Saturday, November 18, 2017

An Arab Home

I remember visiting an Arab family in Bethlehem. I apologize for not having any concrete memories. Just some feelings, which are all that remain after the facts have all evaporated. Just feelings remain.

I remember a little house. Arabs liked houses, however small or close together. Jews liked apartments. I visited both and was always made welcome.

I went up a staircase to a living room. I remember children. Children playing, smiling, laughing. Our hosts friendly, welcoming, familiar. Warm. Home.

I don't remember any other details. What we ate or what we did. What we talked about or how we agreed or disagreed. What games we played or how we shared our shared humanity. Who we were or what our grievences were. What were our feelings for the greater world. I just remember feeling welcome. Open. Equal. Home.

Four decades later I still regard them as friends.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Chronicles of a Baby Boomer - Mandala

I worked at the University of Connecticut for most of my career. It's a beautiful campus in a quiet corner of eastern Connecticut. I liked it. I worked in the computer center in the basement of the math science building. It seemed fair. We were the geekiest of the geeks in the basest of the basements.
A quiet place in a quiet building in a quiet campus.
I availed myself of the many, many amenities of the place. An art museum. Summer cook outs. Library. Book store. Natural history museum. Ice cream parlour. Theater. Fitness center where I would go for step aerobics, yoga, and weight lifting with my best bud, Joanne. I learned figure skating from a Canadian Olympic star. And I received a master’s degree in anthropology. What's not to like? Culture, junk food, exercise, and knowledge all in one career.
Some of us would take walks around campus, rain or shine, summer or winter, every lunch hour. We'd talk philosophy, of course. Or about our kids.
It was grand.
I remember.
One summer. There was a program at the art gallery. A group of Buddhist monks were going to create a sand mandala right there in the rotunda of the art gallery. It would be open to the public. Free, of course, as was the art gallery itself.
We could come and watch as the saffron robed monks meticulously drizzled colored sand on a table in an elaborate design of worship.
I went over several times on my lunch hour to watch.
I watched three or four smiling Dalai Lama look alikes carefully weighing out sand into little metal tubes which were tapered at the ends into little blunt spouts. They were kinda like long, skinny funnels.
They held the spouts over the designs of the mandala and gently tapped them. A small, steady trail of sand grains traced a pattern on the emerging sand prayer.
Tap, tap, tap. A decoration. Tap, tap. A highlight. Tap. A small detail in a common design. Day in. Day out. They tapped out their pretty picture. Their pretty prayer.
I watched over several days as the image emerged. A Buddha sitting in a temple surrounded by walls and windows, gods and demons, lotuses and starbursts.
I took pictures. I watched. I wondered.
Day by day the icon emerged. Larger and larger. Clearer and clearer. What I saw was a flat image existing on a table. But what I imagined was a three dimensional object living in the air, a mandala come alive.
What if the sand on the table were to rise up? What if it were to go from flat table to vibrant air and become a living temple floating there in 3D? A thin wisp of sand tracing the god Buddha sitting on his lotus blossom amidst his temple? Surrounded by walls of adamant, trees, vines, and symbols of worship? All in a kind of hologram? Cast in stone, yet stone that lives? Lives and breathes and floats within the world of worship it contains and which contains it?
And further and beyond. Worshipers abound. Bowing. Standing. Living. Loving. All around the whirl of worship in the temple of the air.
The god within raises his hand and winks with his third eye. And it all collapses back onto the table with the humble monks in saffron robes tapping out their simple prayers of colored sand. Tap, tap, tap. Another prayer. Another worship. Another sign of adulation.
Then the sand swirls again and comes together into domes with pointed peaks. And fluted pillars supporting the domes above palisades and pavilions, carpeted chambers looking out through shuttered windows breathing in the Himalayan air. And arches supporting roofs over fountains and gardens bursting with pools of lotus and fields of crocus. Steps waft down infinite stairs to living water. The faithful walk up and down, up and down, bringing prayers and drinking in salvation.
A sand castle that is alive.
And the god within raises his fist to his temple. And brings it down before him, turning it as he does. He opens his palm. And the world ends.
There, another lotus appears. And grows. And opens. And in its pedals sits another.
She opens her third eye and the world is reborn.
At the end of the week the monks dragged a spoon through the mandala and swept all of the sand into a clay colored pile in the middle of the table.
The prayer is over. Time for the amen.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Bevy of Bigots

In Scotland recently I came across a lot of local people in pubs and what not, and got beyond their defenses, a bit. I learned from Edinburgh-ites (there’s no official name, though Laudonians, Lothians, and Edinburghers sound pretty cool,) that Glasgow is a dirty city. 

Mainland Scots thought people in the Hebrides were, you know, a little backwards. Pub dwellers in Islay, one of said Hebrides, thought that Glaswegains, etc, were out of touch. “Those folks in the city, you know,” they said, knowingly. 

When I told a girl in a restaurant about my wallet being stolen in Dublin, she said, “That’s the Irish for you. And I’m Irish!” Everybody has their group that it’s OK to hate. Or at least put down. 

What’s yours?

Friday, November 3, 2017

A Pause for a Cause

My ship of reason foundered on a rock of ridicule recently. I went on a back woods web site the other day. Devoted to current events, politics, jurisprudence, and many other prudences. Found the Bog, er, Blog, and the comment section. I posed a thought experiment, implicated by references to vetted authorities, adjudicated by appeals to logic, and supplicated by requests for respectful dialogue.

"What do people think of this?" I quandaried. “Is this valid? Can we learn from it? Indeed, does this demand our honest and self-reflecting attention?”
Call me old fashioned. Call me reasonable. Call me an idiot, better still. I was set upon by the Harpies of the Hinternet. The Muses of Specious Reasoning.

Responses to my conundrum included; That's propaganda; One, minor detail is wrong so, therefore, everything you say and believe throughout your entire life, and all carnations, in, out, up, and down, must be wrong, also; You're a bad person and so are you (a remarkably common conclusion;) That's a Conspiracy Theory, and; Here's my totally unsupported and unqualified take on the subject which is totally supported by my tribe and must be self-evidently true, as well, so there.

Whatever happened to: Let's discuss something important-too important to let our eyes be blinded be fallacy, fiction, or fraternal prejudices? Let’s respect each other’s perspective and consider each other’s view point? I disagree with what you say but I will fight to the death your right to say it?

Gone. Or maybe they never existed. The Inklings. The gymnasium steps of philosophy. Brilliant pockets of knowledge held precariously together in Baghdad, Toledo, Paris, and Edinburgh through the Dark Ages. Maybe those are all myths, too. Intellectual pleasantries we made up later to tell ourselves how great we are. And the gods of our own creation come back to mock us. Maybe it was always just one of those meaningless, 'Conspiracy Fallacies' people are always yammering on about.

What is Philosophy? Is it not the vanity of Man in a cloak of the gods? Better still. What are the gods? Must we admit, in horror, that there are no gods? The gods are we and there is no holy Them we can blame for our own dilemmas? Perish the thought! There’s always a scapegoat. Why, the scapegoat might very well be the oldest god.

Can we answer Pontius Pilate's question? No. Not then, not now.

The Internet is just a visceral engine, barely up to the level of the cockroach. Capable only of the five F's: Fight, flight, friend, food, fuck. And not always just one at a time. Often they work together in chords.

We should be proud.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Chronicles of a Baby Boomer Nervous Energy

I’ve got a silver dollar. Stranding Liberty. 2013. One ounce of fine silver. One dollar (huh!)

It’s a trinket. It’s heavy. More than, say, a clad 50 cent piece or (shudder) a Big Y coin. You could see yourself working all day for one of these. This one is just a memory. A pocket of history.

But not quite so. I keep it around me for a purpose. Other than aesthetics and value, numismatic as well as mineral, of course. It’s a Physical Therapy device! Like that plastic lung machine I had while recovering a few years ago? I used it to make my pulverized lungs push against my broken ribs so they would stretch out and heal instead of collapsing and suffocating me? Or those huge plastic noodles you lie on while convincing your back to stop being such a dick? In the case of my coin it’s for fine muscle control. Fine silver for fine muscles. I like the symmetry.

While binge watching Stranger Things or old Jack Benny skits on YouTube, I will play with my ingot. Er. My coin, that is. I take it in my left hand and just tumble it back and forth between my fingers, rolling it back and forth between my digits or catching it betwixt fingers while appearing to hold my hand open and empty. Coin tricks. I am right handed so my sinister hand is less dexterous than my dominant. Neither one is quite that ‘fine.’

Why do this? Why do any repetitive, empty, meaningless task? I had this conversation once with some friends at work, decades ago. We were on our lunchtime walk around campus and the topic of rote memorization came up. We were talking about education methods or something. I mentioned my mother, who could remember poems she memorized over half a century earlier. Or exercises in third grade where we were shown a story using a projector that only let us see the sentences for a few seconds at a time, and then flashed to the next. We had to concentrate and then answer questions about the story afterwards. Or, God no. Doing long division to calculate square roots! I remember my first slide rule. Heaven!

“What the fuck do we need that shit for today?” one said. “It’s pointless. We’ve got calculators, now computers, which can do arithmetic for us. Encyclopedias full of knowledge we can access any day. And when’s the last time somebody asked you to recite ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus?’”

I had to admit, reciting ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ had not come up recently. However, in one of those incredible ironies of time and space, mind and matter, I had a ready-made analogy right at my feet.

“Well,” I said, slyly. “Here we are walking a couple of miles around campus each day, even in foul weather.” “Ya,” “What’s up with that? Why do we do it?” “Well, for exercise. Sunshine. Air.” “Even when there are none of those? Well, air. But we have that just standing outside, as long as we are up wind of the smokers.” “Who wants to just stand around outside? Except for the smokers.” “Yes. But we could clearly get around campus by Segway or pogo stick or slick haired coolie.” “That last one’s not PC.” “Your point?” “Just sayin,”

“We do this for exercise. A purposeless, meaningless, repetition of muscle and brain tissue operating in an age old dichotomy of mind and matter. And mind made from matter. And matter driven by mind. And back again.”

Why do I practice non-aerial juggling of a nineteenth century monetary relic with my second hand hand? Three reasons.

One. I have a condition that is common to eastern European peoples called Dupuytren's Contracture. My mother had it. Her father had it. Several of my cousins and siblings have it. It causes a buildup of tissue in the fascia under the palms of the hand. In time it develops nodules that solidify and grow, causing a gradual dragging of the fingers inward toward the palms. One of my cousins has a pinky on his right hand that is permanently tucked into his palm.

My mother had operations for hers. Today there are less evasive treatments, like using what looks like a meat tenderizer to punch microscopic holes into the nodules, causing them to relax and let your tendons, muscles, and the bones of your fingers resume their normal operations.

So in comes Standing Liberty.

I noticed something a few years ago. Something interesting. I had the Dupuytren’s on my right hand. Whenever I was just sitting still, not doing anything that required dexterous acuity, I would massage the bumps in my right palm. Oh. I should tell you. One of the folklore names for this condition is Bible Bangers. According to folklore, if someone suffered from this condition, the best thing to do was to break up the nodules, which is exactly what they do today. At one point in the days of home remedy, they would take the sufferers hand and open it up as far as they could. Then take the heaviest book in the house, invariably a bible, and slam it onto the palm to bang, and break up, the nodules.

A little harsh, don’t you think?

I did a similar thing eons ago. Kristin was still living upstairs and I had just come home from the theatre. It was late and it was snowing. I came into the house and heard Kristin in her room upstairs, so I went up to say, Hi. My feet were wet. On my way down stairs, I slipped and fell down the stairs, banging my right hand into the newel post at the bottom of the stairwell. I broke my little finger.

As part of the therapy, I had to keep massaging my little finger. Moving it. Out. In. Out. In. Straight out open as far as possible. In clenched to the pads of my palm. I did that while I was standing, sitting, driving, or doing whatever I may with a few free moments to devote to the rehabilitation of my body. You see, the third bone in was fractured. Not a big deal, but as it healed the finger might make more bone tissue grow around the healing bone which could fuse the tendon that runs alongside the finger to it. That tendon makes the finger move. Even though it was not damaged, it still had an important part to play in the healing of the bone. Even though the finger and bone were healing marvelously, I could still have consequences if I did not make sure those bones and tendons knew what they were supposed to be doing. By working them, I taught them how to work.

So I decided; if a big bang could break up a big bump, maybe a lot of little bangs could do the same? So I just message and squeeze the nodules whenever I have nothing better to do. And, after all, what exactly am I doing right now, anyway? Well, talking to you which, so far, does not require my fingers.

It worked. Well. It made things better, which is the better part of working, after all. They pretty much went away on my right hand. My left hand was so-so. But then they started forming again. Growing. Right now the right hand has just a few and the left hand is a battle. I can feel the tension in my fingers and tendons. I have nodules there that are maybe in check, but they want to grow. They are familiar. I could give them names. It’s like Stranger Things under my palm.

What’s this got to do with silver? Am I going to extol the benefits of colloidal silver or something? I don’t know. What’s it worth to you?

Juggling the coin helps exercise my left hand, that’s all. First of all, it keeps my concentration on the Dupuytren’s Condition and keeps bible banging the bumps. It also keeps my hand moving, stretching, extending, finding the limit. Have you ever had a power tool or an old car that you hadn’t used in a while? So you need it to drop that tree or run that generator or bring that trash to the dump? And you find that it has started freezing up? The cord doesn’t pull as easily as it should? The choke doesn’t want to turn on? It’s full of bees or mice? The bearings on the wheels need grease? It would have been much better for that machine to be used every day than to be tucked away in a shed.

Your body’s the same way. Every piece, any corner, the smallest slice will seize up and become invaded if not allowed to move every day and every way.

Which brings me to my second point. My left hand. I’m right handed and I am juggling with an ounce of metal in a way that I will never practically do in my life. Well. Maybe I won’t, unless I aspire to be a pickpocket, which I see is a lucrative occupation. But. I digress.

Like that two mile walk around campus, I am making my fingers do something they don’t really want to do but which they are made to do. Wiggle. And move. And pick things up. And drop things. And do it again in a synchronized manner that produces results that are pleasing to the rest of the body attached to them and, perhaps, to another one nearby as well, that might like what my hands are doing. Keep that generator fierce. Keep that door hinge oiled. Keep those fingers flexible. Keep those mice at bay.

And, thirdly. The other part of the equation. The speaker of ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus.’ I remember reading some place that brain scientists had noticed something about how we learn. It seems, if true, that one part of the brain is active when you are learning a new skill. Say, learning to light a match backwards. Really? Think about it. When you light a match from a matchbook, there are tasks you do with your right hand and there are tasks you do with you left hand. You are equally comfortable with both of them, regardless of what handedness you are. I pick up a book of matches in my left hand. Open it. Tear one out with my right hand. Close the book with my left. Strike the match with my right while balancing the book with my left. Perfectly comfortable. Perfectly symmetric. Perfectly organized. 

Perfectly right. And I can also light a match from a book of matches one handed. Now that’s a skill. Pick up a book of matches, open it, squeeze out a match without detaching it, close the book, drag the head across the striker, light your cigarette. Oddly, I can do this better with my left hand than with my right.

Now. Switch hands.

Do everything with the opposite hand. See? Both your left and your right hands suddenly feel sinister. Backwards. Not right. Is it really your hands? Of course not. Just like it’s not really walking around campus or really starting a generator once in a while or really squeezing lumps in your hands.

I remember in college, I was trying to teach myself to ride a unicycle. Cool. Maybe I’ll pick up girls! Yes, I know how stupid that sounds. I went into the basement of the dorm, near the washing machines and shelves for student storage, and got up on my friend’s unicycle. I’d sit. I’d balance. I’d let it roll a little. I’d hold onto the shelves. I’d let go. I’d fall.

We’ve all done it. Learning to ride a bike. Drive a car. Dance. Kiss. It’s awkward. You try and fail. Try and fail. Try and humiliate yourself terribly. And try again. Like the bike that feels like a monster under your feet. Like the car that has a will of its own. Like the girl who terrifies you. And then. One day. You do it. You ride that bike. You drive that car. You kiss… I rode my unicycle. Oh, I wasn’t perfect, of course. But it just stopped being awkward. It felt right. I stopped learning it. It started learning me.

The brain that speaks and the body that listens.

So I take an ounce of silver and I twiddle it in my fingers. My fingers respond by squeezing and stretching and moving tendons, nerves, and bone. The silver pops up and down. Mostly down onto the couch next to me. Nerves bring the amazement of non-indexible symbols to a huge, non-indexable lump of symbol in my head. There it moves its own sequence of flesh, cells, and blood in this dance called life and generates some equally non-indexible symbol coded into calcium ions chattering on the edges of dendrites, axons, and nerves. And that does something. And that moves. And that goes some place. And that tells the hand full of Dupuytren’s to do something. And it does. And it is good. And maybe. Just maybe, someone else thinks so, too. Maybe. It’s a dance.

Is that amazing or what?