Speaking Ill of the Dead

(About a 3 minute read) 

The death this morning of Roger Ailes prompted someone to ask why it is customary in the West to not speak ill of the dead, and whether there was still any merit to the custom.

Ailes, the co-founder of Fox News who for decades was a leading force in conservative politics in America, died this morning at the age of 77.  You can find The New York Times report here.  He was, to put it mildly, a controversial figure, one who is certain to be spoken ill of in many quarters today, custom notwithstanding.  And, of course, many people will scold those who do speak ill of him on the grounds that it is neither customary nor seemly to do so.   But is the custom justified?

Like so many Western cultural traits, the custom of not speaking ill of the dead seems to go back to the ancient Greeks.  Around 600 B.C., Chilon of Sparta — one of the “Seven Sages” of ancient Greece — is reputed to have said, “Don’t badmouth the dead”.  Around 2000 years later, during the Italian Renaissance, his words were popularized by a humanist monk as,  “Of the dead, nothing unless good”.  And thus the notion comes down to us today.

I have heard it said that we should not speak ill of the dead in order to honor them, or at least to honor the good they did in life.  But I don’t buy into those notions.   I think there are people who were so vile that honoring them is borderline immoral.  And to honor the good they did amounts to a species of dishonesty in light of the evil they did.

If there is today still some reason not to speak ill of the dead, that reason might have more to do with us than with them.   Death is one of the most poignant and powerful reminders that, in the end, we are all human.  It seems to me that a brief period of grace — perhaps only the time between one’s death and one’s burial — during which we do not speak ill of the deceased would drive home the lesson of our common humanity.

We live in an age in which nearly everyone is at risk of having their humanity denied by other people at sometime or another.  All you need do to see the truth of that is go on anyone of tens of thousands of websites and announce a political opinion that’s unpopular on that site.  Sooner or later thereafter someone — perhaps many people — will vilify you, demonize you, dehumanize you.  And that is a dangerous situation:  At a minimum, it is not conducive to liberal democracy, which rests on compromise; and at worse, wars and genocides are made of such things.  A society — or world — can only hold together when it is widely recognized that our commonalities outweigh our differences.

The remembrance that we all have in common the same ultimate fate would help, I think, to put things in perspective for many of us.   Moreover, a few days in which we do not speak ill of the dead might go far in reminding of us of that.

Having said all that, I think remarkably controversial figures, such as Ailes, present a special problem.  Their deaths almost invariably become political occasions.  There is a rush by politicians, pundits, and others to make use of their passing in order to further agendas.  It might be noble to refrain from criticizing the dead under such circumstances, but certainly, it is not always practical to refrain.

In general, though, I think the practice of not speaking ill of the dead is a good one.  But what do you think?  Your comments, views, thoughts, and feelings are welcome.

“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.

Seven Key Things You Should Do to Find the Right Lover (For Young Women Especially)

(About a 17 minute read)

It is only natural that, as we get older, our tastes in entertainment change.  Mine sure have.  At sixty, the days when I enjoyed showing up at church socials disguised as a United States Department of Agriculture Dairy Products Inspector in order to plausibly announce that I had discovered salmonella in the ice cream are long gone.  So, too, are the hours I once spent calling random strangers at suppertime pretending to be a telemarketer selling “the most exciting brand of mint flavored dental floss you and your family will ever enjoy in your whole lifetimes! Can I put you down for six cases?”.

Nowadays, I have adopted more dignified entertainments, the chief of which is corrupting the youth.  For I have found — like so many people before me — that corrupting the youth is the natural joy and bliss of old people.

I confess, however, that I’m something of a snob about it.  That is, I’m very picky about the ways in which I endeavor to corrupt the youth.  For instance, I disdain giving the traditional advice:  “Work hard, become a cog in the machine, support the status quo, and you too will become your own man.”  Or, “Dress modestly, keep your eyes downcast, and walk in a way that does not tempt men to look at you with lust in their hearts and you too will be rewarded with a wonderful husband devoted to making you happy and blessed.”

No, while I do find such old fashioned advice an effective way to corrupt the youth, I also find it much too cliché for an advice-snob like me.  Consequently, I have specialized in — to put it indelicately — advising young people on how to get laid by someone they want to get laid by.   Just yesterday, for instance, on this very blog I published, The Most Basic Way to Find a Lover (For Men) — for, as everyone knows, nothing corrupts young men like getting laid.

So today I aim to do the same disservice to young women with this post.  Of course, nothing is more scandalously corrupting for a young woman than for her to empower herself to get laid on her own terms.  So precisely that is the real core of this post.  This is all about how to empower yourself by doing seven key things that will dramatically increase your chances of finding the right lover for you.

Naturally, I am eminently unqualified to be offering this advice.  After all, I am an old man here advising young women!  But an excess of sanity has never been one of my weaknesses.  Hence, I must caution any young women reading this that the advice they are about to receive should be embraced with due caution.  Obviously, my advice is not based on personal experience.  Most of it comes from observation, a little of it comes from science, and some of it comes from women close to my own age who’ve told me things they wish they’d known when they themselves were younger.

The only claim I make about the quality of this advice is that it’s stuff I’ve considered and mulled over for years — decades in some cases.   Life can be very strange at times, and — in a way — one of the strangest things that ever happened to me was to have once served as the confident of dozens of young women (and young men, too).   That was about twenty years ago.  Circumstances put me in a position that I did not intend to find myself in, but which eventually resulted in my thinking long and hard about many of things I’ll be writing about today.  Now, with that said, let’s gallop on to the first golden nugget of wisdom  bit of wise advice   insightful observation  old fart’s opinion about what many young women should and should not be doing.

• We start today with what might possibly be the weirdest, most unconventional, bit of dating advice you’ll ever hear from the mouth of an old man:  Ladies, get a hobby!

It doesn’t matter what your hobby is.   So long as it fits you, it can be anything from mud wrestling to sewing your own clothing.  By “fits you”, I simply mean that it should be something you can become good at.   Becoming good at it is key.  But you should get a hobby even if that means putting a lot of time and effort into it.

One young woman I know — a woman I once nannied for a few years — had few interests outside of babysitting.  But she nearly turned babysitting into an art.  She read up on her subject.  She planned her sessions with extraordinary care and creativity.  She kept a diary of how her sessions went, and of the lessons she learned from them.  You can turn just about anything into a hobby, but you should pick something you can become excellent at.

My advice here isn’t based on any grand theory of human psychology.  It’s based on observation.  I have noticed over the years that women who have some interest, something outside of — or apart from — men, that they are passionate about are much more likely to weather the ups and downs of finding a decent lover than women who don’t.  They are not only more resilient, but so far as I can tell, they are happier.  And — for some reason — this is especially true of fatherless girls.

• A friend of mine — a woman a few years older than me — once told me, “If young women understood their ‘pussy power’, they’d rule the world.  The trouble is, it’s only us older women who understand it, and then not even all of us.”   And she’s not the only older woman who has told me much the same thing.  But even if no one had told me about it, I could still testify to the “power of the pussy” based on my own experience as a young man.   The thing is, most young women strike me as nearly clueless about it.

All else being equal, women usually — not always, but usually — have the upper hand in the early stages of any relationship.  Especially in the very early stages.  That is, if they recognize their power and act on it.  Yet so many young women behave as if the terms of their relationship are up to the man.  All too often, they are reluctant to express their legitimate wants and needs; they “compromise” by caving in, perhaps with the expectation that they’ll work things out more to their favor later on in the relationship; and they do not enforce clear and consistent boundaries, among other things.

There are probably dozens of reasons — both biological and social — that women do not take full advantage of their pussy power.  But rather than get into those here, let’s just say that anytime a man wants a woman, even if it’s only for a one night stand, the woman has at least some significant degree of leverage over him.  There is an excellent little book called, You Can Negotiate Anything.  Buy it, borrow it, steal it — but read it.

To be perfectly clear, pussy power is not about using sex to manipulate a man.  Giving or withholding sex in order to get your way is poison to any healthy relationship.  Both men and women are fools if they do it while still expecting to have a loving relationship.  But that’s not what pussy power is about.  Pussy power is about recognizing that you have the leverage — as a woman, an individual, and a human — to negotiate the terms of your relationship as at least an equal to your partner, and quite possibly a bit more than equal (especially early on in a relationship, when it can count the most).  This is an important thing to realize because so often young women imagine they are either relatively weak or powerless in a relationship.

I know some people will think I’m offering pretty cold advice here, but it only seems that way.  With few exceptions, there is no genuine romance or warmth in a one-sided relationship.  If you think you can get what you need — much less what you want — by leaving everything up to the man, by surrendering all control and initiative in the relationship to him, you should deeply ponder just how likely that is to work out well for you.

Society trains women to defer to men, to put men’s wants and needs above their own.  But that’s not how a true partnership works.  You have every right — and every happy reason — to be the equal of your partner.  Are you worried a man might not like that? Then accept the fact that, regardless of whatever tough-guy front he might put on, he’s basically a weak, insecure man, and either chose a different partner, or at the very least, realize you’re going to have to pay for his insecurities one way or another.

If you want to make things exciting for a man, be a person in her own right. Do him a favor — give him something to cherish and love that’s more than a doormat.  If he’s a genuinely strong man, being a genuinely strong woman isn’t going to dismay him — it’s going to excite him, challenge him to be the best he can be.  As long as you don’t use your pussy power to actually abuse a man, you will do just fine to use it.

• One of the hardest things for anyone — regardless of age or sex — to do is to be true to themselves.  And just about no one is perfect at it.  But failing to be substantially true to yourself when looking for a lover can have catastrophic consequences.

It’s easy to understand why.  If you put on a false front with people you will (1) attract folks who like the false you, but probably not the real you; and (2) you will repel folks who don’t like the false you, but might have liked the real you.   In either case, you are increasing the odds of ending up with a lover who really doesn’t like you.  Not the real you.   And few things are more problematic than that.

Put differently, you should be as  true as possible to yourself in order to give those people who like you a chance to like you, and also in order to get rid of those people who do not like you.  It’s really that simple.  But how important it is to be true to yourself is easily overlooked.  For much more information on being true to yourself, see my post here.

•  There is a sense or way in which a very large number of people put less time and effort into choosing a lover than they do into choosing a laundry detergent.  That is, they might try, compare, and weigh a half dozen laundry detergents before settling on one brand of detergent that meets their needs, but nevertheless rush headlong into a partnership with the first or second person that comes along.

This seems to be especially true when sex is involved.  I’m all for sex.  I think it’s a great thing yada yada yada.  But I’m appalled at how many people stick with someone simply because he (or she) was “the first”.

To be sure, sometimes the first or second person happens to be the best bet.  But the odds of your knowing that without doing some comparative shopping, so to speak, seem to me to be fairly low.  You don’t have to ditch the first or second person who comes along in order to do some shopping.  You just have to refuse to immediately commit to a monogamous relationship with them.  Don’t think you have the leverage to do that?  Remember pussy power.

You should ask yourself whether you want a mediocre love life, or something better, even much better.  If all you’re looking for is “passably good enough”, then by all means, jump on the first boat leaving the dock.  But if you want more than that, prepare yourself for some serious comparative shopping.  After all, there are approximately 3.5 billion men in this world.  What do you think are your chances you can’t find a stellar lover out of that large of a pool of candidates?

•  Every young woman these days knows that Prince Charming is a myth, right?  We’re way past the age in which young women waited patiently for Him to come along, sweep them off their feet, and make them forever and ever happy, right?  But if that’s the case, then how come so many young women are still waiting for their prince?  You don’t need to consciously profess to believe in a Prince Charming to unconsciously be waiting for one.

It seems to me that one of the biggest myths our society teaches us about a woman’s role in finding the right lover for her is that her role is essentially passive.  I think most men believe that myth, and at least all too many young women do as well.  The myth, however, is diddly-do-squat, to use the technical term for it.

About forty years ago, a study — perhaps the first scientific study — was done on courtship behavior in humans.  If I recall, a group of graduate students were sent to the bars to observe what really happens between men and women meeting for the first time.  After hours and hours of observation, the students reported back that their hang overs were killing them it is actually the women who most often initiate the contacts!

What happens is that a woman in effect signals a man to approach her by any of several means, the most common of which is to simply smile at him while making eye contact.  After being signaled, often repeatedly, the man most likely approaches the woman, introduces himself, and the two of them then sort out their chemistry or lack thereof.  In other words, courtship behavior in humans is typically initiated by the woman.

Every single relevant study of human courtship behavior (that I’m aware of) since that first one has found pretty much the same thing.  Up to 90% of the time, the woman initiates contact.

Yes, it sometimes does happen that a really good lover comes along to a woman who has taken no more initiative to find him than to wait patiently for his arrival.  But just about anything “sometimes happens”.  What I’ve seen much more often is that a poor fit comes along and that poor fit is then blown up way out of proportion by the woman’s hopes and dreams that he’s a prince.

Your odds of finding a great lover dramatically improve if you put yourself out there and make things happen.  Yes it requires time and effort to meet people, but look at the potential pay off!  People complain over and over about how frustrating and grueling the “dating scene” is.  But that’s life.  Most things don’t fall in your lap: You have to work for them.

•  This might be the single most important bit of advice I can give you.   It’s simple in theory, but often hard to do in practice.  Yet do it you must if you are going to be happy.

When you meet an abuser, move on.  Don’t try to reform him.  Don’t try to save him.  Don’t try to change him.  You aren’t going to win that one.   Move on just as soon as you safely can after identifying him as an abuser, and regardless of any excuses you or he can think of for you to stay.

How do you know he’s an abuser?  Early on, it can be hard to tell in many cases because abusers tend to be quite charming up until they sense you have become committed to them.  Then they unleash hell on you.  But if you find someone who:

  • Fails to keep in check any possessiveness or jealousy they feel
  • Believes that you — and not they — are responsible for their feelings, especially any feelings they have of possessiveness, jealousy, and lust.
  • Bad-mouths their ex’s (especially in a one-sided manner, as if there was never anything good about the people they’ve been with in the past)
  • Tells you you’re not like all the rest, meaning you’re not as bad as the rest
  • Has a low opinion of women in general, and plenty of “reasons” to excuse his low opinion
  • Makes you feel uncomfortable to be yourself
  • Freely and sincerely criticizes you in front of others
  • Tries to isolate you from your friends and family
  • Wants to control you, especially your sexuality, but also in any other way tries to control you (influence you, yes; control you, no)
  • Attempts to change you into a person you are not.  That is, change you against your nature, against who you are as a person

If any of the above are true of someone, then the chances are good you’ve got hold of an abuser.  However, the surest sign is the last: They want to change you in ways that go against your nature, against who you are as a person.  That is, they want you to not be true to yourself.  And the only exceptions to that rule are if and when they try to change you because being true to yourself would genuinely harm you or harm others.

If you had a poor relationship with your primary care giver (mother, father, grandparent, etc), or you are a fatherless girl, then please be especially cautious about the potential of getting into an abusive relationship.

It can be difficult to leave an abuser, but the longer you stay with him, the harder it will get.  Seek professional help if you are having difficulty leaving him — your situation is that serious, whether you fully realize it or not.

• Keep up your relationships with your friends and family.  It always surprises me how many woman, once they find a lover, suddenly disappear — or all but disappear — from the lives of their friends and family.  That’s a mistake.

Early on in a relationship, your lover might seem like someone who can be everything to you — friend, confident, companion, partner, etc — but as time goes on, you’ll almost certainly find that he simply cannot be excellent at all those things.

Moreover, it’s not fair to expect him to be everything to you.  That sort of expectation belongs to fairy tales, and imposes on him a huge burden that, if he takes it seriously, will probably drive him to alcohol, drugs, or even blogging.  Do both him and you a huge favor by keeping up with your family and friends.

Besides, if worse comes to worse, they are your lifelines.  They are the people who — if the relationship doesn’t work out — you will need to help you pick yourself up and bounce back from the thing.

That pretty much wraps up all the advice I’ve got for you today.  To recap, here are the seven points in bullet form:

  • Get a hobby (Cultivate a passion in life apart from men)
  • Understand and use your pussy power
  • Be true to yourself
  • Shop around a bit
  • Seize the initiative by putting yourself out there
  • Move on from abusers ASAP
  • Keep in touch with your friends and family

I’m acutely aware of the fact that my advice is not comprehensive — that’s there plenty of good advice for young women I haven’t covered here.  I am hoping that my readers will chip in and offer their own sage advice.  Please feel free to do so!

If you feel grateful to me for this post (unlikely) or feel grateful to me for finally ending it (very likely), then you should consider buying from me a case or two of the gosh darn best, most exciting mint flavored dental floss you’re apt to ever enjoy during your whole lifetime!  Why go yet another dreary day without the tingling, fresh gums you know you deserve as a human?  Simply call me, your Uncle Sunstone, at 1-888-SCAM.  Please have your credit card handy!


EDIT: Sheri Kennedy has offered some excellent advice in the comments to this post.  See her advice here.

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.

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

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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.

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“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

Along the Phantom Canyon Road

(About a 5 minute read)

Earlier, Don and I drove out of town south into a hazy fall afternoon. We speculated the haze could be coming from the large California fires, for there seemed no other source for it. It’s happened before that smoke has drifted hundreds of miles into Colorado from large fires as far away as California. Was that happening today?

No way of to be certain. But the distant mountains to the south and west were obscured by the haze while above us the sky still embraced the royal blue depth of a perfect autumn day.

I hadn’t driven south of Colorado Springs in well over two years. You forget how beautiful the hills and canyons are. The colors are mostly understated and subtle in the fall. Olive junipers dot the yellow grasses, cling to the sandy red cliffs like freckles. The deeper greens of ponderosa and pinon pines crowd the junipers, and the scrub oak has copper leaves. All respectable earth tones. But then along the water courses, the light bursts as it falls onto the luminous yellow leaves of the cottonwoods.

Gorges and canyons, mesas and buttes. The land seems eternal here. It’s hard to believe people own it — you think more of the land owning them.

There’s defiance of the land in some of the houses people have built. Houses whose architecture is traditional in distant parts of America — in the northeast, for instance — but not here in Colorado. You can’t look at those houses without imagining some newcomer has tried to transplant a bit of the lush eastern United States, complete with well watered bluegrass lawns, to the rocky, thin soils of the arid west. Maybe he got homesick for a more congenial landscape. Maybe he’s in denial he no longer lives in Massachusetts, Georgia or Kentucky. Whatever the case, it’s not really your problem — yet in this land, his home is an alien.

Some miles south of the Springs, Don and I turned off the main road and, after a few miles, entered Phantom Canyon. Phantom Canyon is a narrow gorge whose rock walls rise 150 or 200 feet. It winds for miles up into the Rocky Mountains — right into the heart of the high gold country. The road changed from asphalt to gravel, and then from gravel to earth. The walls were mostly red rock deeply fractured by the weather, like an old man’s face; and brilliant cottonwoods lined the floor of the canyon.

It’s strange how in some parts of Colorado you can see everywhere the evidence of people — you are after all, traveling a road built by people — and yet you almost feel you are the first person to explore the land. Twice in the Canyon cars passed us coming from the other direction and each time the occupants waved to us as if we were the first people they’d seen all month. I think that feeling of being a little bit beyond the boundaries of society doesn’t just come from the scarcity of people on the Phantom Canyon road. I think it comes from the way the world rises up 150 to 200 feet above you. I think it comes from the way the trees, the grasses, and the brush obey their own laws — not some gardener’s laws. I think it comes from the uncivilized quiet that confronts you when you finally stop and step out of your car. But whatever the source of it, the effect is to give you a slightly different perspective on yourself.

It’s not the beauty of nature that most inspires me to reflect on myself. Nature is not always beautiful. But nature is always indifferent. And it’s that indifference that inspires both thought and feeling about the human condition.

You can never really put what you learn about yourself from nature in words because what you learned, you didn’t learn from words. Rather, you simply experienced a truth. You can write all the commentaries you want about your experiences, but you cannot recreate them through those commentaries. Words never brought a fractured rock cliff into existence.

At times, it seems that societies revolve around the ego. Perhaps it can even seem they are huge conspiracies to make the ego primary in this world. I think the ego is just as much a part of us — of who we are as a species — as our eyes and noses, and I reject any ideology that calls for the permanent annihilation of the ego. Yet, I don’t think the ego is of primary importance. I think it has its place, but that place is not central.

I believe I see that most clearly when I am out in nature, away from society, away from its tendency to make the ego primary. Yet, it is also out in nature when I feel I am being most true to myself. Is that a paradox?


Originally published October 28, 2007.

Cultivating Realism

(About a 5 minute read)

Human diversity being what it is, I take it as evident that some folks are more realistic than other folks — just like some folks are more athletic than other folks.   But the fact some folks are more realistic than other folks does not mean that anyone is completely realistic.  For better or worse, we humans have not evolved a completely realistic brain.

If we had evolved a completely realistic brain, we would not need science.  That’s because science is basically a group of methods or procedures that have been developed over the ages to compensate for the human tendency towards a lack of realism in thought and belief.  In short, science is a crutch.   It’s a tool for a non-realistic brain (or at least a partly non-realistic brain) to use so that it can function as a realistic brain.  At least that’s one way to look at science.

It’s a great puzzle to me why the human brain is not entirely realistic — given that it’s had several million years to evolve into a purely realistic brain.  It must be that during the entire multi-million year history of brain growth and expansion, selective mechanisms for a realistic brain were never sufficient to produce a wholly realistic brain — despite that there would seem to be great advantages to being wholly realistic.

Either that, or the mutations necessary for pure realism never came about.

On the surface, given millions of years, it seems almost impossible that it has turned out the way it has turned out.  But perhaps it  seems impossible to me largely because I simply don’t understand the odds.

Some days, I think most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming to realism.   We just don’t like being realistic — we don’t enjoy it — and so, there must be great incentives for us to practice realistic thought, or great disincentives not to practice it.   Hence, I usually think we limit our realistic thinking to only those areas of our lives in which it matters the most to us to think realistically.

I know an automobile mechanic, for instance, who is almost wholly realistic in his role as a mechanic.  But get him in his fundamentalist church on a Sunday morning and he will swallow with childlike trust any and all sorts of quackery from his pastor’s mouth.  Life has face-slapped my friend the mechanic into being realistic in his work.  That is, automobile mechanics has served as a discipline that’s punished him whenever he has departed from realism while engaged in it.  But life has not done him the same favor in his religion.  Hence, he’s a realistic man in his work and a quite fantastic man in his religion.

Some days, as I’ve said, I think we as a species are only as realistic as it is absolutely necessary for us to be.  Wherever life cuts us a little slack, we depart from realism into fantasy.

Over a hundred years ago, Nietzsche pointed out that very few, if any, of us had a strong will to truth.   For most of us, our other wills, interests, passions, etc were much stronger than any will to truth we might possess.  It was a revolutionary thought for its time.  Today, we might not use precisely his language when speaking of the issue, but regardless of whatever words we use to express the idea, the notion that humans are quite often less than realistic is established by modern psychology beyond any serious doubt.

That fact — the fact we are not a realistic species — presents all sorts of problems.  For instance, I do not believe you can understand human politics if you think of humans as an essentially realistic species.  (Perhaps the real question in politics — or in any study of human nature — is not whether humans are unrealistic, but what patterns are there to human unrealism?)

I think it is important — crucially important — to one’s health and happiness for a person to practice a discipline.  When it comes to practicing a discipline, the exact nature of the discipline — the kind of discipline — almost does not matter.  What matters is that one practices a discipline.  Any discipline.

A “discipline”, as I’m using the term here, is an art, science, or craft that to be successfully practiced requires one to be realistic.   It can be nearly anything so long as it requires substantial realism to succeed in it.   The absolute need for realism is what makes it a discipline.

Why should we practice a discipline?  Well, realism is not a side of human nature that comes all that easy to us.  I think we must cultivate it.  Hence, the need for a discipline.  Beyond that, realism seems to be like a crucial nutrient.  Without it, we grow sick, malnourished, or unbalanced.  We might not enjoy its taste, but on some level we need it.

We have all heard over and over again this or that person admonish us to “cultivate our imaginations” or to “dream big, dream often”.   Well, those things are important, but so is realism.  And, so far as I can see, realism does not come easily to our species.  It comes with effort.  So it must be cultivated.  Yet, I believe its cultivation is usually neglected.

T.S. Eliot somewhere said the average person can stand reality for no more than ten minutes at a time.   That might sound extreme until you really start thinking about it.


Originally posted October 9,  2010.