See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Merry Christmas

Yep, that's Bif Naked to the left. If you haven't picked up on the Bif Naked listings in my links, or the hyperlinks hidden in some of the text, you may not know she's been one of my favorite artists since about 1995. Check out her site and her MySpace page; and soon I'll post the video for "Nothing Else Matters" which you've already heard on the "Celebration" blog entry. Plus, if you scroll to the bottom of the blog, there's another Bif video that's been there for a while.

Anyway, Merry Christmas. It seems like it's been a good year. I haven't heard a damn thing about the War on Christmas this year, which may be a sign that the liars who promulgated all that crap last year have been forced back on their heels and are having to deal with some of the real issues. Plus, I like Christmas, I really do. I have friends who don't, and it's true that all the "commercialization" can drive you nuts. I think what I really like is the real meaning of the holiday, which is the solstice and the Yule. This holiday is a lot older than Christianity, and any fool who thinks it's Jesus' birthday is just that. A year-ending (and beginning) holiday is something we should hang onto in this modern era.

And I say "Merry Christmas" to everybody. The one thing the Christians have right this time of year is that "Happy Holidays" is a bunch of crap. I mean, if you're Jewish and say "Happy Hanukah," that's great. Muslims have a holiday, and we Buddhists do too, and I'll return any greeting you give me. The only one that bugs me is that Kwanza crap; for Christ sake, don't make up a holiday, there's plenty of them already.

But I'm listening to Christmas music as I write this, and I'm looking forward to seeing my family for the next few days. I try to make my Christmas gifts minimal but interesting. I already gave the Rufi their Christmas; the little guys got a truck and HR got a cigar.

By the way, the best pop Christmas music of all time is probably Jethro Tull's Songs from the Wood album; click this link for a video. The best of course is all that great classical music written for this occasion. Talk to ya before then!

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Every Dog Has His Day

Sometimes things gotta work out right.

I don't really write a lot of good news in here; in fact, I don't write a lot of news at all. My cousin Phyllis wrote that she's been following my life through this blog, which made me think what an odd view of my life you'd get that way. I mean, I'm really not writing a newsletter. I didn't talk about my quitting my old job right after New Years last year though I did document my leisure time fairly well til I was forced back into the work place this summer; I didn't really talk about any of those jobs at all, since one of the main things I look for in a job these days is something I can forget about the minute I leave the office (although I like to be good at it while I'm there). I didn't talk really talk about the car wreck I had Oct. 9, although I really wanted to post a pic of the totalled car (I was too stressed in the search for another one that I forgot to take a picture). So you'd think that my life consisted of disjointed events and strong opinions. But I do feel compelled to let the other shoe drop on the Nashville Zen Center.

After all, you really had no autobiographical info in this blog at all until "The Empty Well" back in March, in which I chronicled what I perceived the sad state of aforesaid NZC and my frustration with it. You then followed my exploration trip to Atlanta, my discovery of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, and my subsequent initiation into Soto Zen. So it really would be incomplete if I let 2006 end without reporting the culmination of all these events to date, in the visit of ASZC Abbot Michael Elliston and his senior student Gareth Young to the NZC.

Sometimes events just seem to be slapping at me randomly, like big bloody insects in the wind when I'm driving a motorcycle through the mountains at night. And then sometimes I reach a peaceful place where they all seem to form a coherent pattern like a movie or someone else's biography. I've been in the latter place the last few days, from which it seems as if my first bungled attempt to orchestrate a Zen event -- and yes, I now admit it was my lack of knowledge and preparation, and my insecurity and consequent unwillingness to take charge and responsibility of that NZC spring retreat that probably led to its objective failure (though I certainly got a lot out of it) -- was a necessary prequel and training for what was pretty much an unqualified success.

Succinctly, the teachers came, thirteen of us at the table (!) had dinner, then we had a very good sit, meet and talk the next morning. Nothing newsworthy here, except that the desire I've had to bring the authentic Soto spirit to Nashville finally paid off. The ASZC leaders were excited about Nashville, and quite a few of the NZC members, whose (in Ellistons's words) maturity of practice and diversity I've finally come to appreciate are desirous of further interaction with Atlanta. I'm planning another trip down in February, and Atlanta wants to come back here, too. Except for some group money I wasted in advertising, it couldn't have gone better.

See, there's nothing gritty for this blog when things go well. One more thing: I really haven't mentioned any of the Zen stuff in here recently, in fact since October. If you're wondering why, it's because I'm finding it harder to write about. More and more, it seems everything I read or hear about Zen, expressed in language is, well, not necessarily wrong, but not quite right. I sit every week after our NZC sits and listen to someone read from a Zen book, usually gritting my teeth (I hope not literally); the readings from Sunryu Suzuki or Thich Nat Hanh (especially) or whoever just seem -- off. I'm currently reading the copy of The Kyosaku, Vol. I of the Teaching Archives of Soyu Matsuoka Roshi, the teacher of Zenkai Taiun Michael Elliston which was inadvertently left at the Barn after the sit Saturday. It's a very good book, for a Zen book, and I'm putting off sending it home til after Christmas so I can read a bit of it until I can order my own copy through the ASZC website. I'm certainly enjoying it more than most Zen books. But it just seems more and more to me that writing about Zen, or teaching about it with words is like writing with a Sharpy on the side of an aluminum coffee pot; most of the words don't stick and what's left is blurry and vaguely wrong.

Hojo (Abbot) Elliston again pointed out Saturday that what people perceive as paradoxes in talk about Zen are only apparent paradoxes; in my own words, they point out the limits of the language, not a problem with Zen. Even here, I'm starting to smell that magic marker so I'll stop. To me the only reason of reading about Zen and talking about Zen is encouraging people to do Zazen; it seems to me from my limited development and understanding that everything comes from there. So the best Zen book is the one that gets you to do Zazen. The one that did it for me was Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen, which cut through all the academia and showed me that someone who thought a lot like me (though also very differently) could benefit from the practice, stripped of all its artifice. I just finished rereading that, and if you're of my generation or younger, and tired of the academic approach to phiosophy or the religious approach to "spirituality", it's still the best.

I feel the same way about Zen ritual; it's just a mostly enjoyable, aesthetically appealing framework for Zazen. I enjoy it. So whatever works, works.

Anyway, enough prattling on about things I've just admitted are not suitable objects of prattle. The Nashville Zen Center is doing just fine at the moment, thank you, and so am I.

Monday, December 11, 2006

More Chicks

It seems the Dixie Chicks are getting a little more respect these days, since a few people in this country have finally started realizing that we all should be ashamed that the President of the United States is not only from Texas, but from America at all. The song for which I posted the video a few months ago is now nominated for a Grammy, and even W.'s dad seems to be ashamed of him.

The movie for which the above is a trailer looks like it'll be worth seeing, for sure. It's not so much that I'm a huge fan of the Chicks' music, although I've always had a lot of respect for the quality of their musicianship, and especially Natalie Maines' incredible voice. Modern "country" has never been much other than music for the lowest common denominator, people who know nothing about music (especially real, authentic country) or about anything else. That's why so many of its stars are drug addicts and degenerates in cowboy hats; their fans are just so easily deceived. So why shouldn't they be easy dupes for the terrorist/fear hype of the Bush administration? In the face of this, the blacklisting of the Chicks after Ms. Maines' insightful, honest and just plain obvious comment was not surprising.

What should frighten you about the blacklisting of the Chicks is that it wasn't so much a government effort (although I'm sure there was some insidious support behind the fervor of ignorance that drove them off the charts) as a spontaneous ejaculation of hate and stupidity from the masses who propelled Kenny Chesney to fame. Fear, hatred and ignorance arise endlessly. How do we help the dregs of humanity prop their eyes open for the next fear campaign? I just don't know. The people burning the Chicks albums are a part of us, after all. Go deep and feel the hate.

I have to admit I haven't even heard all of the album. I understand the Chicks have moved further from country (which betrayed them like it's betrayed all of its real stars; ask Emmylou Harris). Let's just admire them for their courage and their being not ready to back down. We all could learn from it.

Let's face it, if you voted for George W. Bush the first time, you have the excuse of ignorance, but if you did it twice, you're a bad person and need to be punished. I think two years in one of Rumsfeld's prison camps, locked in a cell with Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw would be appropriate.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

What's for Dinner? Part II

Having dined last night on way too much barbeque, I feel constrained to review part of my discussion of vegetarianism in the last entry. Last night's dinner and this morning's indigestion remind me of something that occurred to me a few months ago, not for the first time: For the most part, the less meat I eat the better I feel. Looking back at the last entry, I feel I may have seemed hostile to vegetarianism, which I'm not at all. I'm very pro-vegetarian. Really, some of my best friends are vegetarians.

I admitted I wrote that last one fast, and there were some poor word choices, one of which was, rather than saying vegetarianism was a form of escapism, it would have been more appropriate to say it was a form of idealism. That's only if you're a vegetarian because you are opposed to the inherent cruelty to animals in meat-eating. I certainly understand the position, and as I said, I think we are all a little repulsed by the actuality of the process, or we should be if we are not insensitive to the plight of other creatures. Of course, that's the slippery slope, and knowing what I know about the factory dairy and egg industries, the philosophical position of the lacto-ovo-vegetarian doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It's pretty clear that more cruelty is inflicted on laying hens, especially, than the chickens we eat; in short, the chickens we eat, as abused as they are, are treated much better than their egg-laying sisters because if they were as ill-treated as the laying hens, we wouldn't eat them. It's that bad. So to me, if I were going to be a philosophical vegetarian, it's vegan or nothing.

Of course there's a whole other school of vegetarianism which has nothing to do with animal rights, and is not idealistic at all but pragmatic. It's the school that refuses to eat meat because of health reasons. Especially this morning I am empathetic to this school. I said in the last entry that I thought it was clear that a little meat every now and then is healthier, and there is no doubt that man evolved as a meat-eater (and probably never would have evolved to his present exalted state without it). Without outstanding success as a predator, man never would have had the leisure time to develop agriculture, which was the foundation of modern civilization. So you see it all works together. And we shouldn't forget that all domestic species now raised for food co-evolved with man in a symbiotic relationship. Nevertheless, it's a perfectly valid question whether we need to eat all that meat anymore.

I think it's pretty clear we don't. In an extremely inactive society, we just don't need that much meat. Of course our modern diet is a mess, as best illustrated by the sad plight of the current generation of obese children. Remembering just how few fat kids there were in my childhood, as compared to now, we are indeed in the middle of an "epidemic" as that word is now loosely used. Of course it also appears (to me, again) that the culprit in child obesity is not meat, but a combination of lack of exercise and more importantly the infusion into our children's diets of massive amounts of high-fructose corn syrup (which incidentally never appeared before 1980). So that's a whole other discussion, also very much covered in Pollan's book.

But nevertheless, it appears that a much more suitable diet for today's bovine society would be a diet of whole grains and cruciferous vegetables. It certainly would be better for our digestive systems. The most disgusting twist in food fadism in recent years was the whole Atkins Diet insanity, which thankfully has faded a bit. Of course I did personally witness people losing a lot of weight on this nutball regimen, but hey kids, anorexia and bilemia will work for the same purpose, with similar results -- starvation. Especially with my guts full of flesh and hot sauce, the idea of a nation of fat people stuffing themselves with nothing but meat leads me to images of their digestive tracts from which I am rapidly retreating.

My personal experience is that when I am happy and healthy and getting good exercise and my brain chemisty is firing well, the less meat I eat, the better I feel. When I have been sick or hung over or in some other form debilitated, nothing brings me back faster than meat. So for me meat is like medicine. It is best used sparingly. So find your own level, but give those grains and vegetables a shot.

And then there's our friend the pig (the one who's not currently trying to fight his way through my intestines). After part I, Kate sent me an email which included the following:

I disagree, again, that there's no middle ground between animals "being okay" as in not suffering at all and "being okay" as in not being raised in factory farms or bred solely to be eaten. A similar dilemma with the middle ground between saving the world and offering your actions in a positive way, however small.

That's part of a mini-debate we have over social activism; I think we agree on most principles, but I'm just more cynical. I agree that each person doing what he or she can in every small way as it appears will make the world a better place, and there's no doubt it will make better people of those who act thus accordingly with their compassion, which is what is really essential, since I think civilization and man are going inexorably down the tubes, we are past the point of no return, and there's nothing more important than how you ride.

My response, again in part, was:

We're 100% in agreement on the factory farms. I'm saying that a steer (or a heiffer, for that matter) who's raised on a small farm has a good life until he's killed and eaten, as long as he's fed on grass. Otherwise he wouldn't live at all. Remember these cattle were pretty much created by us (as was the bison, really) from much different animals, for our benefit, and they have co-evolved and adapted with us. The bottom line question is, is is better for them not to live at all, or to live (on a good farm) then die mercifully. They're not going to live in the wild (which would be horrible for them anyway) or be pets (most of them) or gain citizenship. So it's a good farm life, followed by slaughter, or nothing.


The next thought to hit me was, the cattle are actually about the least of the abuses. By far the worst treated (although they're all living in a big animal Guanatanamo) are the laying hens. The chickens we eat, bad as it is, are treated better than the ones that produce the eggs. They can't move at all. And when they're about to die, the lights are turned out and they are given no food or water to force out a few more eggs. I'm going to try to find some farm-raised eggs and chicken.

The only relief to the above is that having lived among poultry, my empathy for them is pretty limited. Not so with hogs. Hogs are smarter than dogs, in my opinion. If we want to stop abusing higher animals, we should start with not eating pork, like a lot of other people in the world. It would make more sense to torture your dog than to raise a hog in a factory farm. Incidentally, these are the one domesticated food creature that could make it in the wild, so a Free the Pigs movement would be the most coherent of all (although you sure would wipe out some ecologies!).

There I go quoting myself because I'm too lazy to rewrite. I'm trying to review the history of the hog, and the internet isn't cooperating with me much this morning, but I do know that hogs are not native to America, having been introduced by the Spanish, who just turned them loose into the woods to be hunted as needed. Whereas cattle are totally domesticated (and again, this is a fascinating section of Pollan's book), hogs are little changed from their progenitors and are in a way just really smart wild animals who are our captives and victims. Surely, surely, we could give up eating them. I surely could at this moment. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

What's for Dinner? Part I

One of the topics I've been wanting to take on since I started this blog is the matter of diet - what to eat. I've been dancing around it and avoiding it and deciding I'm not quite ready to write it because the topic is just so damn huge. I just can't see any way to handle it in one blog entry. It may not seem so big to you in view of some of the things I've taken on in here, but I've probably spent as much time in my life thinking about what to eat as just about anything, and I have at least thirty years' worth of thoughts on the topic trying to organize themselves out of the spin cycle in my head -- hence the title of the book I just read by Michael Pollan, The Omnivores' Dilemma.

I'm not going to really try to review the book as there are hundreds of good reviews of it out there; thanks for the recommendation, Phyllis. The compelling part of this book is that the author comes at the issue of proper diet not through some didactic premise, i.e. vegetarianism or veganism, but the simple open question of, What am I to eat? Because no matter what your moral commitments are, Man is an omnivore and evolved to be one. If your mind tells you you shouldn't be what you are, then you have the trademark problem of the intellectual being and the moral one, the difficulty of accepting oneself.

I was raised in the sixties, on the standard bland American diet of the time, including meat with every meal. It was in the post-hippie world of the seventies and its accompanying spritual movements that I, like millions of others, became tempted by vegetarianism -- not too surprisingly, as most of those movements came from Hinduism. By the time the low-fat craze of the eighties kicked in, just about everyone except Republicans and the beef industry was equating eating meat with evil and stupidity, and vegetarianism with enlightenment. I have always flirted with vegetarianism, even up to the present day; about the closest I ever got was a couple of years without any meat except seafood (just loved it too much to give it up, and how much empathy can you have for a fish?). There were a lot of positive sides to this; I discovered many good vegetable dishes I never would've otherwise, and some of my favorite cuisines, notably Indian.

I don't think there's really too doubt that a little meat every now and then is healthiest in the human diet. Historically, there's just no doubt that we evolved as omnivores, as evidenced by our teeth, our digestive tracts, and the fact that we were hunter-gathereres living on top of the food chain as chief predator long before we invented agriculture. Saying that we didn't evolve to eat meat is about as delusional, as, well, denying evolution. I first came to face the inescapable dilemma of meat consumption in college, as a philosophy major when I took a class called Animal Rights which included of course Pete Singer's classic of the same name. To cut to the chase, the question is, is it morally acceptable for us to eat animals, despite what our physiology tells us.

I came at the problem from a slightly different perspective from many of my classmates since I was raised on a farm and helped raise cattle, hogs, chickens, the whole population, from an early age. I hunted rabbits, killed them and ate them. I knew that I could be looking at a steer one day and eating him a week later. And of course I had pets, mostly dogs and cats. So I always sort of knew the problem was there. What later came to outrage me (I had no idea at the time how accepting most people are of there own delusional natures) was the people who could only eat meat while thinking it came from the grocery store. My own conclusion at the end of the Animal Rights class in 1978 or so was, if you can kill an animal and eat it, knowing what you are doing, then you should eat meat. If you can't you shouldn't because you can't deal with the reality of your own actions. Pollan's book comes to pretty much the same conclusion on a social level, and today I reassert my beliefs.

It strikes me now that vegetarianism is a form of escapism. We think that we can avoid doing harm by not eating animals. If I may slide around on a mobius strip of meaning, it is definitely doing harm to eat meat but that does not mean we should not do it. The fallacy is in thinking that in failing to eat meat, we do not do harm. Yes, it should bother you that something else has to die that you might live. They would die with or without you. Veganism is the delusion that we can make it OK with animals. We cannot make it OK. Neither our lives nor theirs. Neither our lives nor theirs can ever be free of suffering. That is the fundamental truth of life. Enlightenment is the acceptance of that truth, not the avoidance of it. True enlightenment is the end of the search for enlightenment. From birth to death, it's just like this.

Again, I'm not going to recycle all of Pollan's arguments here. I'm going to come back to some of them thought. This blog is being spit, or rather shit out to get rid of the mental constipation I've been enduring on this topic. But let me make a few more points. First, before you eat that steer, look him in the eye. When you feel sorrow in the killing in the eating, you'll understand a little more about what it means to be alive.

On a more mundane note, Pollan's book is (1) an excellent indictment of the way Big Oil and the military/industrial complex have changed our diet and our lives for the worse, (2) a suggestion of what is better (a return to rational scale and sustainable cycles of food production, and (3) a bunch of worthless personal adventures at the end which teach us nothing. However, his chapter on Animal Liberation is the best concise summary of the subject I've ever seen, with all the proper academics referenced. And I must add at this point that sustainable food production will only be possible after the inevitable wars, famines and plagues of the next century.

Okay, this has been a rapid sequence of disjointed nonsequitors. Maybe now when I come back to the topic I can address its bits and pieces with more coherence and restraint. But dammit, there's just no more intimate relationship we have with our world than what we eat. Sex doesn't even come close. And of course, there's just no way to do it and feel totally good about it unless you're totally insensitive. Such is life.