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

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Return of the Beast

Forget the Super Bowl. I'm sick of Peyton Manning, and whoever cared about the Bears with their pasty-faced prepubescent quarterback? No, the sports event for me in the opening months of any year is the Australian Open, played as usual this year in the middle of the Sydney summer, this time featuring players suffering on Day 2 with heat and dehydration while America digs out from a foreshadowing of the coming Long Winter. Of course the men's game suffers from the oppressive dominance of Roger Federer, whose friendly Swiss arrogance reminds me of vintage Hingis; but the women's game as usual provided the full panoply of personalities, which distilled down to the final with the World's Pin-up Maria Sharapova meeting American Gorilla Serena Williams in the final.

For me, a fan since the seventies, tennis has never had villains like the Williams sisters. Every sport needs a villain, but the entry of Venus and Serena onto the scene in the late 90's brought the WTA into the world of the WWF. Long after the Martina Navratilova and Chrissy era, and following upon the heels of Steffi Graf's long dominance, tennis prodigy Martina Hingis burst on the scene in 1997 at the age of 16, winning everything with the assurance of an undefeated child and possibly the best tennis mind of all time. Then, from the darkness which had given us Darth Vader in the previous generation and the New World Order in pro wrestling, emerged Richard Williams with his offensive progeny and his mission to prove that grace and intelligence meant nothing besides raw power and ghetto trash talk.

Richard Williams was the Don King of tennis. He nurtured his evil brood in some hidden compound somewhere; the Williams sisters were never allowed to compete in the juniors, gestating in some private hell while Hingis and Anna Kournikova were evolving toward the non-rivalry of the late 90's (said Hingis, in classic style, "What rivalry? I win all the matches."). Then first Venus, then Serena emerged to throw Hingis into mediocrity and despondency as brain yielded to brawn and the Sisters dominated for several years. They were hailed as the return of the great American tennis player, though what their trash talk and oppressive power had in common with Chris Evert's grace, I'll never know.

The Williams sisters, victims of their own success, began to languish a few years into the millenium. As usual with rich people with no culture, they flaunted their ignorance in a variety of ways, the most hilarious of which is Serena's entry into the field of fashion. Serena has the fashion sense, particulary with regard to color, of a technicolor hooker on meth (witness the black leather with studs look or the blue hoop earrings with the green head scarf last night. Sassy.). Sadly, no one rose to prominence in the sisters' decline, leaving us with the mediocrity of Amelie Mauresmo as temporary world number one. The field in women's tennis, decimated by the Williams dominance, became reminiscent of the seven dwarves era of the 1992 presidential campaign. But even as the dwarves ultimately gave us Bill Clinton, who may turn out to be the last rational President, the lukewarm broth of post-Williams tennis gave us Maria Sharapova, who at 17 kicked Serena's erratic ass at the 2004 Wimbledon in the greatest underdog victory since another 17-year-old named Boris Becker won the same tournament unseeded in 1985.

Sharapova at her best combines grace with beauty and power in an unprecedented manner that sports marketers had only dreamed of until her. Anna Kournikova actually was a rival to Hingis in the Girls game, but turned out to winless and unable to cope in the WTA, and whatever motivation she may have had to get her game on track was doubtless drained by her celebrity in spite of her lack of success, and her career as a model. Sharapova is the highest-paid women's athelete ever and only a fraction of that comes from her tennis success. She is the beautiful face of women's tennis, and has the skill to back it up. This year, with Justine Henin finally breaking up with her effeminate husband (was he a beard? dunno), Sharapova came into the Australian as the top seed, and does in fact emerge with the number one ranking, despite her ignominious loss last night (today, actually).

But Serena came back. I hesitate to say she is back; every since the Serena Slam of 2002-03, her career has been checkered by stops and starts, erratic performances, bizarre outfits and fits of ball-spraying, mixed with sheer exhibitions of power and yes, skill, like last night. Watching Serena curse Maria after Sharapova finally won a rally with a direct shot to Serena's body, watching Maria roll her eyes to the heavens as Serena's victory speech sank to the level of thanking all the little people, I can't think there's any love lost between these two, despite the respectful speeches belied by their facial expressions. Maria will come back to battle the darkness; may the Force be with her.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Post-Oil Man

I sort of have mixed feelings about this guy, sent to me by Jim. The artist, whom I've never encountered before, is James W. Johnson. This guy is certainly a mild version of what's bound to be going on within the next century, but if it takes a cartoon to get people to understand or even be interested in what's right before their faces, so be it.

I was always fascinated by dystopias like Brave New World, 1984, Dhalgren, etc. Even the most illiterate of the population have seen Mad Max and its ilk; Dark Angel was one of my favorite series of the last great gasp of network TV at the turn of the century. The population of the post-apocalypse was always pretty much the same, the quality of its representation depending on the author, but the cause was always different.

The cause of the end of civilization as we know it is now apparent: overpopulation, as stimulated, aggravated and made possible by Peak Oil, soon to be dealt with the way nature has always dealt with excess; by massive war, famine, disease, misery and death. As optimistic as some of my fellows are, there is no way to straighten the situation out without unprecedented human suffering. Most of the earth's population will have to die off, and the time frame is too short for any kind of population management, which has been fought against by morons for several generations now until it's too late.

The point at this point is not to save humanity; it's to prepare oneself to deal with the inevitable. The efforts made by the guy in the video won't last him long, any more than hoarding and the most strenous efforts you can make now can prepare you for the worst. In the war of all against all, nothing can survive, not even the strongest and the fittest. It's a battle to see who starves last. The current Oil Wars are only the most obvious sign.

All my efforts the last few years just enable me to see more clearly, and I can't filter it with wishful thinking any more. Just enjoy the fact that we've seen the high point. All those Jetsonian future utopias will never happen; we're almost as hi-tech as we're gonna get. Yeah, we'll have niftier cell phones. But the real things that could've been done in the previous generation that could've considerably lengthened the arc of the curve of human culture -- such as population management, rational and conversative planning for the earth's energy future, and political realism -- weren't. And it's too late now.

Maybe this is one reason I've lightened up on the Bush Cabal and the neo-fascists these past months. It really doesn't matter. The Republican losses in the last election may or may not slow the descent into hell, but the brakes are made of cotton candy and the roller coaster is already on the downhill track. So hang on and prepare to hit bottom, probably within the lifetime of current generations.

Have a good weekend.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Why I Miss the NSA

No, not the National Security Agency. I mean the Nichiren Shoshu of America. They don't exist under that name any more; they're now called the Soka Gakkai of America, probably since the mid-90's, and I understand they're a lot different these days. It really doesn't matter, since I quit my affiliation with them in 1988 and have no intention of going back. But at times when I find myself question my place in the Buddhist community and in the world, I find myself having fond memories of this organization, despite the apparent absurdity of its premise and practices and some other serious faults, certainly knew how to build a sangha and to help each member find his or her place in it.

In February, 1986, at the age of 28, I'd had enough of my life as it was and decided to make some changes. Without recapitulating my whole biography, I'd ridden myself into a dead end with a failed law practice I hated and nothing positive going on in my life. I was drinking way too much, and I was out of a job. Desiring just to change everything, I took one last look at my Scotch bottle and quit drinking; I didn't touch another drop of alcohol for five years, and during that time took a journey through previously unknown territories. Within a couple of weeks, my brain chemistry had completely changed and I began to wonder what else I could do that I'd been denying myself before. I joined a gym in Albuquerque and began working out seriously for the first time in my life. And still within that same month, I made a phone call to what turned out to be the Albuquerque headquarters of the Nichiren Shoshu of America, and pretty much completed the still unspoken formula alluded to in my previous entry for what turned out to be power in my personal life.

I'll save the rest of the formula for later. The point is for this blog that I started practicing Buddhism for the first time in about eight years, and really committed to it for the first time ever. I'd flirted with Zen in my readings and tangentially in practice during my years in California, starting at the San Francisco Zen Center, but I was, as I have said elsewhere, too young and too dissolute to stay with it. In that magical February, with these unknown wonderful and natural chemicals allowed to generate in my brain for the first time ever, I pulled out the phone book and began looking for Buddhism.

Just how I wound up with Nichiren Shoshu is sort of a puzzle to me. These days when I Google Buddhism in Albuquerque, I come up with every conceivable school. But it seems in memory all I could find listed at that time was some unpronounceable Southeast Asian (probably Theravadan) temple, and the NSA headquarters.

Most of the NSA's recruiting in those years was through the practice of shakubuku; basically they handed out pamphets, went door to door and out in the streets, dragged people to meetings like Moonies, and tried to get them to receive the Gohonzon. The Gohonzon, pictured above in a fairly nice butsudan, was the object of worship for Nichiren Shoshu.

OK, let me back up here. For some of you faithful readers, I've been here before. Nichiren Shoshu of America was the American branch of the Soka Gakkai, which was the lay organization of a branch of Japanese Buddhism known as Nichiren Shoshu. The Soka Gakkai was founded after WW II and had a powerful corollary political organization in Japan. The Soka Gakkai, and its American version, functioned in a fairly cultish way, and could actually be or have been a cult, depending on your definition. If it was a cult, it was a very benign one. I was with the NSA, or the SGA, from February, 1986, until August, 1988. I left because ultimately I rejected some of the more absurd underpinnings of the practice, but mostly because I felt smothered by the organization itself. I don't need to go into detail here; you can find all sorts of stuff on the internet on this subject, and if you want something fairly objective, just look at the links to Ryuei's stuff (to the right, kids). Anyway, somewhere around the early 90's, the priests excommunicated Soka Gakkai President Ikeda and the entire lay organization. But I was long gone.

Despite all the negativity about the NSA/SGA, they sure knew how to raise a sangha. First, of course, the organization was extremely hierarchical; the president of the NSA, a Japanese who had adopted the name George M. Williams, was just a flunky of Ikeda, and the everything flowed from there down like the best pyramids in Amway. The New Mexico headquarters was divided into I think three or four districts (and I believe I had risen to the level of a district leader when I quit). Each district was divided into hans, or groups. The hans were divided into junior hans. On a parallel note, the whole organization was divided into men's, women's, young men's and young women's divisions, so that for example each district had a men's leader (who was always the district leader; no gender equality here at that time), a women's division leader, etc. You get the idea.

I was as I said 28 when I joined. There were guys older than me in the young men's division, but I was kept in the men's probably because I was a practicing attorney (my practice having revived itself with all my other changes). My role, after the first few months, as a hansho (han leader) and then a district leader, was to lead the meetings. The meetings consisted of conducting gongyo, the twice-daily ceremony, followed by lots of chanting of nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which was then hopefully followed by a question and answer session for guests, who may have drifted by, been brought by a member, or shanghai-ed off the streets. So was a Buddhist leader, although of questionable vintage, involved in the propagation of Buddhism from about 1987 on. I found that I really enjoyed leading the meetings and answering the questions. I liked being entrusted with more and more responsibility and having people look to me for questions with their faith.

OK, so there was a lot of bullshit involved, too. The publications and ideology of the sect were frankly, embarrassing and often idiotic. How someone with my educational background and acquaintance with what I now consider to be more authentic schools of Buddhism could have stayed with the fundamental bullshit of the NSA for 2 1/2 years, is questionable, as I was fighting my mind the whole time. Just ask Ryuei Michael McCormick, now a Nichrien Shu priest and a Buddhist seeker who was with the NSA during this same period, about it sometime. The Philadelphia rally and the Freedom Bell. I really don't want to go there.

So, how could I have stayed? The answer was, I felt like I belonged. I had become just as disenfranchised in my own way as the people on the streets who were dragged into the meetings. But I had a ritual that framed my life and my practice and made it all worthwhile, and I think there is a real human need for that. I had a place to go every morning and every evening if I wanted to share that practice with others and didn't feel like chanting at home alone. I had responsibilities. I had an ersatz family with whom I shared a lot of time and a lot of common experiences.

Since my return to Buddhism and my ultimate return to Zen in the last few years, I fell that I have found the right practice for me. I have been formally inducted into Buddhist practice twice; most lately last September as documented on this blog, but the first time was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in early 1986 when I received the Gonhonzon. I think I still have the thing in a drawer somewhere. I made the right choice when I left the NSA in 1988, and I very definitely made the right choice in committing to Zen. My problem has been in finding a sangha.

The Nashville Zen Center had its annual Board of Directors meeting the other day. I left feeling kind of sad. I am still a director of that organization, and I will continue to sit with them. These are the people who encouraged me when I first stuck my foot back in the Zen waters, and some of them have become my friends. But they have no teacher and seem content to stay exactly as they are: a group that sits on Saturday mornings and does little else. This all sounds very Zen I guess to lay people, but it doesn't give me the support I need for my personal practice. The Atlanta Soto Zen Center, on the other hand, where I have made my formal commitment, has the support and opportunities I need, at least to some extent and moreso that what I have here, but they're a long way away and I'm committed here, at least for now. I am strangely sad when I see their website and emails and all the things I can't participate in.

I try to do what I can. If anyone's interested, I'm doing a presentation and/or a Zen service of sorts for the Middle Tennesee Anime Convention in April, trying to bridge my love of Zen and anime, and hoping maybe without hope that some of the young people at the convention might be mature enough to develop a Zen practice. I'd really love to do a beginner's meeting on a regular basis, but I don't feel I have the support I need to do this.

No one reading this is going to have the answers to any of the questions or longings stated or unstated herein. I just wanted to get it down in writing (I almost said, on paper) and to express my nostalgia for a time when I felt responsible and needed in the context of Buddhism. I hope I didn't bore or alienate you. Wish me luck.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

My New Year Begins

I really love this picture; it's one of my best friends from one of my newer lives and one of the best (and few remaining) from one of my older ones. That's Robert and Stephanie (the names if not the stories should be familiar to readers of this blog) here in Nashville in early December, 2006. Robert just gave up his legal career for now and is heading down the Atlantic coast in a sailboat, believe it or not. Rarely do your friends from different lives become friends, if infrequent ones, and it's always somehow satisfying when it happens.

I had some interesting summing up of some of my lives at the end of 2006. Among other friends, I saw two old friends from those aforementioned previous lives; Robert, and my old friend Jim Lydecker, whom I hadn't seen in nineteen years. Readers will recognize he's the one I found on the internet, and whose writings and musings are not only accessible at points throughout this blog, but have filled in some of the gaps in my understanding of what exactly is going on with this civilization of ours. Robert and Jim both passed through Nashville for a night or two on their ways somewhere else, but it's always nice at the end of a year to have present physical reminders of some of the better aspects of the places and people you've been. It also really points out the differences between those places and where you are, and maybe helps you see where you need to go.

I've never really spelled out my little secret formula for being who I really like to be, as opposed to who I really am sometime, and this isn't the place for it, but when one ingredient is missing, it really leaves a chunk out of me. A couple of days after my birthday, I stepped on a tack that went right through the sole of my shoe and into the sole of my foot, and although I hobbled quite well and didn't get infected, it put the end to my working out for a few weeks, which got extended into a couple of months with the holidays and their consequent (though not inevitable) degradation of lifestyle. Anyway, I'd picked this week to pull myself out of my holiday slump and the last missing piece was the return of my exercise program.

Step aerobics. You heard it here. An odd and dying art, but one that helped pull me out of my really big slump in 1986 and helped make me the better parts of who I am today. And you can't do it with a hole in the bottom of your foot. Anyway, my program resumed last night and this morning I am reborn. Sore, of course, but that's part of it. I could feel toxics rushing from my body like Republicans scurrying from enlightenment. I slept like a baby last night and got up and hour early this morning just because I felt so good. I wanted to write you this blog so I could show you what good friends I have. I have very good intentions at this time.

So we'll see. There's always a chance for things to go wrong. But for right now, everything's right. My New Year has begun, a little delayed. I hope yours is a good one, too. Make hay while the sun shines; the darkness is a-comin'.