, and both were satisfied.

◊◊◊

“Hullo?”

“Hi Don!  It’s Paul!  I’m calling to see if you want to go to lunch today?”

“Sure.”

“Great!  Can I come along?

“Don?  Are you still there, Don?”

“Yes, Paul, but now I wish I wasn’t.”

“The Point of Most Religions is the Betterment of Mankind”

(About a four minute read)

“The point of most religions is the betterment of mankind.”  — Posted on an internet religious forum.

A dear friend of mine is a kind, sweet lady who, with her husband, belongs to a fundamentalist church in the Midwestern county I grew up in. Her church means everything to her.

Besides that she’s retired now and spends most of her time doing one thing or another for her church community, her church community presents to her a sort of oasis of love, charity, kindness, compassion, and all around goodness in an otherwise rather disturbing larger world whose values are often alien to hers.

I suspect she would largely agree with the above quote. From where she’s at, the quote must make a lot of sense. She only needs to look at the way her church community took up a collection for the family whose breadwinners were out of work, or the way her pastor visits and comforts the sick, or how most of her church buddies believe in the ideal of treating each other with loving kindness — she only needs to look at those things to agree the point of her religion is the betterment of mankind.

Of course, her church is officially a busybody that’s intolerant of premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and many other private things it has no real business being intolerant of. Its pastor is also a staunch supporter of neocons in general, Bush and Cheney in particular, the War in Iraq, the War on Terror, and his side in the so called “Culture Wars”. And many of the people in her church community are bigoted, narrow-minded folk who would never vote for a Black, a Muslim, or a woman to be president. So, to an outsider, her church might appear anything but an oasis of love, charity, kindness, compassion, and all around goodness — let alone dedicated to the betterment of mankind.

Yet, how is she expected to stand back from her church community — which occupies her days and means nearly everything to her — and clearly see the moral ugliness of people who reserve their best “Christian” behavior for insiders just like themselves, while damning and condemning every outsider from scientists to liberals and beyond?

She would much rather help her elderly neighbor get out and about, or bake something to raise money for a needy family, than to consider her pastor’s outrageous notion that homosexuals undermine and destroy the sanctity of her marriage.

I recall a young fundamentalist here in town a while back who I overheard blithely telling her friend that when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor”, he meant love those who belong to your church.

She was certain she was thereby realizing the highest Christian principle of universal love — because, after all, most of the people who belonged to her church were strangers to her, and hence her love for them was “altruistic”.

Yet, even the Bible says there is nothing remarkable about loving only those who are members of our own group.

Humans evolved as a social animal living in small groups. Most of us need little prompting to treat the members of our group with respect, compassion, kindness — even love. After all, we evolved to do that. It’s to a large extent instinctual. We’re almost always ready to “better mankind” so long as “mankind” is the group of people we hang out with.

On the other hand, there are very few Gandhis, very few Martin Luther Kings, very few people like Jesus — very few people who somehow realize in practice the notion the whole world should be treated with kindness, compassion, respect, and love. To most of us, such a notion is “wild”, suspect, perhaps even immoral.

Today, the world — the entire world — is involved in a grand experiment. An experiment to see whether we can all get along together in dignity, freedom, peace and sustainable prosperity. No one seems to have wanted that extraordinarily daring and risky experiment, but it’s now imposed upon all of us nonetheless.

So, what’s going to be the outcome? Will the world descend into endless wars as some think likely? Will it sink into corporate fascism as some others think likely? Will it be the birth of a new golden age for humanity — as very few seem to think likely? Or will something else happen?

More to the point, just what is going to be the role of the world’s religions in bringing about the “New World Order” — whatever that Order actually turns out to be? Are religions going to finally live up to their own professed ideals of universal compassion, kindness, charity, love, generosity, etc.? Will they ever, really, make “the betterment of mankind” their honest “point”?

Frankly, I strongly suspect that any sustained progress towards a world in which most people live in dignity, freedom, peace and sustainable prosperity will ultimately come — not from religions for the most part — but from Humanism. If such progress comes at all.


Originally published on this blog January 15, 2008.  Lightly edited May 6, 2017 to better reflect my current views.

Late Night Thoughts: Nipples, Yin and Yang, Self-Knowledge, Yakuza, and More

(An 11 minute read)

Yesterday afternoon was bright and crisp.  The snow from a couple days before had melted, leaving the grasses verdant, albeit destroying the pink crab apple blossoms.  I wondered if their seeds had made it through the cold.

Late in the afternoon, one of my next door neighbors walked past my window, carrying his tiniest child in a car seat.  The little one was kicking joyfully — apparently at the sunlight on his legs, perhaps attempting to dislodge it.

A few moments later, the woman appeared, and then the toddler.  The man and the woman walked purposely towards their car.  The toddler had other ideas, though.  Every three to five feet he was stopped in his tracks by the sight of something interesting!  Green shoots!  Dog poop!  More shoots!

Suddenly, his parents were calling to him, demanding he hurry up.  Green shoots forgotten, he ran towards them, his legs almost a blur trying to keep up with his head, which — in the manner of a toddler — was improbably far in front of his body.

◊◊◊

Some years ago, I was introduced to internet chat rooms by a computer savvy friend.   “Here, I have something to show you, Paul.”  Mike said, turning towards his desktop computer.   A click or two, and suddenly the room was engulfed by the shrieking death throes of the Loch Ness monster.

“Paul?  Paul, you can come out of the closet.”

“Is it gone?”

“It’s only my modem, Paul.  I’m dialing up the internet.”

“You’re dialing up who?”

“Paul, get the hell out of my closet right now!”

Later that same evening…  “Look, Paul!  She’s come online!  It’s Jolene!”

“Jolene?  Do you mean, ‘PussyVentura’?”

“Yes, that’s her username.”

“Username?”

“I’ll explain later. ”

Several minutes later…  “What I need from you right now is a poem.  Write a poem to her, so I can impress her with it, Paul.”

“I don’t know, Mike, the last time you got romantic about some…”.

“A poem, Paul, that’s all I’m asking for.  I’m certainly not asking for a recap of my romantic history!”

“But, Mike, a Russian bride?”

“Poem! Now!”

Five minutes later…  “Where’s my poem, Paul?”

“I’m still working on it, Mike”

“I need it now!  She said she was logging off, so I told her to wait.  Give me what you’ve got!”

“Um…try typing this:  Your beauty cleanses me of sorrow, my Jolene.”

“Your beauty cleanses me of sorrow,  my Jolene.”

“It gives me courage to live for tomorrow, my Jolene.”

“It gives me courage to live for tomorrow, my Jolene.  Oh, Paul, this is going to be good, I can tell.  See?  You can do it!  What’s next?”

“You even make me want to face”

“You even make me want to face”

“With grace”

“With grace…That’s pretty good, Paul, I like that.  What’s next?  Quick!  What’s next?”

“The challenge”

“The challenge”

“Of your morning breath, my Jolene.”

“Of your mornin…  Are you kidding me, Paul?  Are you kidding me!”

“It’s all I got, Mike.”

“Oh, Jesus!”

“Too passionate?”

◊◊◊

I’ve heard that in placental mammals, the number of nipples divided by two strongly correlates with average litter size.  A species, like ours, with two nipples typically has one offspring per litter.   But a species that has six nipples will on average have three offspring per litter.

Of course, it all gets complicated when you realize that some species have no fixed number of nipples.  Pigs, for instance, range from 6 to 32 nipples, depending on the breed.

◊◊◊

My second wife, Tomoko, was educated in an elite Japanese school that required her to learn how to read and write classical Chinese, much as some elite Western schools require Latin of their students.  She also had a large set of books — each one beautifully bound, printed, and separately encased — that contained the works in Chinese of nearly a hundred ancient authors.  Most of them never published in English.

At times, she and I were in the habit of dining out, and I coaxed her into regularly bringing along a volume or two of her set so that she could translate them for me after we’d finished our meals.  One of my favorite authors was Kan Chu (circa 600 – 550 B.C.), who — in Tomoko’s translation — once said this, “Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.  When people have those things, it will be easier to govern them.”

To put that in context, almost all ancient Chinese wisdom literature is nominally addressed to the rulers, and couched in terms of how to govern the people, regardless of whether it has much to do with governing or not.  When you think about it, that made a lot of sense since it was the ruling class for the most part that could read and write.  So Kan Chu was probably not being cynical in urging his audience to make sure the people had “clothes, food, and shelter” in order to more easily govern them.

More likely, I think, he was genuinely concerned with the people’s welfare.  But whatever the case, his advice to take care of necessities before teaching people the finer things in life impresses me as good advice even to this day.  Especially today, when “clothes, food, and shelter” are once again at risk for larger and larger numbers of people.

◊◊◊

 I don’t know about modern Chinese, but classical Chinese had about twenty words for “no”, not one of which meant “absolutely no”.  The closest you could get to an absolute no  — that is, the closest you could get to the Western sense of “no” — was a word that meant, “almost always no”.

This was completely in keeping with the ancient Chinese understanding of yin and yang, the two principles which are the immediate manifestations of the Tao in the world.

Yin and yang are not opposites in the Western sense of “yes and no”, “feminine and masculine”, or “good and evil”.   Yin, sometimes called “the feminine principle”, is an aspect of yang, sometimes called “the masculine principle”.   Yang, in turn, is an aspect of yin.

So far as I’ve been able to find out, there is no truly dichotomous thinking in ancient Chinese wisdom literature.  Instead, even the Chinese equivalent of polar opposites reveal an underlying unity.   The most common Western expression that I know of to the Chinese way of thinking is to speak of apparent opposites as “really being two sides of the same coin”.

   ◊◊◊

One day in the 1960s, when Tomoko was about seven years old, her school was called to an unscheduled assembly.  There, the principal announced that the students were being dismissed for the day, and that they were to immediately go home.  No one should stop to play, loiter, or visit with friends.  Straight home and no detours!  Your parents have been called.  They are expecting you!

Strange as it might sound today, even very young schoolchildren in the 60s typically walked to and from school — if the distance wasn’t far — and even in big cities like Tokyo.  But that’s a digression for the benefit of my younger readers, who might never have heard of such a thing!

When Tomoko reached her home, her grandmother was already watching the television to see what had happened.   Soon, the news reports started coming in.  The police around the country were raiding the Yakuza dens!  They were, the reporters said, “attempting to peacefully arrest the bosses, but unfortunately, often finding themselves engaged in gun battles.  Several bosses are reported killed with no injuries so far on the police side.”

I don’t know when Tomoko learned the full story of that day’s events but here is what she told me many years later.  The Japanese mafia, or Yakuza, had grown out of control.  The bosses no longer knew their proper place.  Consequently, something had to be done.  The schools in major cities across the country were closed in case the situation got out of hand.  Then the police, armed with grenades and assault rifles, raided numerous “dens” and slaughtered without warning at least 100 ranking Yakuza and many times that of lower ranking members.

“Did they get them all”, I asked.

Naturally, Tomoko explained, they didn’t even try to kill all of them.  That would have left a void in society that some other group would then have to fill, upsetting the nation’s harmony.  Instead, the goal was to knock them down to where they were no longer a threat to the social order, and could instead provide their services to the community in peace.

I think it is sometimes hard for Westerners to understand the Eastern concept of opposites.  “Good and Evil” belong to the West, “Yin and Yang” (or “In and Yo”, in Japanese) belong to the East.  Our good and evil is dichotomous, where the one is, the other is not.  But yin and yang are not dichotomous.  Where the one is, the other is also.

Because yin and yang are the way of opposites in the East, so often the goal is not to eliminate or annihilate one (or the other), but rather to insure that they remain in harmony or balance with each other.   When the Yakuza got out of balance, when it was no longer in harmonious relationship with the rest of society, it became necessary — in the Japanese way of seeing things — to put it back in its proper place.  No more, no less.

In the West, no politician could ever get elected promising to conscientiously stop short of annihilating the mafia, the gangs, the cartels.  That would be the equivalent of professing to be soft on evil.

◊◊◊

Every real thought on every real subject knocks the wind out of somebody or other.   — Oliver Wendell Holmes.

◊◊◊

It seems most of us at one time or another confuse the map with the terrain when we believe our thoughts about ourselves are ourselves.

That’s to say, the map is our thoughts about ourselves. The terrain is who we are. Yet, so often we think what we think about ourselves is who we are.

I can think of myself any number of ways that are not likely to be borne out by my experience of myself. I can believe all sorts of things about myself that simple observation will disprove.

It seems to me that if one wishes to know who they are, the best place to start is with the non-judgmental observation of oneself in relationship to other things, very much including people.  It is key that the observation be as dispassionate, as non-judgmental as possible.    This can be exceedingly difficult to do because all your life you have been taught to praise or condemn yourself according to whether or not you measured up to some ideal, some person, some standard.

Yet, without non-judgmental observation, you will not come to know yourself as deeply as possible.  Judgments, although useful in many circumstances, are worse than useless here.  They are worse than neutral.  They actually distort who you really are.  To look at yourself through judgmental eyes is like looking at your image in a fun house mirror.

Moreover, you should look at yourself in relationship to things.  You should not simply introspect because doing so is quite likely to lead you into mistaking the map for the terrain, into mistaking your idea of yourself for yourself.  To really understand yourself you need a reality-check, and observing yourself in relationship can provide that reality-check.

Last, it can help immensely to create a journal in which you write down your observations on a daily basis, then review your journal regularly.  After a few weeks or months, if you do not discover many new and significant things about yourself, you can sue my lawyer.  By the way, I hereby grant all my powers of attorney to Donald Trump.

◊◊◊

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  — Kong Qui (Confucius).  I wonder now what my neighbor, the toddler, thinks of dog poop.  Probably thinks it’s beautiful.  At his age, I believe, most of us do.   Sometimes the only thing that separates a child from a sage is age.

There are no Weeds

(About a 10 minute read)

Long ago, the Coffee Shop was a hang out for many mildly disaffected youths.  They were the kids who didn’t fit in too well, who weren’t always doing what was expected of them, who often had talents no one had noticed or encouraged, or who were simply marching to the beat of their own drummer.

Kyle, for instance, was the son of a wealthy father, but he wanted to make his own way in the world.  So he had enlisted in the Army to earn money for college rather than allow his father to pay for his education.  He was passionate about poetry and wanted to teach English.

Melanie was from a much poorer family than Kyle, and her only academic interests were mathematics.  She paid for the community college by working as an erotic dancer.

Catherine was another mathematician, and she worried about her social skills.  She graduated early from high school then stayed in town to mature for a year, rather than head straight to college.

Erin was 15 when she left her parent’s house to sleep on friend’s couches.  She did her homework by streetlight for a while.  Then she met Jim, a year or two older, who convinced her school was for losers, and life lay in studying the Kabbalah.

Jody was a bit older than most, and a prostitute fascinated with the Third Reich and Phoenician glassware.  She’d scored high on the aptitude tests, but drugs, along with being raised in an abusive home, were too much for her, and she left unpursued her dream of becoming an historian.

Luke was raised in North Africa and in British boarding schools before his executive father transferred to Colorado.  He planned to leave town soon to study psychology, for he wanted to heal minds.  In the meantime, he was both too well educated and too brilliant for his high school classes.  So, like many other eccentrics, he found his way to the Coffee Shop.

In the mornings, the Shop was full of business people; by midday it held all ages and walks of life; and by evening it was the kids.  One slow Tuesday night I spent a half hour or 45 minutes carefully counting the crowd.  My count was nearly 200, most of them people I’d met, most of them kids, most of them misfits.

If anyone loved them all, it was Joe. He seemed to have a knack for it.

A month or so after we met, Joe invited me to go with him and a couple to Valley View Hot Springs.  It was the way he phrased the invitation that surprised me.  “We need a chaperon”, he said, “There might be trouble.  You’ve got to say, ‘Yes’.”

I couldn’t tell at first how serious he was about trouble.  Joe was 18 that year, strong, and could handle himself. Besides, he knew Valley View was more peaceful than most any other place in Colorado.  He’d been going there with his family since he was five or six.  What kind of trouble did he anticipate?

The trouble was jealousy, Joe explained.  He’d only recently befriended the couple, and he had not caught on to the guy’s jealousy of him.  Thinking everything was cool, he decided to share with them the most spiritual place he knew of.   The girl was so enthusiastic to go to Valley View that the guy feigned agreement, and so Joe and the couple had made plans.  But in the week between making plans and their realization, Joe was shocked when the girl pointed out to him her boyfriend’s jealousy.  That’s when Joe got the notion my presence might somehow defuse the situation.

In the years I knew him, Joe almost never allowed himself to act on any jealously he himself might feel, and I think that might have been because jealousy excludes folks rather than includes them.  Joe was all about including people.  Looking back, it seems almost inevitable Joe would fail to see the boyfriend’s jealousy until it was pointed out to him.

So, the four of us took a day trip to Valley View.  The couple had brought swimsuits, but the guy strangely refused to join his girlfriend, Joe and I in the hot springs.  Instead, he said he wanted to look for elk among the pines and scrub oak, and wandered off.  I left Joe and the girl talking at one end of the pool, and spent most of the time watching dust devils swirl across the valley below.

It was by no means a bad trip, but I think it was the worse Joe and I ever managed to take to Valley View. It seemed none of us got into the spirit of the place.   We left just as divided as we’d arrived.  A few days later, Joe and I discussed it.  After noting how argumentative the guy became on the trip home, Joe said he felt the girl had spent the afternoon at the pool in some kind of bubble; unresponsive to the beauty all around her; unable to connect with nature; indifferent even to the wind through the ponderosa.  “We might as well have gone to the mall”, he grinned.

Joe had been raised a Christian, but a year or two after the trip he committed himself to it.   His inspiration was the New Testament, rather than the Old; the life of Jesus, rather than the Ten Commandments.  Consequently, his first step was to simplify his life.  He gave away his inessential possessions and moved from his parent’s house to a shack.  Mostly, though, he emulated Jesus and the Disciples in his heart and mind.  It became clear the appeal of Christianity to him was its doctrine of universal love — he was, he told me, indifferent to heaven and hell.  Instead, salvation, for Joe, was to learn how to love the world as Christ had.

His experiment with Christianity lasted a couple of years.  When I asked him why he was no longer a Christian, he told me he still believed in God, and perhaps even that Jesus was Christ, but he could not have faith in them so long as people were sent to hell.

Joe worked at a greenhouse.  One day, Joe spoke of his growing distaste for weeding.  “They may be weeds, Paul, but they didn’t ask to be born where they’re not wanted.  It feels terrible to kill them.”  Some part of me agreed with Joe — at least with his notion that all living things have value — but I still felt weeding in a greenhouse was justified by its necessity.  I thought to myself he’d soon enough see that necessity and reconcile himself to killing weeds.

A day later, however, Joe found a partial solution.  He began transplanting the weeds.  At least he began transplanting the larger ones.  He did it on his own time, after work, because he didn’t think it was fair to charge his boss for the extra time it took.  There was a large, bare mound of soil out back of the greenhouse and he was transplanting the weeds to the far side of it, where — he hoped — they would thrive.

I was a bit taken aback.  On the one hand, it ranked among the craziest things I’d heard of a friend doing in some time.  But on the other hand, looked at a little more rationally, it wasn’t self-destructive, it was harmless to others, and it preserved life.  I didn’t think Joe’s project would last — I thought he’d grow tired of it — but I rather admired him for asserting his good convictions in a world where there sometimes seemed to be too few good convictions.

Two months passed before Joe brought the subject up again.  My first reaction was surprise he was still transplanting weeds.  But then he explained his boss had found him out.  Of course, he expected to be fired.  Yet, after he’d told her everything, she’d only laughed and smiled, and told him he was a good worker, that she loved him, and that she would find other work than weeding for him to do.

Something happened one day to make me see symbolic meaning in Joe’s actions.  It began when Laura called to ask if she could come over and take a shower.  She was a homeless kid who kept a few items of clothing at my place and sometimes dropped by for a shower or a meal.  She was heavily into drugs, and I never invited her to stay too long, because I didn’t want my things to start disappearing.

That evening, I got her fed and her feet massaged, and then sent her off to the shower.  She told me she’d been partying, and that after my place, she wanted to go back and party some more.  It wasn’t long, though, before she’d fallen asleep on the couch.   I thought about her while she slept.

Laura was nineteen, and she hadn’t a regular home since she was thirteen.  She’d never met her father, a man who left before she was born.  At thirteen, she’d gotten into a fight with her mother’s boyfriend.  He swung a chair at her.  A leg caught her in the belly and ripped a seven inch wound.  She ran from the house and never returned.

The wound didn’t get sewn up, and the scar was huge.  I’d run my fingers along it once, and somehow the memory of that furrowed, lumpy scar tissue was still stuck in my fingertips.  When I thought of Laura, I always thought of that scar.  And that’s what I was thinking of when Joe’s words came back to me: “They may be weeds, but they didn’t ask to be born where they’re not wanted.”  It was somewhat like a minor epiphany: Joe would understand the tragedy of Laura better than anyone — if for no other reason than Joe had a knack for a certain kind of love.

There is more than one kind of love in this world.  The kind Joe was most interested in is inclusive.   That kind of love does not seek to jealously wall off a little private garden for itself.  It is neither possessive nor jealous, as was the guy at Valley View.  Nor does it demand to be loved in return — for a love that wants love in return must exclude some from being loved. It was the promise of that inclusive kind of love that attracted Joe to Christianity.  It was the realization that some are excluded from God’s love that caused Joe to lose his faith.

I believe it’s rare for most of us — especially when we are young — to think of love as an excellence.  That is, as a thing one might learn how to do to the best of his or her ability.  Instead, we think of love as something requiring little or no talent, practice, or skill.  We suppose it comes natural to us, and so we spend our time waiting for it without doing much to help it come about.

Every kid at the Coffee Shop had his or her own mix of talents and skills, and many of the kids had an excellence.  Kyle, for instance, was a gifted poet.  Melanie and Catherine excelled at mathematics.  And Luke was a born psychologist.  But I think Joe’s excellence was his ability to love.

Sometime ago, Joe moved up into the mountains, where he met a woman and settled in with her.  He lives up there now, in a small mountain town.


Originally posted November 27, 2008

Neil and the Soul of an Artist

(About a 5 minute read)

Neil was raised in a tiny settlement in the San Luis Valley by artists.  The San Luis — over a mile above sea level, and the largest alpine valley in the world — is Colorado’s poorest region.

Because it’s so poor, the cost of living is moderate, and maybe it’s the cost of living that attracts the artists.  More than 500 working artists make their homes in the Valley.

Yet, because artists are quirky people, it might be more than the cost of living that attracts so many of them to the San Luis.  It could be the miles of open space, for instance.  Or the huge elk herd, the bald eagles and the sandhill cranes.  Or perhaps even the stars — for at night, the sky above the San Luis explodes with the music of light.

Neil’s parents were not religious people but they sent their son to church each Sunday.  When he was 13 or 14, he rebelled.  He told his parents he hated church, didn’t believe a word of anything he heard there, and was a confirmed agnostic.  “Good”, said his mother and father, “You’ve learned everything a church can teach you about life: Nothing.  We could have told you that ourselves about churches, but we wanted you to figure it out.  You can stop going now.”

When Neil turned old enough for high school, his parents decided he needed a better school than the one in the settlement.  So they packed Neil off to live with his grandmother in Colorado Springs and to attend Palmer High.  There, in his first art class, he met Sarah and Beth.  The three shared an intense interest in art and quickly became best friends.

It was Sarah who introduced me to Neil.  Sarah was regular at the Coffee Shop, and the two of us now and then shared each other’s company.  At 16, she was poised, sophisticated, and self-confident.  She liked to flirt with older men, even though she knew, as she put it, that she “couldn’t let it go anywhere”, and she once told me how much I disappointed her because I wouldn’t flirt.  I felt like a killjoy, and wrote a poem about her to make amends.

Sarah, Beth, and Neil spent hours together each day.  They seemed more mature than many kids their age.  For one thing, both Neil and Sarah held themselves much like adults, and all three of them would look you right in the eye when listening or speaking to you.  For another thing, there were seldom conflicts between them, and the three friends were remarkably free from adolescent dramas.

Back in those days, I heard enough adolescent dramas to fill a social calendar.  I had somehow stumbled into the role of confident for many of the kids who hung out at the Coffee Shop.  Sometimes, up to a half-dozen kids a day would confess their woes to me — pretty much one kid after the other.  Yet, I understood their need to talk and never rejected them.

Most of their stories were about sex and relationships, and some of the stories were painful to hear, because there were kids who kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  Yet, even the kids who didn’t repeat their mistakes — kids like Sarah, for instance — still seemed determined to make an allotted number of foolish mistakes, for how else do people learn?  I quickly discovered the role of confident was often more depressing than rewarding.

Through-out high school, Sarah, Beth and Neil remained as best friends, but when it was time for college, they parted ways.  Each went to a different university, and while Sarah and Beth stayed in contact with each other, Neil dropped out of the group.

I recall Neil was 22 and back from college when I ran across him one evening at the Coffee Shop.  We chatted for a while and I suggested we go to a restaurant for something to eat.

We ordered beer with our food, and were soon rambling along from one topic to the next.  A few beers into the evening, Neil decided to tell me how he lost his virginity.  “Was it Sarah?”, I asked.  I knew she’d been sexually active from the age of 16, and given their close friendship, it seemed logical to suspect her of having been his first partner.

“Not at all”, Neil said, “I wasn’t ready for sex back then, and I knew it.”

“I’m curious how you knew that about yourself.”

“I don’t make really important decisions up here”, he said, pointing to his forehead, “Instead, I go with what my soul tells me.”  He looked at me quizzically.  “Do you believe we have a soul, Paul?”

I didn’t want to sidetrack us into metaphysics, so I said, “I believe I can understand what you’re getting at.  Do you mean something like your sense of yourself…of who you are…of what’s right for you?”

“Yes!  That’s close!  I knew I wasn’t ready for sex because the opportunities never felt right to me.  None of them passed the soul test.  I didn’t want my first time to feel wrong in any way.”

“Was it ever hard waiting?”

“Sometimes.  Everyone else was having sex, and I wanted to have sex.  I was always horny.  It’s not like I wasn’t.”

“So what happened?” At that point, I wanted him to cut to the chase.

“Last year, I finally met the person I knew was right for me.  We met in a bar, but we weren’t drunk, and everything just clicked.  I knew she was the one.”

“Did you have sex that night?”

“No.  I called her on Thursday, a few days later, and we got together that Saturday.  I wasn’t in a hurry.  I knew it was going to happen.  I took her to dinner, and we went to her place afterwards.  That’s when I lost my virginity.  And I was right to wait. I was vindicated.  It was beautiful, Paul.  It felt perfect and it was beautiful.”

“Was it her first time too?”

“Oh no!  She was 26 last year — an older woman, and experienced.”

“Are you two still together?”

“No”, he said, “We never got together as a couple.  That wasn’t something she wanted or I wanted, and we understood that about each other from the start.  We’re friends now, but we’ve only had sex that one time.”

“I’m very proud,” he went on, “that I waited until everything felt right…until I knew it was right.”

“Not many people do that, Neil.”, I remarked, “Did your parents raise you to consult your soul?”  I had a strong suspicion at this point that Neil’s parents, both artists, raised him to pay careful attention to his “soul”.  It seemed like something artists would do naturally — perhaps even do necessarily.

“Very much so.”, Neil said, and he went on about that for a while.  But I wasn’t really following him at that point.

I’d begun to feel the beer and my mind was wandering back to the days when Neil was in high school and I was something of the neighborhood confident for a third of the kids at the Coffee Shop.  Neil had made the decision that was right for him and come out shining.  All in all, his story was one of the best I’d heard then or now, and I felt grateful to him for sharing it with me.


This post was originally published July 7, 2008, and was last updated April 23, 2017 for clarity.

The Gifts of AL Remington

(About a 4 minute read)

It was difficult to beat Al. I think I only did it once. Or, maybe, I didn’t. Maybe I just came close. He was strongest in the endgame.

If you let him get that far — and it was hard not to — he had you beat.

Al said he learned chess when he was in the army, stationed in Greenland, with nothing else to do but his job and learn chess. By the time I met him, he was in his 60s, still enthusiastic about the game, and the man to beat at the Coffee Shop. He was a gentle man, reserved, modest, but exuding an air of dignity and confidence, much like a good father or grandfather. In his 60s, he drove a dark blue Cadillac on wet days and rode a Harley when the sun was out.

One day I discovered the Coffee Shop didn’t purchase the chess sets it had on hand. It was Al who did that. He would search garage sales for abandoned sets, buy them, and bring them to the Shop. He had to do that over and over again because people would loose pieces. But he didn’t mind. It was his hobby.

I think it must have been Al who got “everyone” — at least a third of the regular customers — playing chess. There were always two or three games going back then. Half the regular customers were kids and most of the kids were taught the game by Al. That is, someone else would usually teach them the basic moves — then Al would teach them the art.

Not just the art of chess, but other things too. He taught kids how to win graciously, how to loose without animosity, how to be fair (he’d spot the less skilled players a piece or two), and even how to keep a poker face. He never lost his temper, he was always encouraging, and he taught values. For instance: There wasn’t a kid at the Coffee Shop Al disdained to play, nor one he disrespected.

Several of the adults who hung out at the Shop were uncertain characters, but not Al. One man, Tim, was only there to proselytize the kids for Christ and had no other point in befriending them. Another man, Jeff, in his mid-thirties, was obsessed with getting laid by teens. A third man, who called himself Attila, dressed immaculately, neatly trimmed his white beard, and pretended to have wealth and connections. He would come every day to the Shop with his son, who he’d named Khan, and who was 15 and had lost his spirit. Attila would speak about Khan as if Khan wasn’t present and sitting right next to him: I’ve never in my life heard a more verbally abusive father. Unlike those characters, Al cared for the kids.

Al never told you he liked kids, but he did. He’d surely raised enough of them: Four biological children, two or three adopted children, and a number of foster children. I figure teaching them chess was Al’s way of raising up the Coffee Shop kids. He spoke to me several times of his belief that playing chess developed good, solid thinking skills. But he never quite said he considered himself on a mission to help the Coffee Shop kids. Saying something like that wasn’t Al’s style.

Al died at his home a couple years ago at age 72. I read his obituary to discover he was a minister. He hadn’t spoken of that; had never proselytized me; nor — so far as I know — had he proselytized any of the kids. I guess that wasn’t his style, either. Instead, he just served others.

Nowadays, I drop by the Coffee Shop once or twice a month. The kids Al and I knew have grown up and moved on. No one today plays chess. The adults sit with adults and the kids sit with kids. Maybe that’s the way people feel it should be.

I was reminded of Al earlier today by a comment Ordinary Girl left on another post. She mentioned how adults stay away from kids for fear of being thought creepy. That got me to thinking of how Al, born in 1933, belonged to another generation — one that had a stronger sense of community and wasn’t so set against mixing the ages. Yet, I wonder how kids are supposed to grow up with few adults in their lives?

Are they supposed these days to learn what they need to be a functional adult from Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and advertising? It seems to me we too often leave kids these days to be raised by the media.

Somethings we can only learn from another person. Things we cannot learn from a book, a movie, the television, popular music, or a video game. Somethings we must learn through our interactions with others. And some of those things that can only be learned through our interactions with others are very important. I discovered when I hung out with teens that many teens had what struck me then as a thirst to hang out with adults. I suspect they needed encouragement, insight into themselves, support, and affirmation, among other things. Those are not things we easily get from a book or movie.

Yet, it’s not a one-way street. I believe there can be tremendous benefits for an adult to having kids in his or her life. For one thing, watching a new generation grow up, seeing it go through the same things you once went through, can give you an invaluable perspective on life and a profound acceptance of your own aging.

I’ve come to believe any society which separates the generations will sooner or later pay a price for it. It even seems to me unnatural. I doubt any previous society has headed as far in that direction as ours. And, to me, it is all part of the larger break down of genuine community. It seems our societies are becoming increasingly fragmented, and I am unsure where that will eventually leave us. I rather hope Al’s generation is not the last to mix ages.


Note: Al was a grand- or great grandnephew of Frederic Remington, the painter.