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The dharma of Wilson

Hands up, every­one who’s seen Castaway, the movie with Tom Hanks about the guy who ends up stranded for years on a deserted island. That’s a lot of you — good.

If you recall, Hanks was on a deliv­ery air­craft, some­thing sim­i­lar to DHL or FedEx. The plane crashed, and he was the only sur­vivor. After the crash, he man­aged to make it to a small island in the mid­dle of nowhere. He started going through the freight that washed ashore along with him, look­ing for any­thing that could help him sur­vive. Among many things, he found a vol­ley­ball, of the Wilson brand. That vol­ley­ball turned out to be one of the most sig­nif­i­cant ele­ments to the story, to his sur­vival, and — I think — became a fas­ci­nat­ing enquiry into the nature of mind.

What began hap­pen­ing, you may remem­ber, was that he started talk­ing to the vol­ley­ball. At first it was clearly some­thing that made him feel fool­ish, but over time it became so reg­u­lar that he was hav­ing lengthy, com­pli­cated con­ver­sa­tions with Wilson. Rationally, we can rec­og­nize just how weird such behav­ior is — after all, if some­one started act­ing that way at the office, treat­ing a pen­cil sharp­ener as a per­sonal con­fi­dante, we’d quickly become wor­ried about his san­ity — but in the case of one per­son stranded in total iso­la­tion, it might seem a bit more sensible.

We’re social ani­mals. In one form or another, we like human con­tact. Sometimes the con­tact isn’t what we’d pre­fer, but by and large it’s some­thing we need on a psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional level. One of the worst pun­ish­ments that a pris­oner can be sub­jected to is soli­tary con­fine­ment; we even pun­ish our chil­dren with time-​​outs, iso­lat­ing them briefly from inter­ac­tion with all oth­ers. People locked into sen­sory depri­va­tion tanks actu­ally begin hal­lu­ci­nat­ing after less than an hour, partly because the stimulus-​​hungry mind ends up all alone with itself and, lack­ing any­thing to keep itself occu­pied, it begins mak­ing things up.

So, in a mind left with total iso­la­tion and some­thing that looks vaguely like a human face, it’s not dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that face becom­ing more and more real.

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Gone altogether beyond

A lit­tle while ago, I was a vol­un­teer shop­per for Code 3/​Clothe the Kids (third year for me). This is a local char­ity that exists because of the com­bined efforts of the KPD, the KFD, the Kiwanis, and oth­ers. Disadvantaged kids are taken shop­ping for clothes by vol­un­teer adults, who have a pre­de­ter­mined bud­get. The pur­pose is to ensure that the kids have some decent out­fits with­out being sub­ject to undue parental influence.

That lat­ter require­ment became clear in years past; orig­i­nally, some par­ents would take the kids’ clothes, get a refund, and turn around and spend the money on cig­a­rettes and booze (true story). The sys­tem is con­sid­er­ably less exploitable now, but attempts to work around the lim­its still get made, every year.

This year, “my” kid was a boy of about eight. It started off well; he seemed ami­able and not par­tic­u­larly shy, and picked out some shirts, undies, shoes, and other neces­si­ties. Then came the moment all the kids love: The troll down the toy aisle.

The rules are fairly clear. The major­ity of the bud­get is to be spent on cloth­ing, with only ten to fif­teen dol­lars or so spent on the gew­gaws. “My” kid, who seemed at first to have such a good oper­a­tional grasp of the pro­ce­dure, quickly lost track of what we were doing.

He wanted a Nerf dart gun, one of the high-​​end ones that ran about $40. Well, no, too expen­sive. All right then, how about this MP3 player? $30. No, sorry, still over the bud­get. Okay, well, here’s a radio-​​controlled Humvee. $40, and we’re back up to way over the line.

Back to the elec­tron­ics, where he con­fided that his dad had asked that he pick up a CD boom­box for his and his sister’s bed­room. In addi­tion to the cost — yes, again over the allowance — it became clear that he was now oper­at­ing under a parent’s instruc­tion, which is a no-​​no for the shop­ping day.

I worked with him a lit­tle about bud­gets, explain­ing that the toy allowance was only so large. He could have one thing that was just that large, or two smaller things that, added together, were that large; or three lit­tler things that added up, and so on. Explained in those terms, he seemed to get what I was say­ing, and made a counter-​​offer: If we put back some of the clothes, can we get the radio or the Humvee then?

Clever lad. He lacked fore­sight, but he under­stood the idea of bargaining.

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Green tea

In recent days, here in Arizona, there’s been dis­cus­sion about pri­va­ti­za­tion of pris­ons — hardly any­thing new — and state parks. The argu­ment seems to be two-​​pronged: Private, for-​​profit indus­tries tend to run effi­ciently; and by pass­ing main­te­nance and facil­ity costs off to com­pa­nies, we’re able to free up funds in the tax bud­get which could be used for other things — or pos­si­bly not. In prin­ci­ple, taxes could sim­ply be reduced instead.

To turn our atten­tion to the lat­ter argu­ment first, Arizona has been cut­ting its state bud­get, steadily, for some time now. It’s cut so com­pletely that recently, AHCCCS ter­mi­nated pay­ing for organ trans­plants and, inci­den­tally, the lives of a few of its own cit­i­zens. (Death panel, indeed.) Large por­tions of state-​​mandated sys­tems, such as the courts, have found them­selves reduced to less than a bare-​​bones bud­get, with only a few offi­cials being forced to han­dle the case­loads of entire counties.

We’ve also done away with rest stops, and for a while the DPS ter­mi­nated its heli­copter ser­vice in the Kingman area, essen­tially leav­ing all of Mohave County with­out any kind of aer­ial search-​​and-​​rescue or law-​​enforcement ability.

However, it’s worth not­ing that cut­ting these ser­vices has not, in fact, led to a reduc­tion in taxes — so where has the money dis­ap­peared to? Is it really pos­si­ble that the state is run­ning at such a deficit that years of sys­tem­atic bud­get and ser­vice cuts have had no effect at all on its oper­a­tion? If so, it might be prac­ti­cal to sug­gest that no amount of bud­get cut­ting will actu­ally do any­thing to keep the state’s bal­ance in the black.

This con­clu­sion seem­ingly leaves us with two choices: Raising taxes, or privatizing.

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Such a lot of fuss about rubbing

The ques­tion of whether gays and les­bians should be allowed to serve in the US armed forces has been bandied about for years. You can always gauge how close we are to an elec­tion cycle by how often this topic sur­faces; it’s one of those things — as with flag burn­ing or post­ing the Decalogue in pub­lic places — that’s sure to get peo­ple riled. When peo­ple get riled, they tend to vote.

The cur­rent pol­icy, charm­ingly called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, came into being dur­ing the Clinton years. It was seen as a sort of com­pro­mise at the time, but for those who wanted the ban lifted entirely on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, it was dif­fi­cult to see exactly where the com­pro­mise was. Succinctly, dur­ing enlist­ment, you used to be asked, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a prac­tic­ing homo­sex­ual?“1 Now, they don’t ask. You don’t have to tell. That was the compromise.

The other side of the pol­icy is that if a sol­dier later reveals a non­hetero­sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, he or she can be tried under court mar­tial and issued a dis­charge, because homo­sex­ual behav­ior is against the mil­i­tary code of con­duct. However, even reveal­ing the pres­ence of a lover, while remain­ing celi­bate when away from that per­son, is also grounds for dis­charge. The sub­tle mes­sage is that merely think­ing about engag­ing in homo­sex­ual con­duct is against the rules. Freedom of thought is thus quashed. This seems unrea­son­able in almost any light, and arguably goes against the spirit of our national founders’ intent.

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New look and feel

If you’ve been here before, you’ve prob­a­bly noticed we have a dif­fer­ent visual approach now. Ah, such is impermanence.

Hope you like the changes, and find it eas­ier to work with overall.

No one is asking you to forgive Hitler.

The ques­tion is: Can you for­give yourself?

Ah, Samsara.

Probably you didn’t see it, but in the night, I qui­etly upgraded this blog from an older engine to the newer.

I’m glad it’s over. Live upgrades can be rather … tricky.

The trauma of getting away

Just sent txt to my con­tacts — fam­ily, friends, etc. — telling them I’d be offline totally on 12/​25, to take a day in retreat. No phone, no email, no Twitter, no txt. It’s amaz­ing how many expla­na­tions I had to offer for that. “Why?” and “What’s wrong?” and “Do you need help?” and so on.

And a good friend won­ders why I refuse to cre­ate a Facebook account. Ah, indeed, attach­ment is suffering.

Makes me won­der why I haven’t done it more in the last year, so they’d be used to it by now. I feel a res­o­lu­tion a-​​brewin’.

Buddhism is not the answer

There is no answer, at least not a facile one, for deal­ing with what — for want of a bet­ter term — we can call the Human Condition. Some find it in Christianity; some in Islam; some in any one of a dozen other philo­soph­i­cal or reli­gious systems.

Does Buddhism seem to work? For some peo­ple, yes. In some ways, yes. It seems to work for me, and I’m an athe­ist, Erisian Discordian, and an ordained min­is­ter. (If I seem to con­tra­dict myself, well, then, I con­tra­dict myself; I am vast, I con­tain etc.)

The day to day slog doesn’t change. Some days I’m up, oth­ers I’m down. Some days I bounce out of bed ready to face the world; oth­ers I’d rather pull the cov­ers up, roll over and nap until 3 PM. Some days I want to dress up and look nice; oth­ers I’m happy to be the worst of the Wal-​​Mart crowd. In this respect I am pre­cisely like every­one else that has ever lived on this planet, every human — and like all the oth­ers that will fol­low until H. sapi­ens is no longer rec­og­niz­able as a species.

What I think I get from Buddhism is a broader per­spec­tive. Equanimity. I have the abil­ity to rec­og­nize that these ebbs and neaps are sim­ply part of life. They come and go. Everything passes.

Well, in this respect, how is Buddhism really all that dif­fer­ent from Marcus Aurelius’s obser­va­tion that, after one’s for­ti­eth year, one has already expe­ri­enced most of what life con­tains, and shouldn’t be too sur­prised by any­thing any more? (My age at this writ­ing is 41.)

How much of this appar­ent equa­nim­ity today, in other words, is due to Buddhism in my life — ver­sus plain old expe­ri­ence and introspection?

A Pair of Dishgloves

I’m work­ing toward licen­sure to fost/​adopt par­ent — I want to be a dad. The longer it takes, the more sure I seem to be; this is one of the very few things left in the world that I think I need to try. It’s the only thing I feel I truly lack.Not really rel­e­vant; it’s just back­ground. A few months back, hang­ing out at the locally owned café, I made the acquain­tance of the week­end dish­washer, a teen kid with whom I con­nected, entirely and totally, after about nine to eleven sec­onds of con­ver­sa­tion. The inter­dig­i­ta­tion was strong and a lit­tle eerie in its depth. He’s how I hope my future son will be, very bright, very sweet and just a good kid all around.Where he works there isn’t a pair of dish­gloves that fit him — the set there is too small. So when he takes them off at the end of his shift, they wrin­kle and fold back on them­selves, and end up in a dis­or­dered heap on the rack, in a way cer­tain to irri­tate the store’s owner. He can’t help it, and being a teen is a bit scat­ter­brained, so he tends to for­get the state of the gloves.A few weeks back I was in the café, and there were the gloves, disheveled and hope­less in a rub­bery heap where he’d left them the night before. I smiled to see them, think­ing of the bun­dle of energy and life that had touched them last, think­ing of noth­ing else in par­tic­u­lar, and then real­ized that what I was see­ing was a deep les­son — that a rum­pled pair of gloves would be mean­ing­less, anony­mous, just a bit of noise to most observers; but they meant some­thing to me — they were a cipher whose code I could read — and that the world is actu­ally full of this noise. View Full Article »

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