Thursday, January 31, 2013

Of course China, being a state-run economy, its society, the very life of its peoples, dictated by the needs of the state to make its economy prosperous, finds Buddhist monks subversive.  Of course Buddhism itself is subversive.  No wonder, the tangle over Tibet, a principal stage for the great state's conflict with humanity.  All the Chinese state must consider important, the making, selling and buying of things (far more important than any pressing environmental concerns and human rights), is completely unimportant to the Buddhist.  And to China, Buddhist thought is completely unimportant and wrongful.

The modern economy must sell its stuff, must sing the great importance of stuff.  And so, through every conceivable chink in our personal mind's armor and boundaries, in creeps the emails, the pitches, the advertisements, the suggestions, the common mindset, the call to be entranced and subservient to it all.  "You need this.  You need that.  You will feel better if you go and do this."  And this is all, to the thoughtful Buddhist, who has thought long and hard about everything, completely inconsequential when compared to the evolution of consciousness that the human being is naturally capable of and headed toward.

Buddhism and the modern economic state, to the extent that state is all-reaching, are largely incompatible, when the state reaches beyond attempting to organize the basics for the health of humanity and the planet with all its creatures.  In the free market economy, the full court press against human consciousness is done by private entities, who are, of course, profit minded.  The lines begin to blur between the corporation and the system of government, and when the two combine, we have Fascism.  Corporations get their way, deregulating;  the government system gets more entrenched by allying itself with corporate power, etc.

Of course, it is hard for us to consider the various cults we fall into to varying degrees, the cult of the state, even the cult of individual personality as defined by popular culture as that culture is based on consumption, the cult of a media which tells us what is happening 24/7 but does not go beyond the corporate mind-set in its questioning.  Buddhist thought is an alternative, and it seems a healthier one more every day.

It's interesting to stop and look at the growth of egotistical acts done by large impersonal powerful entities.  The Patriot Act, the erosion of privacy.  The approval of torture, detainment at Gitmo Bay.  The imprisonment of whistle blowers.  The power of giant corporations to influence politics, the allowing of big banks to do whatever they want...  Where will it end?  Tibet?

Wayne LaPierre, he strikes one as a perfect sign of the times, with his 'more, more, more...'  More stuff, more guns, more consumption, more pollution.  Environmental costs, human costs, and the crazy with the gun wouldn't have been there in the first place if it weren't for his side in the battle for the earth.

But fortunately, once you get the hang of it, Buddhist thought is pretty intuitive and easy to use, and its even a good barometer by which to measure the danger and the morality of any issue, as simple as 'do unto others...'  And isn't the morality of any issue pretty much the main and lasting thing about it anyway.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On her side I laid her, after she was gone, on the vet's scale she seemed comfortable with
on the steel table.  She had looked out the opened window, feeling warm fresh air
in a brick alleyway before the shots that calmed her, then put her down.
Earlier, in the afternoon, I cried and cried, some of which she saw, when I went out back
on the porch and took pictures of her.  I'd done my yoga, washed some sheets with a spot
of blood, but then at four, with the appointment at six, I was stuck with nothing to do
but realize the import of each minute.
Too polite to notice, though it prompted thinking on her part,
which she took with perfect grace.
Her body was perfectly limp when I picked her up, still warm,
the tongue she'd talked to me with so well, immediately drooped,
her eyes, glassy as they say, not seeing anymore.
I waited for a time, a couple of minutes or so,
while her spirit left her body to go wherever they go.

It felt strange to pick her up, there in the vet's room,
alone with her a little while longer than necessary, I suppose,
as if one needed permission.  But limp and still warm,
she was still my cat, a mutual comfort to hold in arms
and be held.
Man, too, 's a gentle beast,  as he takes a woman's side as well
as in every other thing he does.
The many stories of boy loses girl come about
because he seems incompetent
at basic duties in this world.
Too sweet, too shy,  not commanding,
too subtle to offer protection when big bad
wolves come knocking at the door.
This state is his manly doom, that he can
in his gentleness not protest when he is tested
or put in the wrong.  He cannot lift a finger
but only show his great meekness,
the sensitivity that drills down to
the energied center of the entire world's
great reality.
He's cut from the same mould that presents
us Christ as so, on his way to becoming Buddha.
But it's his job sometimes to hide all this,
to go through life with a deft touch.
And his reality is just his reality, saved for the jobs he does.
Some men are great pretenders, though,
with their great greyback shows and heavy bellies,
their higher intellect, their surpassing cleverness,
full of bluff and ardor,
but all of that will get them nowhere
further or faster, because,
deep down,
man's a gentle beast,
fragile, in his time, as the rest.

It is within the nature of things
that the nature of things is hidden.
The peasant makes as good a scientist
as any, as Shakespeare often tells us,
as Tolstoy knew.  Too much science
and you miss the point, distracted by
instruments and measurements.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

One of those restaurant dreams.  The restaurant has just opened an outdoor patio gated in four blocks away.  Tonight, the weather is warm, and people, liking the novel, decide what a good idea to be seated there.  The owner lets them sit there, and 6 tables come all at once.  Only problem, I'm the only one to wait on them.  Four blocks.  Hard to carry drinks that far, so you do it piece by piece, falling behind, forgetting, only able to bring one table at a time, and there's one table, just two drinks, I just seem cursed at as far as being able to do.  Like it's in your hand, but you just can't do it, too many interruptions, too many inherent impossibilities, and the owner/manager thinks its all doable when it's not.  In the dream things grind closer and closer to a halt, and finally, you are just about to give up trying what isn't possible to do, and there are the people waiting, still waiting to be waited on, back there, as you go back to the busy bar area, other staff just sort of milling about, in your own mind the different odd stylish cocktails you have to make, the glass of white wine, and then back out on the street under the street lamps, through a gate you have to open each time, down to the little patio.

It probably is, indeed, very hard to see yourself as a Buddhist.  It seems to smack of too much giving up.  How could you really accept that thought, when life is about making what is possible happen.  To become a Buddhist seems to be opposed to the American cultural attitude.  How could such ideas of apparent resignation enter your head?  To be detached?  Such cosmology is nothing but the usual mumbo jumbo of religions, no?, for weak and simple minds.

And then life happens to you, even just a plain, common, humdrum experience similar to, and probably even a whole lot easier than what a lot of people must go through if you were to lift back the covers of life and the mind's veil of privacy.  But slowly it grows, or it lingers, the pretty girl, the perfect meeting, the perfect kiss, the perfect embrace, the perfect misunderstandings and miscommunications and stubbornness of personality, the perfect setting, and you all expect it to all work out, except that it doesn't, leaving you in a situation of chagrin that daily visits itself upon you for years, even as you attempt to work it out as creatively as you can, the unhappy brick wall you can do nothing about, even trying to avoid its distraction.  Trained, perhaps, as we are, the history seems to be part of one's personality and persona, part of the self.  It is through no fault of one's own that one remembers such things, and that there is a natural resistance to deflating the importance of them.  And you can listen to the parameters of psychological health and common sense wisdom like 'don't dwell on the past, live in the now,' and try to take it to heart, but, to convince oneself to loosen one's grip can be difficult, maybe precisely because it's natural for us to look for meaning in life.

In the meantime the wisdom of the Buddha floats down on you.  It feels good.  You have momentary experiences of the light amidst the routines of life and jobs and indirection.

And it dawns on you more and more, the great wisdom, the essential quality to it as far as its allowing to understand why we are here and what is the meaning of life.  No, those are not silly questions only allowed sophomores, completely unanswerable.  Those are questions which are the main engaging ones when we wake in good health and enjoy a healthy day without distractions.  And the Buddhist philosophy really does offer a salvation, the salvation of being able to believe what you sense to be true,   something related to understanding the difference between what is essential and what is excess, sensual enjoyment overdone, distracting, throwing one off.

Maybe it's not so wild after all, the sense of life being a matter of learning Enlightenment, the sense of the gentle teachers in your life with whom you go back a very very long way.  Those special people in your life, you finally glimmer toward an understanding, are, as they always were, full of deep meaning. And this is the same reason why you respond to the gentle laugh of Buddha and the awakened lotus-like wisdom.  That is the meaning of life, to call upon others to wake up as well.

To reach up to a larger significance, one has to allow himself to be inconsequential as far as society understands itself.  The rule of law has become such an obsession that people forget that a human being is perfectly able to distinguish right from wrong.  Too much obsession with 'upholding the law' leads to a society which allows itself to break the law, to be excused from knowing independently right from wrong.  So many lawyers lead us to a situation where it's simply a matter of what you can get away with.  Then down the line.  In this way, more guns lead to more crime.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

If you are out in nature you find yourself closer to Buddha nature, the reality of all things.  Sitting by a stream, thinking of nothing, you find yourself in harmony with something larger.  Sitting there you know basically what is right and what is wrong.  Sounds clichéd, perhaps.  But there is a connection to be made.

And then you go back to the world of competition for resources and cleverness and rules, which too often is not just work, work being perfectly acceptable, but a matter of egotism.  So quickly, around the world, before you know it, everyone has an ego.  People fight.  Mine against yours.  My way is right, your way is wrong.  Take the Taliban as an example.  It doesn't help matters that other nationalist egos gave rise to the Taliban, enabled them, let them flourish, and then became surprised when the Taliban could not be controlled, and then soon enough was a combatant.  Against an egotistical act, another act of egotism will arise, quite like the physical law.

But out in the woods, taking a walk, or down watching the water run in the stream underneath some ice in a meditative mood with little more than healthy air and a pleasant scene in mind, and you are not adding to the world's troubles and conflicts.  Perhaps in some way you are helping diffuse strife and conflict by your own small example.

Religion, organized, in childish forms, can be egotistical in certain ways, undercutting itself as it makes its points when it delineates the chosen and the unchosen.  And so organized, it must keep a gentler message within, almost as a higher esoteric point.  It takes the old organized bombastic type a long time, a gradual transition to get to, let's say through Jesus Christ's teachings, the basic underlying perennial wisdom that Buddhism, in its own poetry, is often harboring.  God's own people finally come around to realizing the basic illusion of Self, at which point it's just a matter of right living as any non crazy human being is capable of, taking care first to realize the illusion individually (as it were.)

Truth does not so much need 'a religion,' but that 'religion' seems to help us along with way, making a transition to the basic wisdom behind reality.

So does Jesus teach us about the goodness within that Samaritan over there, about the blessedness of other, those poor, those seek, those meek ones over there.  So are the peacemakers blessed.

It seems that the more refuge you take, or realize, in the Tao, in the Dharma, the more it makes sense to you, and so you take increasingly to seeing it as refuge.  The first steps, as the Buddha says, mean you are already on the path.  Who doesn't find being in nature soothing?  The thing is to make the connection to the intellect, the faith, the mindfulness of Buddhist thought.  And I think this is the thing that really saves artists from certain plights.  If you are inclined to see the picture, half of it, go the full way to realization.  Art is about establishing a personal connection, a situation created by the artist, for the viewer to achieve a connection outside of his or her self, thereby opening up to another experience. The artist has, perhaps, gone about it blindly, on gut instinct, trying to tell a story that comes from a deeper level and one that seeks expression.  That another being comes along and is able to get something, a sympathetic response, makes it a mystical endeavor.

As a footnote, I wonder if it wouldn't have saved Hemingway to have understood, to read the Tao, to read up on Buddhism, so as to finally not drive yourself mad with the craft, but to let it flow, and know what it all means as far as reaching toward enlightenment, one justified in placing faith in, logically, intellectually, with the heart, instinctively.

And perhaps in ways that author did achieve something akin to Theosophical, Buddhist what-have-you, Christian spirituality.  No doubt.  Much within him about the interconnectedness of life, of the naturalist that he was.  The greater you assume the connection to be, the greater the connection will indeed be, oddly enough.

Friday, January 25, 2013

If I ever met the Buddha, himself, I'd have to say to him, 'oh, man, I kind of screwed up.  His holiness the Dalai Lama came to college, and I didn't go see him.  It would have made my father happy, and he might even have driven out to see him himself if he had known.  My friends joked, Hello, Dalai... I don't know where my head was.  I guess I thought Nirvana was beer, or chicks, or stuff like that.'  And maybe the Buddha would say, 'oh, well, no one's perfect.  I was like that once myself, and in fact, that's why I am here today.  You have to understand suffering first hand in order to begin your path.'

And I was completely foolish not to take a class with Robert Thurman.  Man, was I dumb.  And you have to admit these things if you're ever going to feel okay with your life, so I am forced to write this down, as writing is, for the brain, therapeutic.

You probably do, have to go through some living, in order to see, to understand what's important.  Then, then you can read the sutras comprehendingly.  That's just the way it is sometimes, though you really wish you hadn't been so dumb and distracted years ago.

Reading back in forth between gospels and sutras, there is sometimes a familiar ring.  Assuming Buddha came first, it seems that the Christian message, often very similar anyway, closely related, might have come from Eastern sources, life along the trade route.  The Christian gospel comes across almost as a direct translation, at times, of Buddhist thought, as was unseen before in that part of the world and in its liturgy.  Odd echoes where there are departures exist as well, to an ear attuned to them. In the Christian version of a tale from a sutra like The Lotus Sutra, Christ has come back from the dead to his disciples, miraculously;  in the Buddhist version, worlds are revealed in the heavens, and bodhisattvas come pouring out of these worlds, and even out of the ground, as Buddha gives his ultimate teaching.  And it's all, both versions I suppose, like the Pentecost, quite fabulous, okay, maybe the Buddha's being more like a hip Jimi Hendrix version, and that of Jesus, well, being a bit of a gentle 'white guy' kind of a sermony kind of a thing, one miracle at a time, no other worlds opening up.

Seriously, the desire for such enlightenment leads to a satisfaction in these tales.  They make one happy.

There is also the possibility that in some sense, that Jesus and the Buddha, and by implication, Abraham, Moses, other prophets, other arhats, other Buddhas, are the appearance, the reappearance of the same spiritual being.  As if lighting up here and there by some reason and appropriateness.  Then of course the thoughts would be shared, coming from the same repository of wisdom and deep understanding.

I've often thought, in a deeper way, that the information and the literature, the odd conversations, the thoughts that come your way, are brought to you from a deep reserve that has a guide behind it.  What you come across seemingly by random luck or happenstance, maybe by opening a TED lecture, or the book you just happened to pick up and open, is all guided, as if by an unseen teacher or force, by that which brings you the meaning of life.  It could be the lesson, ultimately, a big one that slowly grows on you, revealed here and there, of compassion, of interconnectedness, of many worlds, full of soulful wisdom, revealed to make it clear the illusion of self, of being stuck in this 'iron cage' (Thurman's words) of a self distinct and separate from others.  Stop worrying about your own happiness, think about all the other beings in the world suffering from many sufferings.

Devotional little creatures they are, cats.
With marbled fur, and all their heightened little tricks,
They sense our individual electrical fields,
our personal chemistry, the unique dance of the atoms within,
and it pleases them to rest nearby or touching
after an encouraging stroke.
They like our company when they eat,
purring away, as they did when sucking
with their litter mates with little tiny motors
of happiness and pleasure.
They rest beside us in our sleep,
coming upon our beds
in the midst of night,
unseen, unheard,
so that we find them so
when we wake.
And sometimes,
yes, they tell us,
that it's time we got up,
whether we listen or not;
they understand.
In their wisdom,
sometimes they play dumb,
quite magnificently.

But they have been alongside us,
for many kalpas, many many many thousands of years,
in many many realms, and so they are always
a companion to our own Buddha natures,
for they like enlightenment just like we do,
and it doesn't surprise one at all,
that they could travel incredible distances,
mystery to the scientist,
on four little paws, steps at a time
to find us and be with us again.
If we die before they do, in this life,
they come, like lions,
to visit our graves,
nobly, with grace.
They've been in this life stuff with us before.
And think just as well as we do.

No words have they,
or need.
Only because of the Tao is one a writer.  What one writes is only a small expression of the Tao, which cannot be expressed.  Writing strives to capture that which is under the Tao and in harmony with it.
That which is written must operate in accordance with the Tao.  What is written must remain inconspicuous, not of conspicuous learning and status or claim, but low as the valley, in order to catch all things.  What is written must flow on, without all the trappings of popularity and current information, so as to capture the eternal laws.  Writing must not get in the way of the thinking that is beyond normal thought;  its purpose is to welcome and initiate deeper reflections not bound to conscious thought.  And so it is much about a logic that is beyond, beyond the seemingly pressing matters of the world, a higher attention.

Things that happen in the world may ultimately be understood through the Tao.

Yes, the Tao has to do with, as the famous text suggests, how the world operates, therefore with much applicable to governing, with the proper kind of wisdom and leadership.  Of course, the so-called 'real world' of gun violence, legal structure, banking systems profitable for banks, selfishness, hunger for power, is all a great corruption, such as only the modern world could possibly create with all the help of billions upon billions of microchips.  So complicated is modern life, that it makes great bureaucracies absolutely necessary, as if such were the answer to the deeper prayer of modern life, which is to ask for greater complication.  Within it all, though, the truth of the Tao, which is in some sense simple, remains.  Those who are obscure and often taken as idiots happy with their humble conditions ('when they could have so much more') are perhaps, in some circumstances, closer to the Tao's way and truth than the habitual mainstream who finds it hard to sit down and think about nothing at all.

The Tao, of course, was written to support independent minds grasping for wisdom.  It was written to support those who intuitively get the age-old wisdom of the universe, who are closer to it through their habit of humility and openness.  The Tao is a great democratic work, as it supports the downtrodden, the non-greedy, the person willing to work wherever conditions are decent and fair and healthy.

Of course, an aspect of humanity has evolved to take advantage, selfishly, of modern life, adapted to cleverness, while those of older wisdom move more slowly and honestly and harmoniously.  Much of humanity is willing to betray life itself, through egotism and many other reasons such as ease and expedience.  Certain Republicans, backed by huge selfish donors who want to operate in a world that doesn't impinge upon their own evil business practices that are strictly profit minded (and corruptions of law), have evolved to be masters of soulless gerrymandering, destroying the great democracy that is in harmony with the Tao as they claim to uphold it.

The only refuge, the only true possession, the only hint of truth and universal law, we have is the Tao.   Everything good and true and worthy and suitable comes from the deeper realm of the Tao's truth. Attempts at writing it down, as was done in a properly poetic fashion in the Tao Teh Ching, are human, not perfect, but not bad either, if the attempt is inspired by the Tao.  Remarkably useful, the Tao may be applied to cooking, exercise, life in general, and even literary criticism.

One says all this, and says it now, because it is useful sometimes to emphasize that which is good in the world created by humans and human society.  Some things, culturally, serve to increase a general fascination with the surfaces of illusory selfhood.  One doesn't get paid to delve into the deeper laws of nature in concordance with the Tao, but we all must abide by the Tao.  We must arise up independently, as we are humble, and strive to in some small way present the Tao and live as close as we can to it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

He found himself awake very early, and so he went to read on the couch after putting on a tee shirt, two flannel shirts and track pants, taking the second steeping of the previous day's Dragonwell from the fridge to chase the tuna on rye he made himself.  The cat went to lie down on the rug.  He read, a review of a Japanese novel, written a hundred years ago, found himself intent on it, finished it, and decided to go lie down under the comforter in the bed to see if this was one of those wakings in the middle of the night.  His body, legs in particular, felt tired, and so he felt justified, though so long used to restlessness and dissatisfied with his life and work situation, as a barman doing nightshifts, that he would often lie in bed out of habit, napping, sleeping, sometimes feeling too much of a weary depression sort of a thing that he didn't want to do anything and would do little more than get up, feed the cat, get himself a glass of water, go back to bed, what was the point anyway.  He knew this to be unhealthy, but sometimes, you just feel defeated, or you need rest from what you've been doing to yourself, or you just don't know what to do.

The light was less higher up in the sky when he got up again, after dreaming, an hour or so later, diffused and permeating, making the room regrettably bright.  He changed into cycling shorts and made himself put in 40 minutes on the indoor trainer stand, avoiding turning on the television, even though he had completely missed the Inaugural, one more event after a series of holidays that meant the bistrot would be busy, that it would be hectic with tourists, that others would go home and he would be there late, eating by himself, pushed to have an extra glass of wine.  Varicose veins in his calf ached slightly, despite the compression stockings.  I will do some yoga, he thought, pouring himself a glass of water from the filter on the tap.

The bike ride, intuitively, would help.  He looked around his flat.  Things were scattered, laundry, bills, bits of paper, books, holiday detritus.

It struck him as odd, as he put his thoughts together on the bike, not thinking of work yet beyond the clock, that his father had been such an educator, great, gentle, a performer drawing vast connections as he lectured a university hall of students about plant biology, and yet he himself, maybe from the very things his father had discussed with him, things about the deeper nature of life and reality, seemed to have become incapable of action, incapable of even trying out teaching, and that the general effect of it all was that he himself had never really tried out anything.  Instead he had let life make choices for him. And he had so long been concerned about his real lack of a future of any stability, that he was deeply worried, even as he would go and perform his duties as a barman with friendliness, too much friendliness, the friendliness of an Irish politician, none of it warranted, particularly as he ruminated about the careful balances of Japanese life.

He opened a can of black beans, emptied in a Revere Ware pot, turned the burner on, added some white rice from a red cardboard Chinese take out container, and then returned to the yoga mat unrolled next to the bicycle on its stand.  "How much disappointment my father must have endured, from the first papers being late, knowing the academic fall would mean my never having a decent life," he thought.  Reflecting on the New York Review of Books piece, he agreed, it was acts of passion, no matter how chaste or well-intentioned, his brightness, his social activity as a social being that led not to action but to disillusionment and paralysis, such that now it seemed an only out for him to become spiritual in a self-help sort of a way.

It wasn't necessarily to think in such a way, though, not if he wanted to get through the night at work without getting into the wine again, the wine providing some physical relief, like sleep, but putting him down in the dumps the next day.

It was very cold out.  I'll walk to work, through the woods, that will help.  He glanced up from his bowl, stirring the olive oil, the salsa and the curry powder, finding Mariel Hemingway on the television news coming from Park City.  A new film, a documentary, about surviving the crazy in her genes.  Several good pictures of her grandfather, one from the Spanish Civil War, several later, flashed on the screen, the broad grin in two at least.  Handsome, attractive, just as she was, her face, and that of her sister.  She swims in icy rivers, nature a solace, where she is comfortable with herself.  And they know where to find me at work, he thought.

He got dressed for work.  The cat was out in the sun on a chair on the back deck.  As her cancer progressed, she had taken to eating outside, a statement on feline life and territory.  He did not mind, when he would go out and see the blood droplets on the blue paint.  There would be time to do the dishes left to soak, fold a shirt, pack away something to eat, leave a cordial note for the landlord and have time still to walk.  Later, a cab.

It had been an act of passion, or rather perhaps something he felt like a calling, and maybe further made necessary by the depressing knowledge that the odds against him doing okay in life weren't so great, to want to, somehow, he didn't know how, be a writer, or, more simply, write.  A calling that meant only more of the same distress continual.  Odd.  Wine tasting night.  Cremant.  Gewurtztraminer.  Alsace.  Supposed to care about wine, the great double edged sword.  Face people drinking wine, for hours on end.  Kryptonite.  Handling Kryptonite.  Kryptonight.

It became evident as the shift started that his principal coworker, besides the busboy, was suffering a marijuana hangover, by turns distracted, befuddled, obsessed with the electrical problem of the baseboard heater back in the wine room against the far wall.  On top of being late.  He had himself noticed the problem soon after arriving at work, a few minutes early, and had checked all possible breaker switches in the restaurant.  Running down two flights of stairs to get a Pierre Gaillard 2008 St. Joseph from the cave, the bar stools full already, the dining room filling up, there was his coworker, mumbling about a space heater. It was often the nights that were going to be 'slow,' particularly on the promotional nights, like Tuesday Free Wine Tasting, with its bottle discounts, etc., where, short staffed--"I'll be floating tonight," Joe said, "between up and down..."--you got spanked.  Tuesday was always a night of regulars expecting friendly chat and entertainment beyond simply pouring a glass of wine.  So, he quickly found himself running, picking up the slack, opening two bottles of wine, one Sancerre, one Cahors, for the six top back in the wine room.  Joe took the brunt of seating people, which he did effectively, something he himself found to be a losing situation.  People would show up fresh and new for the wine tasting, and you had to ask them, when they wanted a table, if they were going to dine, not just take up space.  Tonight this seemed like all Joe was capable of, in any organized fashion.  When the little walkie talkie rang, telling the busboy that plates of food were ready down in the kitchen, Joe was eager to go.  This kept him busy.

And then later as he found himself moving quickly from bar to table, he would overhear Joe talking to the visiting wine rep, whose task was to go round to the tables, pour a little bit of wine, explain it, entertain some, about a Rolling Stones show.  The night went on, and just a bit after eight, after the free wine tasting part of the ending had ended, there was a second hit at the bar of semi-regulars who were certainly interested in tasting wine, and the easiest and quickest way to get them to eventually purchase a glass of wine was to pour a few, maybe 3, maybe a fourth sip, 'til they found one they were happy with.  To him this was the shortest distance between two points, with the smoothest of interaction, kind of like, he imagined, shrinking someone, getting them to open up, while they talked in the meanwhile to the person seated next to them.  Sure, sometimes it meant a sudden pile of dirty glasses on top of the stainless steel glass washing machine when they were already piling up, but, it seemed to make everyone happy.  Wine shrinking can take a deft dance and presentation.  Usually it facilitated a good humor, this tasting business.

The night ended peacefully and early enough, it being very cold out, and it finally came down to one customer he knew from the previous bar where he worked.  "C'mon, let's go out.  Tuesday is chick night," the guy tried to impress upon him.  "Uh, no thanks, I'm pretty much a Buddhist these days," he ended up saying, wishing to get rid of this last fly in the ointment, while knowing that the conversation had not quite taken its course, even as he counted the money and made himself appear distracted, over by the cutting board above the stove, back in the corner, with the night's closing paperwork.

The next evening was Jazz Night.  Tonight he was not working with Joe, but Diana, an energetic and very sweet Salvadoran woman more than 15 years his junior.  They set up, talking a little bit about her bonding with her baby boy on her day off, a workout, P90X, moved the furniture into position.  "How is your mommie," she asked him, as he took the juice store n pours out of the cooler, rotating in mineral water sparkling and flat.  "I'm going to call her."  A cold spell had descended upon the East Coast.

Joe came late again, arriving bundled on his bicycle as he changed into his work slacks.  He sat down with the downstairs busboy, Elario, at the tableclothed set up table where the staff always ate, putting paper napkins over the decorative plates with the bistrot's name and silhouette trademark lifted from a well-known painting of a street scene in Paris with strolling couple, to eat baked chicken, the employee meal.  Joe came up and ate standing up at the zinc bar counter, next to the phone with the reservation pad.  It rang several times in succession, and it was not an enviable task, even as he had manned the phone back in the day, taking carry out orders at the bar, no matter how busy it was.  Jazz Night quite often filled up, even before walk-ins arrived, not having made a reservation.  He brought up the subject of a possible camping trip.  I wanted to ask him directly, what was up with him the night before, but I ate my dinner, the phone rang, and then it was time to get ready.

Later on, as the night started, Joe came up the stairs, looked out over the room, took the phone off of hold and took another reservation.  "Okay, we'll see you at 7:30," he said, with his usual polite phone matter.  Diana was copying down the reservations on to the wine bar's pad.  Joe started explaining to us where the three top would go, the four top over there.  He himself thought the flow would be better the other way, making tables easier to get to.  Joe looked at him.  "Whatever.  Do whatever you want.  I'm Not Working Up Here Tonight."

We looked at him.  I didn't say anything.  He had brought a fair amount of negativity around lately.  He always asked polite questions, and had a solicitous manner with the clientelle, and Lord knows, the guy had done more than his fair share of busy weekend nights and messed up wine bar nights, but lately, something was up.  Diana looked down at the reservation pad.  "Joe, why didn't you block out the Open Table at 7?  We have (counting them) 18 people showing up at 7?  Why did you do that?"

"You fucking bitch," Joe said, loudly, "all the times I've saved your ass, don't tell me what to do."  I looked at him, not saying anything, just looking at him.  Diana looked at him.  "C'mon Joe," she said after a while.  "Don't talk to me like that."   Oscar, the busboy, went over and said, quietly, "it's okay."  Don't worry about it.  Joe stared at us a while longer, then he turned and went down the stairs.

In a way, such a disturbing circumstance makes your job as a server, or bartender, all the more clear. The main job, the first thing, is to be hospitable, kind, even tolerant, peaceful and friendly.  But the sudden transformation, while blood-running cold upsetting, did not come as a complete surprise.  Joe had presented the thought before that only he knew what was going on, and the rest of us were idiots, people to be tolerant of, before being told what to do.  Maybe as an older brother, this was his way of being, he speculated in his mind.  Indeed, the night got very busy, with everyone, basically, wanting wine at the same time, to be sat at the same time, to be told the specials all in sequence, for orders to be put in, drinks to be procured, the next step as far as wine readied, bread from the oven delivered, all while lots of things were going on.

Uncharacteristically, Joe did not say good night or anything when he left.  The keyboard player singer was just leaving with his people as Joe went off bundled with his bicycle into the night.  Nor had he said a word when dropped the downstairs paper work and money, wrapped in the large sheet of paper that was the night's reservation pad down on the top of the cooler in front of the computer Posi Touch cash register, down with a plunk, as if to connote, 'here, I don't give a shit.'

And all of this is strange, to observe, as restaurant people necessarily become friends with each other, particularly when they come from similar backgrounds, but that never required.

The next morning, after fretting about the matter, he awoke to snow on the ground, a dusting, still troubled.  Thoughts like, "I should have told him to leave the bar," took up space in his head.

A day off, you never know what to do with yourself.  You'd want to suddenly go to grad school, and earn some credential, or do something with your life, but, as we all know, that doesn't happen in a day.  And instead, you do maintenance things, upkeep, like laundry, maybe get a workout in.  Maybe just to feel that you've accomplished something.  He made his green tea, he sat down on the couch with his yellow legal pad, and had no idea what to write.  He fed the cat, as she wanted to eat outside, even on a frigid day, let her back in finally, and lit some incense to clear the Ego away from the room, from his professional life, from his friendship with Joe and also with Diana, from the day, from his nervous system.  And he remembered something he thought was fairly wise, which was to simply not engage with the Ego, when it jumped out like that at you (always strange, the timing of such things), to not take it with complete seriousness.  As Ekhardt Tolle says, open a window, light some incense, take a walk, and hope the beasts of Ego don't follow.  But even if they do, you are armed with a certain knowledge.

Some people, it seems, are just in an egotistical habit.  You can watch them as it comes over them, when they become enchanted with the me/myself/I of the self.  And for the most part, people are rather jovial and friendly, and take the interests and biddings of their egos to be perfectly reasonable, and even responsible.  It's what you do, to perform your role in life, isn't it?  It's what makes us what we are, economic beings engaged in a life-long trading system, no?  But to take a step back from all the Ego is telling you, as they speak heavily to all of us, is a token of maturity.  And while you'd like to look the hero who solves everything and makes a stand for the right, really the best thing to do in many situations is actually to not react at all, or as little as you can.  (Which probably requires a bit of thought placed carefully, lest ye slip, easily, into the Ego's habits, hard when our lives are ruled by economic realities.)   Maybe, even, if your head is telling you you've done something wrong, maybe that too can be the voice of Ego, Ego clinging to you, trying to assert its self-importance upon you as you slowly diffuse it bit by bit.  Be a quiet master of things.  That's all you can do.

And so he faced the uneasy uncertainty of a day off, all the voices in his own head, just like those in Joe's head, almost screaming at him, "do something, Do Something! do something?" as calmly as he could, without least panic as possible.  He sat down, and rather than write on his legal pad, his scrawl getting sloppier of late, but on the laptop computer handed down from his brother, fancying himself to be something of a blogger, even while realizing that too, was complete fantasy insufficient to solve any of the world's problems, and really just something done in between the breakfast sausage and lunch's tuna sandwich.

"Yes, the timing of things is rather strange," he thought.  Somehow it could not all be a bad thing.  Curiously it seemed to have pushed him closer to a momentary clarity, and when he'd gotten home the night before, laid down on the couch with the TV on, with his clothes on in the cold, napped as the words, a show about drones, then later meatballs? drifted barely comprehensible through his mind.  Finally, awake again, enough to have some time to deal with before putting himself to bed, in which he ate and watched a Frontline piece in the midst of which Lloyd Blankfein gets into his security Lincoln Navigator (or Cadillac) laughing, laughing at pulling a big coup over on the US Senate, he opened a bottle, found it corked, admitted to himself that it was, and opened the second, and had less than two glasses with his dinner, reheated Bolognese over rice shells.

His main struggle now was to keep as sober as possible, to not give up hopes so as to land him back into it again, to get back into shape.  A clearer mind, not dependent upon anything that wasn't healthy or ultimately nervous.

One can, of course, be so utterly embarrassed with what he's done with his life, that he feels ineffectual about being able to make any positive changes in it, to find a way to carry through steps that would lead somewhere, like going back to school.  At what point does it become too late, anyway?  Live in the now, yes, but... where does that get you, but more of the same.

Days later he lit a stick of sandalwood incense, placed it into the soil of the pot of a Norlolk Monkey Puzzle that sat on the radiator in front of the right window of the living room with its small company of Buddha statues, and thought of his predicament.  Joe, of course, was his friend, an unimaginably nice guy.  And it seemed like all the accumulated fakery associated with the hospitality business had found form lashing out at his coworkers.  "When I do it," he reflected, "it's always against myself, beating myself up, lacerating myself for a past one cannot do a thing about.  'You did this, you didn't do that. Why did you mess up so?'"  Which was all very tiring, and increasingly hard to deal with on a daily basis.

And here was this lifeline, offered by things like the Tao, like the White Lotus Sutra, like Ekhart Tolle, Pema Chodron, such as was rare to find in fiction.  Yes, perhaps he had been his own sort of outreach minister placed behind a bar, but that bar dealt an awful blow to itself by offering, pushing even, an escape from Buddha reality, in that everyone would get a bit tipsy, maybe only slightly, start engaging, meet a beautiful woman, so on.  The great shortcut to life, and look with what it leaves you.  Nothing.  Eventual homelessness.

Or is that being too hard on yourself?

Each day the primary order of business was shaking off that hint of a hangover.  Even just slightly, you felt it inside you, unhappiness, a lingering taste of even the tiniest sip of Martinique Rhum for professional curiosity.  Wine, wine, wine, great source of enabling bullshit, vain promises, idle talk, hot air, egotistical self-fancy, lies on top of lies.  Yes, at a certain point it has to come around.

Oh, that I could quit tomorrow, have the guts to do so, in so doing opening up an inner creativity, but of course risking the great shame of being unable to pay your bills, and then what would you do with all your stuff, and where would you sleep?  And at one point in your life, 'here was this bright lad...'

The sandalwood lofted through his nostrils, his landlord came down his stairs to get the mail, doors clanked loudly back and forth as if his own apartment hallway were an acoustic chamber, the cockers whined about the day's strangeness in dolphin-like tones, the man's neck hurt from lazily reading on the couch the day before, head propped up on a pillow, the yoga headstand from 3 days ago, or both, and he sensed further and further how small his prospects had become now at his age of forty eight, of how he need an entire break from social life, a retreat so that he could meditate and find, like a vision, the right path, the middle path, no longer swayed by jarring influences and the lower elements of humanity  taking little curiosity in spiritual existence, the primary reality of being, or no, wasn't that only money.

Am I here, to serve the Universe, by telling some sort of Buddhist version of the story of the Prodigal Son?

I dressed for the cold, with layers on, and walked up through Kalorama, past the mosque, over the bridge on Massachusetts Avenue, and down a grass slope, down into the woods onto the trail along the creek.  The creek was running, ice along its banks, and I took out my phone and made little movies thinking of a Japanese scene, Kurosawa's Dreams.  We like to go out in nature and find it soothing, because it reveals to us the Buddha Nature of everything.  Nature reassures us that enlightenment is the ultimate truth about the world.

Joe called and left a message while he was in the shower getting ready for his Sunday shift, asking if there was anything he could do, concerned about the news that he would soon be putting his cat down.  "Nicest guy," the man said to himself, as he readied for work.

Fine piece in the New York Review of Books, "Masters of Doing Nothing at All," by Pico Iyer, on a recent translation of a novel by Natsume Soseki, February 7, 2013.
Reminds us of the possibilities of a "Buddhist novel."

Monday, January 21, 2013

I gather a lot of writers have that basic sense of having a lot of explaining to do.  Confessions and mea culpas, admissions of finding oneself lost.  Writing from the belly of the beast, I look back at college days.  "I wasn't serious enough.  I drank too much.  I never formulated a plan, but a highly vague one which one could never possibly carry through with."  There was an early fascination with poetry and literature, probably because at that point you sense you need to improve on your analytical skills if you are going to enter the adult world.

My brother was in his senior year in college.  His buddies proudly drank with gusto and liked to carry on, and that was a role model when I was looking for a way to proceed, an identity I fell into.  Of course.  It was a matter of wanting to fit in, be a cool kid.  And that style probably fit him and his friends a lot better than it did little brother.  I was a studious type, despite it all.  I knew where the library was.  It took me a long time to read things.  I'd pore over texts.  My papers would be late, as I looked for the key to understanding.  Drinking was my way of being lazy, I suppose.  And I know my regrets of passing up on a lot of the opportunities afforded going to an enviably good small liberal arts college.

As the years proceeded, it became increasingly obvious that I had no professional plan.  I had not formulated a way by which I could contribute to society, and I fell into the restaurant business.  My mother cried, and told me it would break my heart, but I wouldn't listen.  "I wanted to be a writer."  As if it by doing so I would redress all the wrongs of the world.  Tandemly, they were horrible choices.  And that was just how I came to town, looking for something to do, I didn't know what, needing to pay the rent and feed myself.  I made a waste out of my education.  I bussed tables, pretended to write, and then they made me a bartender.  That was over twenty years ago.

I would gather that I am a weak person.  I'm too easily talked into things.  The glass of wine talks to tired legs and the beaten relief that finally comes when the last customers leave, though I make the most out of enjoying their company, knowing that I will end up facing misanthropic silence and the History Channel or Anthony Bourdain.  It would be nice to get home and have the energy to read, but this doesn't happen so often.

It's often said, nice guys finish last.  Being a bleeding heart liberal and a fervently imaginative type, I took my bartending duties in the neighborhood where I landed as something having a spiritual nature, a shadowy imitation of, well, you know, Christ amongst sinners, or, being sat at the lowest end of the table, so that one day my host would invite me to come sit at the higher place.  And so, noticed principally by the lonely and the outcastes for his generosity, as foolish young people are tolerant of crazies, I made my bit of cash, paid the rent, and carried on as I could.  I was a good neighbor on days off.

Well, so much water under the bridge, what do you do now, you wonder.  You go to work.  You buy your groceries so you can eat.  You have your green tea, the wine is good for your cholesterol, and maybe it's not the worst thing engaging in a physically active job interacting with a lot of people and a lot of people who know you in some way.  You do yoga, and read things spiritual, and keep wondering what you are going to do with yourself when you grow up.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Stan Musial, a true gentleman of baseball, is dead, at 92.  God bless.
In truth I slept to about three, and still I was tired.  I got stuck with an extra shift, making it five nights of closing, beginning with a Saturday night, leaving to find blood spattered on the sidewalk outside, and that was how I found myself approaching my 48th birthday.  A very busy Sunday night, two jazz nights, one wine tasting night, and finally the week leading up to the day was over.  The day before it, I simply had to get up for a 2 PM dentist appointment.  One more thing to celebrate, and then the holidays are done, the sentiment runs in mid January in the cold.

If you get up around two, and it's Saturday, and you have to go back to work Sunday night to start the week over again, you do what I do, you go grocery shopping.  Whole Foods, P Street.  I need to stock up on food for the week, or I'm toast.  A barman needs a good breakfast, and can't rely on late night food offerings.  The grocery store, off of Logan Circle, is full of chicks.  The sidewalks are full of chicks.  And before that, on my solemn way to fill the larder, it is impossible not to notice beautiful women of every shape and size and age and background, everywhere.  Bars spilling over almost.  And I will go to the grocery store and walk back laden down with two full bags headed home to stock up.  I will get home and probably be tired enough from the long walk to eat quickly and collapse on the couch (as ends up happening.)

In such a situation, in such a job, I'll tell you the truth;  you have that long coming down period when you get home, and of course, you need some basic body and nerve comfort.  The busier the night, the longer the week, the more wound up you will be, getting out of work to an empty night, decent people gone home, the longer it will take.  There's no one around, so what do you do, but open a bottle of red wine, play some music, probably end up jerking off over something really dirty like Russian moms doing nasty things that are somehow human and quite compelling to someone who wants to relax.  Or better, get it out of your system, if you're not too wiped out by picking up the guitar.

Your whole circadian rhythm is going to be turned on its head once you start on night shifts.  It turns the world on its end.  Eventually, you won't end up going to sleep until it becomes not only blue and rosy fingered dawn but brighter than that, and that's probably not good for you.  Lance Armstrong used doping (fitting into his own strange fringe culture of restaurant people, cyclists, musicians, and other poetically minded dopers who, like actors try to bring the masses beauty of Shakespeare--for how would the masses ever take poetry seriously unless it was given a background with moving human parts), and I use red wine, Irish music, guitars, household chores, and far too often the visualization of the desires one has when encountering the opposite sex, young, old, dirty, pure, and in between.

Jesus Christ, it's almost 5:30, and the consequence of exhaustion and too much of a schedule you can't control is being wide awake when you don't want to be.  Dostoevsky, poor bastard had the same problem.

So, why the fascination?  Why do I begin to feel relaxed when I indulge in watching The Pogues on YouTube, or middle aged naked women from other cultures engaged in sexual acts?  Is that the problem of the artist, that he senses his own irresponsibility, and so likes women beyond child bearing age, so that he can go on with his life as it is?  It's a matter of his own shyness, and he knows it, that he can't approach a young woman with a sense of confidence, when he hasn't had first a glass of wine along with a sense that the work for the day is done?  And what to an artist is the sense that the day is done?  That depends on what hour it is, or whether or not he has recorded his dreams?

I don't want to intellectualize it, or treat it from the safe glass protective barrier of literary/cultural critic, by, like, saying Larry David has been very helpful in opening up the life of people candidly.  I would rather just admit all mine own.  Because if you can tell the real truth, then you're really writing, and when you are really telling the truth about yourself, then it's real, and the real in people will respond.  Because there is a heap of fake before you get to anything real.

And so you feel the need to admit and acknowledge the truth, of how you were too shy or hampered or distracted to engage with all the attractive young women and not so young women you saw at the grocery store.

Bartenders are great with people.  At the end of the day, we go home to nothing.  Nothing but our own imaginations, and imaginations make for some fairly decent people, though that isn't necessarily going to get you much in the way of a retirement plan.

Kurt Vonnegut was fairly groundbreaking when he introduced to literature that bit about going home from school and making model airplanes and jerking off.  He also was early introduced to us the real horror of the fire bombing of Dresden, of civilian casualties, of surviving only by being kept in a meat locker, then coming out to all the crisped bodies and shadows of bodies, that is Slaughterhouse Five.  He was able to tell a real human story, about the real history of humanity after all the generals, dictators, ambitious crazies, etc., have had their way.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

In Hemingway's Boat, Paul Hendrickson brings forth what is quite possibly the last letter Hemingway ever wrote.  He's writing to the son of the family doctor in Ketchum, suffering from a congenital heart defect.  Hemingway is writing from the hospital, the Mayo Clinic.  He is perhaps embellishing the reality of his visit when he closes with a few elegant simple lines about nature, the weather, the water, the wildlife, in classic Hemingway style.  As if to comfort the boy, as if to comfort himself.  Hendrickson's refrain throughout the book, to the effect, 'amidst all the damage, still the beauty,' is applied here as well.

Obviously, nature was important to Hemingway.  A solace, a comfort, often under the excuse of fishing or hunting.  Hemingway, as we all do, dealt with the hustle and bustle of city life.  He dealt with the complications of society, obviously, or there wouldn't be anything to his writings.  He dealt with the great difficulty of communication, to the difficulty of expressing to another being, candidly and honestly what's on your mind, what you'd like to do with your life (often he'd just go and do it, one has the impression, rather than talking it over) and that sort of thing.  The saying, honestly, "no," or, "yes," without complication.

He always kept a way to get back to nature, to get away from the horror of modernity--of walking alongside a busy road with heavy jockeying traffic moving at its unfeeling pace intent on getting somewhere--to get away from the trying obligations and soul lacerating commitments of participation in modern city life as we know it.  (He also took refuge in old European towns.  There is not much 'modern city,' New Yorks and Chicagos, in his work, beside the juvenile gangster story, beside the observation, later in his career, that modern bullfighters don't like being dragged through modern traffic and find it deeply disconcerting.)  It's a theme of his whole life, and it comes as no surprise that human life within the city and modernity can be brutal, as it is brutal, fascist, impersonal and mechanized in his tale of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, as much as it can offer a gentle enough life for humanity.  The return to nature, that moment of direct experience of finding a river before him, offers, if I might write like a complete juvenile for a moment, honesty, salvation, a balm for the great depressive kept privately within.  More than a simple recharge, and relaxation, and 'ahhhh,' the experience of nature uncorrupted by noise and lights and the traffic and the concrete is the thing keeping him alive.

And so he writes a final letter, evoking a nature blocked off from him in the confinement of his hospital room, perhaps completely making up what he wanted to hear, see and experience directly with his senses as one does when outdoors, extending that moment out to another being who could then experience it himself.

Art, of the written kind, to further consider, was basically the only thing Hemingway had ever done, or done well.  Of course, he worked hard at it.  It brought him certain benefits, and even a living, this life of work of his.  Direction, drive, motivation, the sense of accomplishment.  If he ran out of the ability to find truth to relate, what else would such a man of pride do with himself?

I wonder about that enigmatic line of his in A Moveable Feast, the one where he observes himself listening to the praise of the rich and their 'pilot fish.'  In effect saying, "Jesus, if those bastards praised what I was doing, saying it was great, I should have known there was something I was doing wrong."  It's a self-criticism that comes along in a book full of simple reflections, in which the simple description of the artist working comes across with enough tension to carry our interest.  Granted, it has that memoir aspect to it, setting our expectations just so.  But the simple texture of the writing life as he is trying to survive, in that time when he was creating himself as a writer and how he would go about doing that seem somehow to be the finest stuff he wrote, as if he had come home as a modernist, as a Homeric, writing the story that is both without plot and with the great tone of the epic, as he had already done in passages of description that echo, say, Joyce.  Here he is, in touch with a deeper form of consciousness.

And it also seems to raise the question, what are we in general doing wrong as we kowtow to the attractive cultured wealthy tastemaker, to the promises that make us dance as if fine and pleasurable things were being offered to us?  What if, like Ernest Hemingway, you simply wrote as a moral human being, without being seduced, and just tell the story of what you go through, what you think, your observations, about that desire to write primarily for the sake of one's own mental health and higher satisfaction, all that comes with the territory of being a higher being full of deeper thought and questions, (as writers always have.)   Did I let myself get seduced?  Did I sell myself short of my goal?  Well, you probably end up asking yourself those questions anyway as you wander forward in life.  But it is, I hope, something organic that makes art, that the art that is natural for us to make, perhaps simple and unadorned and mysterious, as folk art often can be, makes art what it is, therefore being the ultimate driver of taste.  Simple, old school human art, not in any need of being told whether or not it is or isn't good enough by itself... why not?

Just go about your life, and just keep writing about it and any thoughts you have.  Don't feel that boutiquey urge to make it sellable or popular by placing it under the arc of tension.  It will already have tension, the tension of truth in the world and of survival itself.  I was a bartender for 20 years.  I'm still doing it.  That should be enough.  Though the rich and their pilot fish and taste makers will want to assert their own egotistical importance upon the matter and say, 'oh, but it's not good enough, and you should be like Andy Warhol or whatever.'  That's just human nature, to fall, or almost fall, for the dangled carrot reward system, to be seduced.  And when you get seduced, you are no longer the light but another corrupting element by joining in to the false hierarchy, to the treason against the human heart.

Truth is, Ernest, that it is not easy being a sensitive guy.  It's not easy to make the time for it, unless you give up the time you could spend surviving and competing, for something that is mysterious and higher, higher than material goods.  You have to acknowledge the need for spirituality, for making spiritual meaning out of everyday life.  And Ernest, your work quietly accomplishes a good amount of that, even as you seem caught in a kind of a competitive mode, highlighting conflict even as you grasp deeper truths.  But in a way, you are right, because it is a bit of a struggle, to get up every day, like that old fisherman, and you did that story well and beautifully and lastingly.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

"How's your book?"
"Uh.  I don't think Sergei liked it.  He didn't mention it last time he played here."
"No, your new book."
"Oh, yeah, huh.  I guess I haven't started it writing it.  I don't know what to write about.  We have too many hangups here in the U.S.  I'm stultified."
"Confessions of a Bartender."
"Well, that's a thought."

Confessions of a Bartender.  Actually, not a bad idea.  Bring forth all the strangeness of it, the life you lead.

I'm sitting in the chair at the dentist's, for my routine cleaning.  The nice young lady has scraped, and polished, and scraped some more, and then the dentist, a bright eyed fellow younger than me, comes in.  "How are things?  How's your guitar?  How's your writing?  I guess you didn't bike here today." (He is an accomplished musician and a cyclist, now a busy family man.)
"Well, I guess if Lance is confessing, I should, too.  So that's my next book.  'Confessions of a Bartender.'"  The three of us share a chuckle.
"That would be interesting."  (In contrast to my last effort.)
"Really, nothing happens.  I live the life of a monk," I say, shrugging, lifting my hands up.  It's true.  And anyway, religious orders have long been drinking wine, so that part fits too.

Relieved, my gag reflex having been carefully bypassed, I exit the dentist's office.  Later I end up taking a walk on the university campus not far away.  I walk across the main quadrangle of American University.  There's a hint of snow coming.  Young people, dressed as students, brightly walking back and forth between classes.  I pause before the Center for Spiritual Life, a round building at the far end of the quad, observing the light through stained glass windows in the inner darkness, a chapel.  A banner hanging on the outer door lists the congregations of different faiths present here.  But there is anyway something inherently spiritual to the life of a campus;  consciously or not, something spiritual is happening, though this is no longer regarded as the main reality, but swept off to the edges.

I walk on, downhill, away from the traffic circle, the new art center on the other side of the avenue, not far to the low brick campus of Wesley Theological Seminary.  Christ raises his left hand out in front.  I walk around, finding myself looking in through the big glass windows at the neat lit library at one end of a small square quadrangle.  I stand in front of a drained fountain and read the plaque at the base of the bell tower.

Later, as I walk back, heading home, past the Kay Spiritual Life Center, I am brave enough to enter for a peek inside.  I take a brochure "35 Years of Worship and Service," enter the chapel for a moment to breath its silence.  As I come out I find a small litter of tea light votive candles left on the steps, most with wax still in their little rings below the blackened wicks.  "The recent tragedy," one says to himself, the school shooting, a stain on modern life that can now never be wiped away, haunting each of us as we go about our days interacting, wondering if the person around the corner might be the nut.  Looking at the roof lines of a campus, I ponder the assassination of President Kennedy (my father's memory of the bell tower at UC Berkeley ringing comes in to the mind) in terms of Hindu Buddhist thought of there being an almost infinite number of other worlds comprising creation.  If you added all worlds, all the individuals, you might gather that though it's not a matter of such a thing as horrible of that ever happening again, the odds are that indeed such a thing would happen once in our world within its long history.  Is it Brahma observing to Vishnu, that the ants marching in ordered unison up the steps of a great palace were all themselves, each and everyone, once a powerful monarch building a great castle in honor of themselves?  It's all in the scale of things.

And so I imagine my own what-I've-done-with-my-life, as people do in dentist's offices, or on the eves of their birthdays, in some terms, ones that put me once in that great spiritual world of campus life, learning, dreaming, and then later outside of it.  Certainly I carry that life of learning within, but it feels quite evident that now as I walk across a campus I am no longer a part of that, and I am unhappy to see myself having fallen out of it.  My own sins, drinking too much, laziness, self-absorption, narcissism, bring a measure of shame, even if I was completely well-intentioned as an English major, actually trying to be very serious about it.  Being exiled from that spiritual world, not finding a way back, one easily gets lost, maybe very lost.  And so I am a bartender.  Lost in the wilds, able to remember the temple.

The spirituality of a campus--yes.  That's what it's all about.  And it makes you see, and makes you see the broader truth of it all.  Life is all about spirituality.  What else are we here for?  How else could we even exist?  We cannot acknowledge another person as being real and alive without acknowledging our spirituality.  But yet, what do we do with that spirituality?  We ourselves are not perfect.  Do we join a socially accepted congregation that holds on to its own seemingly distinct way of being?  Does or would that close us off, having so joined, from another perhaps broader spiritual practice or recognition?  If I spend my time amongst Methodists, do I not have less time to spend practicing Tantric Yoga?  Does one way look sort of foolish from the perspective of the other?

Fittingly, it seems, it costs money to go back to school.  Debt.  Then again, it costs you not to go back to school, big time.

Years are frittered away thinking of these things.  You show up to work, do your job, go home at the end of the day, eat something.   All the years bar tending, it's not like I was totally practicing evil, but I am not proud of them.  And so I confess.  There were lots of sins around the edges, lots of not standing up for anything, but rather swept along by different personalities, when all the while, school is a far better influence.  You just hope, hold on to the hope, that there is at the bottom of it all something not unspiritual about it, as if performed with something in the mind along the lines of Christ's admonition to us to not seat ourselves by the head of the table, but at the lowest.

Picking up the brochure, I remember a familiar suspicion.  Is a university chaplain, a person of some denomination, inherently more spiritual, more spiritually informed, more qualified by spiritual acts than the rest of us?  Professional, of course, spent the time studying, practicing, has done the reading, and I am sure, quite helpful.  Yes, committed.  And yes, a lot of experience in dealing with certain issues.  Whereas I, the barman, whose shoulder has perhaps been subtly cried upon in silence often enough, am left standing outside, not sure what to believe in when it all is made particular, having not been raised as a church goer (but by no means ignorant of spiritual lesson.)  Can you be both Buddhist and Christian at the same time?  You could respect the Catholic faith but balk at becoming a priest for obvious reasons.

Being a writer can be spiritual, even finely so.  But it falls outside the usual organizations. Less foot traffic, less support, less organization, less respect.  You'll quite possibly end up bar tending.

I know:  I am in need of an editor.  I write too often without thinking.  I know it to be therapeutic.  It helps the thoughts.  The big banks have screwed us all, all who aren't part of their game of setting prices then making it look like the market arrived there through trading, the big banks who love huge government debts so as to make huge profits over tiny marginal changes.  They haven't left much for the rest of us, and we all know that big corporate oligarchy is so intent on fascist changes to our governing system as they and the big banks seem to enable each other into the same sort of power.  And the only way out against this trap of greed is a real hard long look at spiritual reality, and not only that but an acknowledgment of that which is spiritually good in life, spiritually good outside of all moralizing and entrenched belief systems.  We are good at this.  We can do this.  On the eve of Doctor King's Day, we can.  We can strive on for what he saw as a way forward, a moral way, quite apart from the world of corporate profit.  Spirituality.  The recognition of our 'brotherhood.'

When you are a barman, you go home.  You stay up too late.  You open a bottle of wine at 2 AM, and it relaxes you.  It lets you watch PBS specials about the lives of salmon with great appreciation, and you don't feel particularly lonely.  ("The unique smell of their birth place is imprinted in their brains," Jeremy Irons tells us.  That's pretty cool, after these fish have travelled thousands of miles.  The camera work by Bertrand Loyer--very cool.  "The Surprise Salmon" episode of Life on Fire.) Yes, you have your foibles, your puerile interest in Anthony Bourdain visiting Paris and Philadelphia, your love of Irish music on YouTube, Russian literature, some of it dirty, in order to relax the corpus after the blitzkriegs of the restaurant's dull week.  You like to play guitar at 5 AM.  You think of doing laundry, without doing it.

And it all leaves you with an ability to open a book at random, like a Dostoevsky, or The Gospel of Luke, and find a brilliant passage that suits the mind like a cross-pollenation.  From House of the Dead, an explanation of how the noblemen were treated in a Siberian labor prison.  Something that just fits into your head, because it's free.

You can't live in the past.  As my wise friend Ron, who works for an importer of wine we all rely on, told me just days ago, 'today is the first day of the rest of your life.'  Cheers, and thank you for the quite excellent Chamisal Vineyards Edna Vallen 2010 Pinot Noir, a Christmas gift my boss has suggested his company provide the salesman of the Frenchy Bistrot of Upper Georgetown.  (I've pushed my share of Kermit Lynch wines, curatively, on our customership.)  Ahh, Pinot Noir indeed is quite distinctive.  No one ever blends it.

As a parting word, Ron kids me about finding a kind older woman like the nice lady who is a good conversationalist.  That, or teach prep school.  (At a boys school, not a girls school--too vicious--in his opinion.)  I guess it's a running joke between us, what someone like me should now do with his life as a second act.  He knows my love of Shakespeare, as earlier I've tried to mumble a few lines, shyly, to this actor, who will always be an actor.  "No judgment," he says to me with his spot on smile.  And I say, yes, we don't judge here.  Rattled a bit, by several different things going on, I fail to deliver on my recent viewing of a film portraying Frost and Nixon.  "No, Ron," in Nixon gravelly sentimental basso profundo, "we don't judge here.  And we don't mention Watergate, either."

Later on, I will convert this all into iambic pentameter in my head.  That helps you control the language, find the right word, the right sound.  I wouldn't mind it if all the people on CNN delivering opinions about Lance Armstrong would stop, take a moment, and put it into iambic pentameter before the words gushed out of their breathless intent mouths.  Some people are able to use words, words with thought.  And actually, I have the distinct impression that Lance Armstrong is one of them.  To me, he came across as a thinking person, intelligent, and that's not nothing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

All stories are ones of becoming.  This is the intersection of news and art.  One struggles to become something, endeavors to work out the ideal in the forms one can do out of the deeper ideals of the mind.

And so it is satisfying to find a piece wherein one becomes.  Something fresh.  Maybe a short story.  Enough different to be new.  And to be new, that short story, definitely, had to show something about its creator.  It reveals the deeper personality of its creator.

It's as if the whole exercise were a revelation of the deepest kind of personality there is, while still remaining individual personality (at which point it becomes debatable, as to self and non self, soul, higher beings from inner or outer space, etc.)  Go on YouTube and find "Jimi Hendrix, the Uncut Story," and, you know, I would bet part of you will leave satisfied (and if not satisfied, irritated with yourself for your own egotistical reasons, maybe a mix of both.)

And we know, from history, from our educations, that 'people happen,' that 'art happens,' that things are created and are taken as they are, fresh and new, an addition, a contribution.
To us as we study them, they are acts, mysterious, fait accompli.  To listen to Jimi Hendrix' first album, Are You Experienced, is to listen to something complete, full, showing mastery;  it stands as a monument.  We view it from outside, and it is satisfying to know, for example, that "Purple Haze" emerged out of a very long text of deep Hendrix thought, that "The Wind Cries Mary" broom involves a real broom picking up after a particular domestic incident involving a girlfriend, taking place in London.  It's left Hendrix himself to feel the incompleteness of it as far as serving everything he wanted to say at the time.  And in a certain sense, the songs of this, his first album came from the days of his musical touring, his earlier career on the road.

The thing is, something fresh comes out, arises.  It overlaps with the old, it takes part in tradition, but, like each of us, there is individual freshness, uniqueness, that stamp of individuality, the finding of something, in addition to all that, perhaps suddenly limitless, boundless, encompassing.  (And from thence forth there will always be a fresh audience for it, as there are new people born into this world.)  The nature of genius, then, is to reveal how people think.  (This could even be of fairly common material.)

And so we struggle to observe this transformations, ones that happen from long nights, rumination, steady effort, years, honed with skill (perhaps the most envious part.)  Hendrix, or Ella Fitzgerald:  one willing to be poor, almost destitute, in order to follow what it is one must do.

We all know the difficulty of life, of work.  Just like you, I would say, myself, the job I do, is a hard one, much harder than it looks, demanding things a job should almost not demand, weird hours, diminishment of life's hopes, habits diametrically opposed to normal anthro-existence.

I am feeling that difficulty.  And I do not know where what I do leads, but that it is somewhere, I just don't know where.  Have we come to a point where to be in a community--imagine--with other people is itself an art form?  Is it possible to see the person who serves you, who engages with you, as much of an artist as a Jimi?  No, probably not.  There can be art to that, sure, an art to it, a continual reference to art, but that will never be art.

We know our minds lead us somewhere, it's just a question of where, and then, yes, practically, what will happen to us then.

Tending bar was always a much harder job than what it might have seemed it should have been.  For one, it involves hours of absorption, hours of chewing on it all and simply coming down from the rush. And despite all its 'storied-ness' somehow I am left without any real stories, but those that I have listened to, people talking about their very real lives, where I go on, having no real life.

Monday, January 14, 2013

There was a piece not long ago about food allergies in the context of bullying.  Said article was a bit vague on the actual cause of the bullying.  One imagines it happens as the main population of kids observes the does and don'ts of the allergic kid.  "What, no glutens?  What are you, a freak?  Don't want cheese, can't eat pizza, what's up with that?"

But we are not all cut from the same cookie cutter.  We are complex and different.  And certain people can eat certain things, and other people just shouldn't.  Take wheat, for example.  I fall in with the belief that blood type is, at least, a factor.  A type O cannot be the omnivore able to handle domesticated grains that a type B is.

And one wonders, do let's say blood types give us what might be construed as a particular kind of general attitude, a way of filtering (eating) reality?  Observations emerge.  Maybe kids, people in general, note the distinction of behavior between the food allergy group and the main which goes beyond eating habit.

Are Os built better for long sustained efforts like hunting, generally agreeable, non judgmental to cooperation?  Are Bs (blood type of Mongol hordes) shrewder, better at market interactions than their more gullible and accepting brethren, built better for the speed and constant doings of a modern world full of decisions over tiny matters?
Philip Roth's The Human Stain, with Anthony Hopkins, brought to you by... dishwashing detergent.  (A great look at college politics, and, so far a very good movie.)  Cool.  After watching Frost Nixon.  A weirdly good late night on TV.  Have other networks come to support a bleeding PBS?

Well, at my age, living alone, I could eat my home made delicious Bolognese Ragu with rice penne straight out of the pan, a beautiful sensitive sauce, and who's to care?  Back, as close as one can get to the early human eating habit, meat, sauce, a little wild grain unaltered by domestication and agriculture.  Only thing is, I'm running out of Lascaux, a beautiful red from the Languedoc imported by Kermit Lynch, down to the last glass and a half--uh oh.  I end up eating out of an earthenware bowl, which anyway makes sense--pan too hot.

I get the feeling sometimes
that I, or my soul,
is a tiny half step behind me, just following,
as if to watch a child,
'what's he going to do?'
We both know what I have to go and do.
I go and deal with it.
And the part of myself, the higher part,
which could have done so many things,
being perfect, as all souls,
good, generous, sensitive and logical, even,
has to go and follow me, with what I've done,
with this life.  The stuff you got to do,
in this case, tending bar, whatever that is.
Not quite perfect, if that's what the self
that was led by the soul
ended up doing in this, the real world.
(It's actually fun, if you let yourself do it.
People come to you for suggestions
about wine.  That can't be
all bad.)
But that self that follows,
so closely, all the time,
telling you things about yourself,
quite aside from your own getting
accustomed to things,
asks.  Do you...
are you happy?
Why not play music of your own
more often?  Why not teach?  You could do that.
Except,  I know,
a pain in the ass.
And Shakespeare's language
goes farther away from us, each day,
as we go about our business.

I'm led to think sometimes,
there is repetition, duplication,
as far as great thought and impulses go.
There's a little bit of the great
in each of us, a shadow, a reverb echo
sort of thing.
And we are wonderful about repeating,
about bringing to life
that original thing we might have read about.
And that is the main thing.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Okay.  "Spiritual being."  That's what an intimate might say about someone like Jimi Hendrix, perhaps, in a documentary that covers his death (in mysterious circumstances.)  It refers to people who have a broader imagination or some sort of calling.  It doesn't have to be artistic.  Lincoln could well be such, but he was quite grounded in the legalities of getting things done in a very real and practical realm.

Leave it to the individual to choose whether or not to attempt such a thing, be a Keats, whatever.  But what you may quickly run into is the growing status that you are a creep.   Yes, that is the payment for doing a good deed, the punishment.  You are a creep.  In an isolated spot.  People don't get what you are really up to.  The economy doesn't get what you are really up to, maybe because you don't have much to do with it, converting your spiritual values and insights into economic units sold on a trading floor.  You might be lucky to end up like Platonov, as a janitor.  And perhaps it doesn't help if you are a weak person, susceptible to enjoying too much wine while you go about the business of maintaining things, dishes, cooking, laundry and the like, at the odd hours when restaurant people do such things, like that Big Friday Night grocery shopping.  Yeah, take that weirdness to figure out how to approach Match.Com.   Uhmm...   Errr....  I...  Oh, forget it.

Service industry.  Could be a lot worse.  That's probably what spirituality is anyway--service industry.  Do it in hospitals.  Share your observations at the end of the day with a friend.

But yes, back to being a creep.  Maybe you start believing it yourself.  But probably around the same time that you also stop giving a crap what people think in general, not that that would be a particularly dramatic or noteworthy thing.  Well, you never really stop caring.  Whatever you observe goes in to your deeper understanding of the human ego, part of your own caring about people.  Which is probably creepy, and to be kept to one's self, thank you very much.

A lot of people pack up what they do, it seems, and make it sellable, like being a style consultant, a PR agent.  Or they pick up a duty known to the world, like 4th grade teacher, or train conductor.  Things have to be taken from whatever nature they crop up from and sold as units.  Pop music, for example.  Knowing what sells, well, yes, an excellent sensitivity to have.

But is that the way the gifted, the way the genius, the way the one who is comfortable doing whatever it is that they do, goes about it?   As MacGowan says, music is just music, it's everywhere... people just put it in boxes...  To the great hearer, to the open eye, yes, indeed, 'music' is everywhere, evident in its strains.   And if you are 'a writer,' well, maybe it just seems silly to take that which is everywhere and all around us and flowing through us, and write it all down as a particular thing with a particular plot or like a television show.  That's just how you would look at it.  Each day is worth writing about.  Each thought is worth writing down.  Like Joyce.  Or Hamlet.  Tell one of them to sit down and write about a particular topic or a story with a direct plot-line.

You bloody tame all of nature with a few good lines, and some snotty critic comes along and says you let it all fall into a mire of plotless repetition and needless characters and cliché.  And then because you've been 'defined' by another mind outside of your own, you start to feel like a creep again.

Eh.  That's just how it goes.  Loneliness won't change you too much as a person, and might even make you just a bit kinder.

Perhaps you go through the turmoil of making art, which entails surprising yourself occasionally, as a way of finding out about ego.  You find that the ego is an entity separate and distinct from your own essential being, and that it even need not be taken seriously.  Something may have seemed important at a certain time, thus a basic plot line of trying to achieve where that something may lead, but ultimately that seemingly important thing is washed away, a grain of sand.  To make art helped you realize that, and maybe you knew something of it all along, art reflecting the fact that ego takes form.  So the greatest art has, at times, a detachment.

Eventually, you learn, I suppose, to not hurt yourself with going through the twitches of egotism that art entails, making somethings more important than they need to be, but rather, standing back.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

He was probably a sensitive enough chap to feel that he had made a mess of his life, in certain moods and certain times.  His most famous ghost mutters this great line, to set up the drama of one of his crucial plays.   "I could a tale unfold.."

It's literature, art, a line, and it can be read in many ways, open to interpretation, and so it depends on the reader and what the reader may be feeling or going through, the kind of response to such a line.  Maybe certain interpretations are more fitting than others.

Would Shakespeare have been perfectly happy with his accomplishments, not without self-questions?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Is he here exercising, or exorcising, an item, an element of his own psychology?  I can tell a story, this story, because I feel something related to that feeling this ghost is now possessing and inhabiting, the angst below the surface and its niceties, an angst that possesses the sense of being wronged (or in this case poisoned) that follows, as well as one's own original mistakes in life.

So many great phrases emerge from the passage, 'burnt and urged away,' one of them.  The sense emerges of private pain and endurance.

And perhaps here too is the element of personally finding no point in putting all those crimes and errors into words.  One's own mistakes are too huge, too many, too mythical, too entrenched, that no one else could even begin to lift their burden.  They might require 'an external blazon' rightfully, but such a bellowing out would not be appropriate somehow, perhaps by social norm, perhaps as 'ears of flesh and blood' just aren't spiritually minded enough to really grasp the underlying human reality, as human reality is misperceived when the spiritual element of life is excluded (or maybe not), shout as you might, unable to bring a deep lasting forgiveness.

And here is Shakespeare, just at that moment when he is about to say, 'oh, but enough of that;  let's get on to the story here of the uncle killing his brother the king;  forget about all that in the meantime, the show must go on.'  Luckily, though, he had created the marvelous instrument of Hamlet, the son, the perfect vehicle of a person really being open, really able to tell you just how he feels and why.  Not be coincidence is this a prelude to that character so open and forthright about his feelings, replete with the knowledge of messing things up even as he is doing so.

One can hope that the audience of the day found it cathartic as found it worthy of holding the undivided attention.  They might have left into the night air with some sense of having opened up all that is kept closed and back in the various Stratfords of life and haunting us presently.

"I am thy father's spirit;
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand an end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. - List, list, O, list!"
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.5

And then this part:  "The play's the thing/  Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."  We must now look upon any executive impulse of empire, such as torture, as is now a popular issue once again on Charlie Rose and current film and current issue, as being something alien, something outside the normal bounds of behavior.  Basically, we can attribute to people the basic impulse to be moral.  Sometimes they don't always act so.  The great counter-reaction to one action is to broadly assume the inability of the rest to act more or less normally.  A work of art asserts the moral normalcy of humanity, the golden rule, that rule descending to eye for an eye if respect gets lost somewhere along the way.  This too is a revolutionary thing that Hamlet is saying.

Friday, January 4, 2013

One of the last living examples of a form of art untouched by years and fashion, real, true.

The Pogues, live at the Olympia, celebrating 30 years.

Lullaby of London,  Rainy Night in Soho, Streams of Whiskey, Dirty Old Town, Greenland Whale Fisheries...

Beautiful, and true, even done by sort of old men, kings on top of their game.