Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A good wine list stands in contrast to all the crazy tangents of human nature. A good wine list is beautiful and simple. The wines offered each have their own virtues of balance, finish, concentration of fruit, mineral notes and inherent qualities that make them accompany food so amazingly. Often, in ordering wine from a steward, the personality of a client comes through. "I want a big California red." Hmm, why does that not surprise me, that you would like a big fatuous foul bomb of ill-craftedness to match your ego. Rather, go with the flow. Enjoy the terrior wines of venerable tradition and local know-how.

It's like someone you have given the benefit of the doubt to for a long time. Of course, no one is completely blameless within the context of human contact and relationships big and small and passing, if only because the other individual will always be interpreting your own actions, or misinterpreting, just as you may be doing. But it's a big relief to say to yourself, you know, that which one is supposed to like really turns out to be a rather undesirable.

People will order, and taste, wines with their egos, and miss the individual grace and beauty of a wine.

Friday, June 18, 2010

"Jesus eats and drinks with whores and highwaymen, turns water into wine, and finally, in one way or another, establishes a mystical union at a feast through its humble instruments of bread and wine." Adam Gopnik, from "What Did Jesus Do?," The New Yorker, May 24, 2010, page 74.

Jesus shared wine with publicans and sinners as a way of awakening them to that fact that these identities so clung to by habit were not, in fact, all they were, not even mainly, that secretly, or not, they were something entirely, or at least largely, different. It is the same message as the Buddha's, brought to a young West, that the notion of Self is an illusion. To all seemingly concrete conclusions about a identity, Jesus brings questioning and contradiction, revealing the riddle to any claim of Self. The wealthy are too cooked by all their assumptions of self-preservation and what-not, and will have a very hard time giving up who they see themselves to be. They'll never get to the humble Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. The poor, the sad, the mournful, are closer to the understandings which will release them, though they still have a ways to go. Caesar, well, his things are based on illusions, and if you really want to subscribe to all that, you're welcome to, but will remain mistaken. Oh, you think the harlot is solidly guilty and that you are solidly righteous enough to judge her, well, let's see if you are truly free of sin...

It's a voice that questions a lot of what a society places upon people to give them recognizable identities, radical indeed. It's reasonable to gather that an establishment might not be completely content with that.

Now what if you start asking yourself the Buddhist's questions? Hmm. Well, you have to start somewhere, and at first you may well not like some, maybe many, of your own habits. You might begin to see through things. You might begin to see yourself as something akin to a Prodigal Son, a faulted sorry self. There may come some troubling questions about your professional life, your personal life.

It could be that it isn't entirely your fault. In certain ways we live in a society that enables the tempting devils of Maya. And Buddha wouldn't be Buddha--and Jesus wouldn't be Jesus--if there weren't a susceptibility on the part of the human creature to, as lower animals, respond to stimuli, even stimuli made up in one's own head of a tempting sort. The two are monumental thinkers for good reason; their insights are brilliant, maybe even testable, of a high sort, with great powers known and unknown, a whole new way of looking at things, in deep agreement with the nature of reality. And maybe they provide stuff we, in our busy lives, don't get to sort out so forcefully.

Jesus' confrontation with the ego's fascination with wiles is rendered as a personal encounter with a personified Satan he will say no to. The Judeo-Christian tradition is full of 'personal encounters,' voices, clear signs from the God of Abraham. (Later on, we'll get the Mormons' personal messages from archangels.) Buddha, in some contrast, is more about drawing such epiphanies out through careful thought, logic, meditation, stuff one does on his own, free to all for the taking.

You might find yourself feeling a bit naked, like you're nothing but a sad person after a life of asking yourself questions, but a life of falling into the same old habits, if still having been capable of treating other folks with friendliness, kindness, hopefully some decency. And you are at least free now from being little more than just entirely a publican, a sinner, a lowly fisherman living humbly at the edge of a great busy empire.

It comes as a sense of footing, the right kind, to allude to a parable of Jesus, at times an uneasy place for the worldly to inhabit, maybe a rather lonely one, but a healthy, psychologically sound and independent one. For what it's worth, essential now as then for negotiating life.

Friday, June 11, 2010

There seems to be a sense of entitlement to some people that matches the importance they attribute to their role in society. Which came first? Good for them. They perform important roles in society. I simply make an observation on behavior based on serving people dinner, wine and drinks. I might guess that one could have observed such an attitude from very early on. Where does it come from? Is it genetic? Is it an attitude picked up on as a babe? Is it some form of actions of past lives causing an effect according to karmic law?

There are also those who don't mind serving people, who enjoy it. And I have great respect for such people. They strike me as being on a run of good karma. Some serve humanity in grand and important ways, and for some it's just simpler, more direct.

It is the right of all sentient beings to grasp and to understand and to share as a lesson to others the sense of karma. This is the compassion, to share the understanding of how past deeds shape a person's life.

Amazon and CreateSpace have answered a call. Now those books which people write out of compassion, with no wish for gain, are finally easily and broadly available. Where I once had vague thoughts that some democratic institution should arise to serve better the plain truths of sentient beings, the marketplace has developed such a vehicle. Bravo to all who make it work, including those who write the many things they do out of excellent intentions.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The history of people cannot be told without the story of governing systems. A government has philosophical underpinnings, important thoughts not to be underestimated. This is why we all enjoy a little Locke sometimes, that sort of stuff. An important part of our schooling is all about that, making thoughtful young citizens who agree to work together. The notion that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights works as well as it does because it agrees with our reality. Don't mess with my freedom and my privacy and I'm happy not to mess with yours, beautiful and simple. Democracy is simply the proper diet for humanity, tyrannies and totalitarianism being unhealthy.

Democracy agrees with Buddhist thought. Any self which would impose itself upon another is based on illusion. The only reality to the self, in a sense, is its freedom, which cannot be expressed in tangible terms. Democracy stands as a strong system of government for its foundations in reality.

Kerouac is a hit in democratic regions of the world because he is true. "Hateful ole' Duluoz me," constantly fallible, but sensitive and always wising up. He's a real American, going through illusions, thoughtful of making his way out from under them to breath in the fresh air of freedom.

We tend to find out who we are largely through finding out who we are not, discovering ourselves through a negative, for that which is outside of us. The necessary experimentation is a shy habit, and thinkers aren't fond of an intrusive police state for reasons of the constant perhaps even habitual errors made in self-discovery. Even our daily tasks, ingrained as they may be, have the potential still to strike us as being rather odd and arbitrary, at least a matter of setting into patterns that seem to work for us, a day to do laundry, a day to grocery shop. We want to be teachers, but become aware that we know less and less, that we learn through being wrong, that being our way to find the peaceful being we subscribe to.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Back to Brel

Brel, to the popular consumer, has the advantage of being able to put his Buddhist-related takes on life into swell music and theatrical performance. It strikes me the writer, with his humdrum tale, is at a disadvantage, maybe more so if his 'sad' story comes at particularly angst-ridden times. But, if his focus is keen, and if he can ignore such conditions, his quiet take on a simple life that addresses the basic issues of constant change, suffering, etc., has a potential for great energy like the atom. He must offer his plain story, one that might even be honestly regarded as dull and boring (not meant for the market's sensational tastes), as a vehicle of some small enlightenment that might add to others and grow into something.

The greater or more common the observed fault of falling for the illusory, the foolishness, the 'how could I have been so vain and stupid to have fallen for that,' the greater the potential energy the moment of literature has, for exciting other molecules of human kind to do good and circumspect things. But, in the meantime, the moment of literature itself sits waiting nakedly and pathetically. Certain times will heap more ridicule upon it, trying to bury an important discovery with further excesses of its own vanity.

First, the writer, or a Brel, must approach his own sins.
There's that funny letter Lincoln wrote, to Speed's mom, about a woman he'd thought about asking to marry, about how coming back to her after being away he wasn't so sure, of how she didn't want to marry him anyway. It's an admission of something with a potential for no small embarrassment, and magnanimously, with humor, he embraced, owned, as we say now, the story. And yes, it really happened, the whole thing. (Lincoln did things live, not holding back, not afraid terribly of screwing up, no small amount of his beauty. Eventually like a living Keats poem.)

It's one of those rare but beautiful moments in American literature where one looks at himself and sees human failings, observes how those play out, and how one lives on, hopeful of being a decent person.

Desolation Angels

It's a deceptively masterful opening, one any writer, laboring over notebooks, would recognize. "Hateful ol' Duluoz me," he calls himself. He remembers childhood. He takes us up to where he is now. Lyrical words, riffs on Hozomeen, the mountain where he is a fire lookout. The opening is proof to me that any writer doing his scales will come up with something good, a shape that is deeply recognizable, as if out of some pattern not exactly the same but akin to the patterns found in holy writings, here more individual, human, prayerful, confessional than a laying down of the law. It's a way we wake up to many a day.

We know Kerouac did his scales. Here, as in other places, the fruits of his labor, complicated, complex, worth reading as anything.

Monday, June 7, 2010

I'm out on my bike, somewhere on the road near Grosvenor, enjoying a Saturday ride, the phone rings. It's J., waiter at Bistro L. Hmm, I think, must have some little question, so I call him right back. "Hey, can you help us out? L. is having her baby and M. (the busboy) has to go." Well, long story. Okay. I pedal back to town, chew down a hamburger I cooked the night before, shower, shave, get on the bike and go in.

Next day, I'm so sore, I can hardly move. All the plates we had to run, up and down, up and down. Epsom salt bath at the end of the night, tired, but can't sleep before 6 AM, back to work on Sunday, getting up at 2, even taking a nap before dragging my carcass off.

The cycle starts all over again. Kill Bill II was on last night.

Friday, June 4, 2010

There is a pained and painful part of writing. It happens when you've made it through the deal-with-reality part of the week, the awkward return to the notepad after the other job. If you're lucky you have a chance to avoid reading the newspaper, on-line headlines stories, and all but the most essential and non-interfering kind of emails or other form of verbal communication. This alone, the avoidance, is hard to do. The mind craves even the commercials of the Weather Channel as it waits for a radar scan.

The first sentences are small, slow-coming, awkward, not certain of where to land or where to begin. In their miserable state, the grow, as ripples, and then, maybe you see the water.

It is a completely different landscape from the norm, the writer finds. Where people drive, the writer either stays put or walks. Where people work on a future, a career, the writer writes, keeping an odd job that doesn't really lead anywhere. People improve their lot through hard work; through hard work, the writer's lot gets worse. People grow up, earn incomes, start families; the writer depends increasingly on charity.

Thus, you may see it less a matter of craft, more about truly living a life of a certain kind. That life may cause you to admit things that perhaps you wouldn't have, at a certain point, been so comfortable with, too happy about. But there you go; it is what it is.

These are the conditions under which, then as now, Buddhist thinking emerges. Once you grasp those basics, life opens up. You understand great art.

I was in a good exchange on Facebook with my friend Pierre, with whom I talk about writing and reality. They are very helpful dialogues for me. They have come to represent a conversation between two writers, even if we are only writers in some early state, maybe part pretend, but trying really as best as we can, anyway, and as the spirit allows and leads one. I had a phrase which led him to remind me of that musician of words, Jacques Brel. I love Jacques Brel. I have a good 10 CDs ready for the music system at work. We've since switched to Pandora and internet radio, and the CD collection gathers dust, so it's been a while, some time, when I remembered my iTunes collection of hits and more obscure songs of Mr. Brel. I have a small collection of tabs of Brel songs printed off from the internet, sheets of the lyrics, so that I have a few lines to sing along with.

Brel is music I never find tedious. "Ces gens-lå," (that's not the right accent, for soft 'a') came to mind immediately. A thumping bass and piano, playing two minor chords, V to I, back and forth, a somber heartbeat underneath Brel's story of people in a small town. We don't get to play it too much at the restaurant; it may come across as a little heavy for light dining conversation, or maybe too theatrical, too much loud after too much soft. There is a light in Mr. Brel's town, Frida, and maybe one day, maybe one day, well, I'll let you take a look at it on YouTube or wherever, and figure it out. The townspeople, told from the perspective of an outcast. I don't think it is a trite song. I don't take it as a clichéd song. There is too much art, too much originality to it. A remarkable performance, as so much of Brel is.

There are many other songs that immediately come to mind of Brel. They cover quite a range. They go places not too many song do.

Are Brel's leading us toward Buddhist perception with the stories of change that they are? I would offer that his songs are certainly part of that writer's landscape, different from, removed, encompassing, the lives of others. The step of actually becoming enlightened in the Buddhist sense, at least as an intellectual form of making sense out of life, which is all we can ask, remains hidden, not explicitly achieved. But there is substance satisfying to the Buddhist in them, very much so.


D'abord d'abord y a l'aîné
Lui qui est comme un melon
Lui qui a un gros nez
Lui qui sait plus son nom
Monsieur tellement qui boit
Ou tellement qu'il a bu
Qui fait rien de ses dix doigts
Mais lui qui n'en peut plus
Lui qui est complètement cuit
Et qui se prend pour le roi
Qui se saoule toutes les nuits
Avec du mauvais vin
Mais qu'on retrouve matin
Dans l'église qui roupille
Raide comme une saillie
Blanc comme un cierge de Pâques
Et puis qui balbutie
Et qui a l'oeil qui divague
Faut vous dire Monsieur
Que chez ces gens-là
On ne pense pas Monsieur
On ne pense pas on prie

Et puis y a l'autre
Des carottes dans les cheveux
Qu'a jamais vu un peigne
Ouest méchant comme une teigne
Même qu'il donnerait sa chemise
A des pauvres gens heureux
Qui a marié la Denise
Une fille de la ville
Enfin d'une autre ville
Et que c'est pas fini
Qui fait ses petites affaires
Avec son petit chapeau
Avec son petit manteau
Avec sa petite auto
Qu'aimerait bien avoir l'air
Mais qui n'a pas l'air du tout
Faut pas jouer les riches
Quand on n'a pas le sou
Faut vous dire Monsieur
Que chez ces gens-là
On ne vit pas Monsieur
On ne vit pas on triche

Et puis y a les autres
La mère qui ne dit rien
Ou bien n'importe quoi
Et du soir au matin
Sous sa belle gueule d'apôtre
Et dans son cadre en bois
Y a la moustache du père
Qui est mort d'une glissade
Et qui recarde son troupeau
Bouffer la soupe froide
Et ça fait des grands chloup
Et ça fait des grands chloup
Et puis il y a la toute vieille
Qu'en finit pas de vibrer
Et qu'on n'écoute même pas
Vu que c'est elle qu'a l'oseille
Et qu'on écoute même pas
Ce que ses pauvres mains racontent
Faut vous dire Monsieur
Que chez ces gens-là
On ne cause pas Monsieur
On ne cause pas on compte

Et puis et puis
Et puis y a Frida
Qui est belle comme un soleil
Et qui m'aime pareil
Que moi j'aime Frida
Même qu'on se dit souvent
Qu'on aura une maison
Avec des tas de fenêtres
Avec presque pas de murs
Et qu'on vivra dedans
Et qu'il fera bon y être
Et que si c'est pas sûr
C'est quand même peut-être
Parce que les autres veulent pas
Parce que les autres veulent pas
Les autres ils disent comme ça
Qu'elle est trop belle pour moi
Que je suis tout juste bon
A égorger les chats
J'ai jamais tué de chats
Ou alors y a longtemps
Ou bien j'ai oublié

Ou ils sentaient pas bon
Enfin ils ne veulent pas
Enfin ils ne veulent pas
Parfois quand on se voit
Semblant que c'est pas exprès
Avec ses yeux mouillants
Elle dit qu'elle partira
Elle dit qu'elle me suivra
Alors pour un instant
Pour un instant seulement
Alors moi je la crois Monsieur
Pour un instant
Pour un instant seulement
Parce que chez ces gens-là
Monsieur on ne s'en va pas
On ne s'en va pas Monsieur
On ne s'en va pas
Mais il est tard Monsieur
Il faut que je rentre chez moi.

Thanks to MrJacquesbrel for the YouTube posting from January 28, 2010.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Okay, okay. What was it? The odd juxtaposition of finding myself watching a PBS piece about the Aztecs after viewing over the last few weeks, America, The Story Of Us, that the bell went off, something about human sacrifice demanded by kings and priests and the culture in general. What was it that had begun to turn me off about the fine production, grandly and carefully done, bringing out the best middle brow minds, I mean, the ones who we recognize as being able to speak for 'us.'

First of all, what's not to like about Liev Schreiber's narration... a newscaster voice, bottled John Chancellor and Cronkite, Reasoner, etc. Different than Peter Coyote. This is a bigger, deeper instrument, weighty and solid. We're meant to trust it. Throw in a patchwork of diverse commentators who peek in from time to time. Meryl Streep. Henry Louis Gates. Donald Trump. Michael Douglas. Tom Brokaw. Martha Stewart.

Okay. It's clear. Here are the voices of Authority. Here are people who have been there, it seems. At least that's how it sounds. A theme emerges. "Time and time again, Americans have picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, persevered through difficult times, not given up, kept on, discovered, invented, a new way."

One can see why they chose a variety of people to step in and tell us, through their personality and authority, what happened in the nation's space at a particular time. A professional actor, now with the gravitas of grey hair, inhabits the lives of many Rosie the Riveters. Brokaw is, with grand burgundian voice, an elder statesman of historians, knowing the national pulse.

Well, you're clearly a shit if you have any complaints, if you have any inner 'hmmm, there's something about this that makes me not so sure about it all.' How can you be critical when Mr. Brokaw--always liked the guy--delivers that handy 'here's the meaning, the neat clear-cut happy ending' stuff? After all, he did a great job with his series on the Baby Boomers. It must be that the edited-down soundbite style of this piece didn't suit his more complicated understandings, as he gets different sides of a thing.

But, there's something here that's making me highly suspicious about the whole series. To qualify, you can't argue with timelines, or with an analysis that boils down pretty much everything into "modern marvel" model. Technology.

It's a neat story. You can't argue with it. Hey, we all lead material lives. Here's a Civil War Colonel who figured out a brigade to sweep the shit off of New York's streets. Here's how the American militias fought, here's how the great dams were built, here's the outcome of technology.

A pean to technology and the economy, played on brass. As interested as I was, and engaged by it, I don't know... what's making me feel weird about the whole thing?

Technology, apparently, will always be, if we work hard enough, if we take enough risks, the thing that saves us. Ingenuity like the Romans had building aqueducts to feed fresh clean water to a city. America needs something to be invented and carried out in order to survive, hey, we will do it.

Yet, it all could potentially come across as a form of propaganda to invest in a certain kind of spending. A building of some kind of might. Like maybe the sort of thing that happened in Germany after the hard deal of WWI.

Turning the channel, one could imagine a faithful subject being led up the long steps to the altar where hearts were cut out with obsidian knife. Listening all the while to an interpretation spread by sponsored voices mellow and soothing and informative, convincing in their storytelling.

But of course that comparison falls apart. Many of those dragged up those steps came from subject states, prisoners of war. That we are not here, so we hope, in this story of 'us.'

There is an intellectual story, an artistic story, a cultural story, a people story, a spiritual story, one of deep soul-searching, going on here in a rich multi-cultured, maybe too hard and complicated to tell, but indispensable. Yes, that soul-searching, that looking for broader deeper meanings took hold here from the start, and we are not the same people without that, without Lincoln and Gettsyburg, without the Civil Rights Movement, without unions and child labor laws, on back to the basic documents of inalienable rights and equality, things which happen to jive with the spiritual, with the golden law toward neighbors.