Gratitude–and Thanksgiving

America celebrates Thanksgiving each year on the fourth Thursday in November. Canada, whose holiday preceded America’s in history , celebrates it on the second Monday of October.  It has it’s faith aspects for many, but it can easily be viewed as a time to express gratitude to anyone and anything that has made one’s life better. For my family it comports as comfortably as a Buddhist holiday as to others of Judeo-Christian heritage or any of the many other faiths practiced in America.

Nichiren, the 13th century founder of the Buddhism that I practice, frequently expressed gratitude to followers in letters he sent them. He took pains to acknowledge in detail his thanks for food, clothes, money or other support they sent him while he was in exile or living in a remote location. In those days, things could get lost or stolen in transit. So in addition to showing appreciation he let them know he received what they sent.

For me, I owe gratitude to countless people in my life. My parents, who brought me into the world, especially my mother who did her best to care for me after my father passed away and until she too passed away. My brother and his wife who took me in at age 16 after my mother passed away (my father died years before). Another brother who,  along with the one who took me in, offered many life lessons. Teachers who inspired and gave me tools I use today. The person who introduced me to Buddhism and all those who have guided and inspired me in continuing to grow in that practice which has enriched my life. The master sergeant in Vietnam who was the bane of my existence the entire year I spent there. Why him, who treated me so badly?

My book, Waiting for Westmoreland, details the odd link to my future father-in-law, who so opposed my marriage to his daughter that he threatened to kill us. To him as well I have great gratitude. It was that threat that so motivated me in my Buddhist practice that my life and that of his daughter has been so joyful and successful. I didn’t hate him for it at the time; instead I prayed for his happiness. A happiness that he too achieved. So it matters not whether someone has given support, criticism or worse–in the end it’s possible to find a reason to appreciate all. Gratitude and thanksgiving are essential to living a happy and fulfilling life.

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Syrian Refugees and the GOP

It’s early for the political silly season but then the GOP political candidates have been pretty far out there for a while. Now their governors have joined the party. They should serve crackers and cheese with all the whining they’re doing.  They whine about debate moderators. Now they’re whining about the Syrian refugees possibly bringing terror to America. They whine incessantly about everything that President Obama says. Ted Cruz says if Obama wants to insult him, do it to his face and debate him. Did Cruz buy his degree from Harvard Law or did he skip class when Constitutional Law was taught? Maybe he doesn’t know about American law because he was born in Canada. [No offense to my Canadian friends.] I’ll put my Georgetown JD up against his Harvard (?!) degree and let him know that allowing Christian refugees into America but denying Muslims entry runs afoul of that picky little detail about religion in America’s First Amendment.

I suppose we could excuse non-lawyers Trump (shut down the mosques) and Ben Carson (no Muslim president) for being unaware of American constitutional provisions. But as President of the US, there really is no excuse. Many, if not most of those Republican governors that want to keep out suffering Syrians are probably lawyers as well. They should know better. For all those supposedly evangelical and otherwise devout types among GOP presidential candidates and their supporters there is another little problem–what the actual religious leaders say about the matter.

The National Association of Evangelicals says this:

“Of course we want to keep terrorists out of our country, but let’s not punish the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS,”  Leith Anderson, NAE president.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops says this:

“I am disturbed . . . by calls from both federal and state officials for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. These refugees are fleeing terror themselves—violence like we have witnessed in Paris.

. . .

Instead of using this tragedy to scapegoat all refugees, I call upon our public officials to work together to end the Syrian conflict peacefully so the close to 4 million Syrian refugees can return to their country and rebuild their homes. Until that goal is achieved, we must work with the world community to provide safe haven to vulnerable and deserving refugees who are simply attempting to survive.” Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Migration

Ah, but those politicians know what voters want, forget what the religious leaders think–what do they know anyway!

Hey, if it were up to Trump and some of the others, if they were in the White House they would probably round up all the Muslims and put them in an internment camp annex to Guantanamo. Too dangerous to lock them up in America! None have proposed that publicly (yet) but you know some of them are thinking it.  It worked for the Japanese Americans in WWII; why not the Muslims now, eh? I suppose I shouldn’t be giving Trump, Carson or Cruz ideas–but if you happen to be Muslim, you should  just hope none of them are living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next year. Maybe the DSM will add Islamophobia to its list of psychiatric disorders soon.

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Paris and ISIS–What Must We Do?

ISIS strikes again. Politicians posture. People of faith pray. Survivors grieve. Analysts parse French President Hollande’s words, “an act of war.” Less often of late have I discussed the application of my own faith to such matters. It’s time to do so again, it seems. But first, some observations on which responses are appropriate and which not predicated on other perspectives.

If a terrorist attack is “an act of war,” then the Western tradition of a “just war”–beginning with Cicero, moving through Augustine and Aquinas may be instructive. The concept assumes that while war is to be avoided, some evils justify it. Nonetheless, the conduct of war must be just as well–despite the injustice of those on the other side. Clearly attacking civilian non-combatants is excessive. It’s the evil that justifies war. But then, is it ISIS or ISIL? The latter is the would-be state description; not necessarily the reality. Can there be a war against a non-state or a war by a non-state? An American president referred to a “war on terror”–similar to the non sequitur “war on drugs.”

How about the legitimacy of self-defense? That, at least, has a semblance of rational accuracy. To the extent it is a war, is symmetrical or asymmetrical? For the most part, it’s the latter. With terrorist acts committed by those devoted to the ostensibly religious (albeit perversely distorted) faith of the members of ISIS it’s clearly asymmetrical. Yet the political posture of many is to assert or (in some cases deny) the value of a military response including airstrikes, drone strikes and ground attacks on concentrations of ISIS. While this response seems plausibly appropriate and probably necessary, it won’t in the end, be sufficient.

Witness the Machiavellian realism or Realpolitik, if you will, of Henry Kissinger leading Richard Nixon’s war and diplomatic policies in Vietnam. Those culminated in the farcical Paris Peace Accords 40 some years ago for which Kissinger and Le Duc Tho jointly received Nobel Peace Prizes. Kissinger’s realism ignored the ethical constraints of a just war in saturation bombing of North Vietnam to get them to the bargaining table. Le Duc Tho at least had the integrity to refuse the award, since the North had no intention of living up to the accords.

Whether it’s highly motivated guerrillas or misguided religious fanatics, battlefield victories alone are not sufficient. The principle of winning the “hearts and minds” of the people is just as valid today with respect to ISIS recruitment as it was with the people of Vietnam. What does that mean? It means that people of faith will make the meaningful contribution to stopping the prevalence of terrorism–not just by ISIS but by all the groups around the world that find the methodology of terrorism their tactic of choice.

In the short term (decades, not months or years) military responses may sometimes be necessary. In the short term no amount of human intelligence, surveillance, imprisonment or reactive strikes against terrorists will protect everyone throughout the world from death or suffering. This is where the faith comes in. From the Buddhist perspective, individuals have karma–karma that may include injury or even death at the hands of others. That doesn’t excuse those who inflict those injuries or death; they create their own karma that will sooner or later result in a just reward. Nor does the pacifistic humanism of Buddhism preclude self-defense against those perpetrators. However, the individual and societal karma is what it is. For that reason, in the short term, attacks like those in Paris will persist. Again, no amount of surveillance or human intelligence can prevent all of them–that is the reality of the world in which we live.

What then will make a lasting impact to change this situation? People of faith offering prayers within their own systems of belief. Prayers to treat others as they themselves would be treated. This concept has many names or descriptions but remarkable similarities among most major religions. It implies humanism, not religious absolutism that some believe justifies oppressing or killing those who don’t follow their extreme fundamentalist views.  Is this a naive or Pollyanna like view of human nature? No, it’s the only real way to make the world a happier, safer place. Converting others to fundamentalist beliefs won’t help. Killing them won’t help. Taking personal responsibility for one’s own happiness, well being and security is the answer. It won’t happen overnight. Humans have been at war with one another for millenia; we still are. If there were easy answers we would have solved this problem a long time ago. But if we are ever to get off this merry go round, we must stop looking at them as the problem and reforming the tenets of our own hearts. Yes, there are evil people in the world. Yes, we must sometimes kill them. But we must start making the world in which youth are recruited to groups like ISIS more appealing than ISIS.

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Honor America’s Veterans

Yes, it’s another Veterans Day. For some, it’s a day to get a bargain at a store. For some it’s a day off from work. For others, it’s a day they don’t even get a day off. But for those who lost loved ones in the many conflicts America has been involved with since it’s battle of independence from Great Britain through Iraq and Afghanistan it’s a day to honor their service.

Lorraine Schneider said in her iconic poster from 1967 opposing the Vietnam War, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Of course it’s not healthy for those in the military either–whether sent off by politicians to fight a “just war” or one with no rational purpose and no clear winners or losers–save the soldiers and civilians whose lives are lost.

Although the war in Afghanistan eclipsed Vietnam as America’s longest war, its deaths are dwarfed by Vietnam, the fourth deadliest war in American history.  The wall of the Vietnam Memorial now has 58,267 names on it. The Civil War was far worse in terms of casualties, followed by World War II and World War I. Somewhat surprisingly, Korea comes in close behind Vietnam. The combined total for Iraq and Afghanistan places them at number nine. But death and suffering is death and suffering–whenever and wherever it occurs.

Serving America in a “bad” war is no less an honorable thing than serving in a “good” one. Those who survived as well as those who died deserve the honor and gratitude of all. My war was the Vietnam War. I went willingly but came back strongly opposed to it. But I bear no ill will to those who served along with me. Their service is to be commended. Their deaths are to be remembered on Veterans Day. Rancor is reserved for the politicians and the decision makers who put the lives of soldiers and civilians who support them on the line. War may at times be necessary, but it’s always unhealthy for everyone. Remember those this day for their effort to make the best of it by their service and sacrifice.

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The Times They Are . . .

Many of you will recall Robert Zimmerman’s (AKA Bob Dylan, for his appreciation of Dylan Thomas) lyrical commentary on “the times” from decades ago. The times continue to change today. Now, in Colorado for example. There, behind closed doors open only to those above the age of 21—much like the adult bookstores of a bygone era [they are gone now aren’t they, with their wares widely available on the web?] a world of wowee wonder awaits. Display cases hold various vials with odd names like “sour diesel.” Containers are color-coded for sativa, indica or hybrid blends with varying percentages of each. Edibles and extracts are showcased like treats in a candy store. Cartridges pre-loaded with hash oil for vaping hold similar variants. Some of the products are recommended for pain, others for creativity and some for relaxation. It’s a buzz bazaar—the first wave in a new order. Coming as much or more from the millennial perspective or those from just a few more years older and now in elected office than from the dopers or stoners of the 70s, now in or soon approaching retirement. Thanks for the memories, Bob.

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Don’t Get a Ticket or Need to Pay a Fine in Alabama

Alabama is a tough place to be poor and get a traffic ticket or incur a fine for what might be a relatively minor offense. You could be asked to give blood or be figuratively bled (until recently) by private companies. See this  report of a judicial ethics complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Defendants who showed up before an Alabama circuit court  judge in response to an order to appear for a hearing on fees and costs they owed were told this by the judge:

“If you do not have any money and you don’t want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring me your receipt back, or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money,”

SPLC went on to note:

Wiggins said to consider the option of giving blood “a discount rather than putting you in jail.” However, no one who donated blood received any “discount” on their court debt; they simply received a reprieve from being thrown in jail.

In other news about Alabama from SPLC, Judicial Correction Services (JCS), informed remaining municipalities that they were leaving the state effective November 13. The company had been sued by SPLC for racketeering in its threats to put people in jail for failure to pay fines or debts owed to localities in Alabama. As the SPLC reported,

“JCS offers municipal courts its services at no cost to them. People who can’t pay traffic tickets and other minor fines in a lump sum are placed on what is known as “pay-only probation,” and judges assign JCS to collect payments. The company profits from fees it charges – typically $40 a month – to people making payments, prolonging their ordeal and making it more difficult to pay off their debt. Company officials often threaten people with jail to secure payment, and many defendants end up behind bars.”

Although illegal federally since 1833, states and localities have been expanding the incarceration of people for failure to pay debts–and not just ones owed directly to courts or state and local governments.  This is something that the SPLC, the ACLU and other groups are very concerned with.

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Curing Writer’s Block–Whether Maddening or Myth

writer who might be blocked
From a painting by Goya












Inertia—Although I’m not a scientist or engineer, I like to apply a concept from physics to this problem some of us writers face. I see it as the principle of inertia at work. An object at rest tends to remain at rest; an object in motion tends to stay in motion (subject to gravity, friction, wind resistance, etc.). In the case of a writer, one first has to overcome the inertia of being at rest—staring at a blank screen or page, fingers unmoving without the impetus of the mind’s direction. So what’s to be done, with a project in mind but no thought on how to proceed. That’s the classical predicament, is it not? You want, you need to get something down on that story, that article, that page in the novel. But your mind is not cooperating, it’s as if the mind were frozen, locked up like a malfunctioning bit of software on the computer. This is when you might use inertia to your advantage.

Write anything—you can write something can’t you? No, not on the task at hand. Something else. You could write something about that vacation you took last year. The problem with your car that the mechanic fixed. The movie, the restaurant, the play—somebody else’s book that you enjoyed. It doesn’t matter what. Now your writing mind is in motion. It wants to stay in motion as the principle of inertia demands. So when the alternate writing gets up to speed, try shifting to the work that you were initially unable to do. It may not work all the time, but the simple confidence boost, the mental shift may be enough to get you going. If not, instead of choosing some mundane topic of no immediate practical value, you chose to make some progress on another project that is on another to do track, what happens? You will have accomplished something of value, despite the block on the task that you intended to work on.

Physical activity—So maybe doing something else doesn’t help if you have an absolute deadline. Resistance to motion is stronger, back in the inertia analogy, with a deadline. So what else can you do? A little oxygenating, pulse racing exercise for a short time may help. Gets the brain functioning at a higher level. A walk outside, some trips up or down stairs. Nothing that will wear you out, just something to get the blood and oxygen going. What else? If caffeine helps, fine; but note that it might make you more frazzled. Play with the dog or another pet; they’ll be happy for the attention paid to them instead of the intention that the computer or the writing pad gets from you. This is restorative, calming if you find yourself too tense to proceed.

Rest/Relax/Take a Break   Makes no sense, does it? You need to work, not be lazy, right? It’s not lazy if you can escape the grip of anxiety or stress over the inability to do the writing. Take a nap. If not a nap, perhaps meditation or whatever other relaxation technique you use. Be careful with drugs or alcohol. While they may offer relief, they also may offer too much in the way of escape. It’s all in what your mind and body can handle and make use of. A few sips of wine may remove the inhibiting thoughts that locked the writing part of the brain. A few more and you may be inclined to say the hell with it. Mary Jane all the more so. She is a tempting Goddess. Only you know your functional limit. Don’t buy into the historical anecdotes about the authors who must drink to write—unless you are quite sure you are one of them.


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Reviews: Have Bags Will Travel and Necromancer Awakening

Two very different books, but I found them both entertaining. Excerpted here are my reviews of them from Goodreads.

Have Bags, Will TravelHave Bags, Will Travel by D.G. Kaye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In reviewing Have Bags, Will Travel I must first confess that I have never been a woman, at least in this lifetime. That, not to put too much of a sexist spin on it, means I don’t have the shopping gene. Still, having watched countless movies and TV shows over a lifetime—and read a few books as well, I am familiar with the whole shopping zeitgeist. Then too, I have had the experience of traveling hither and yon. Not having the shopping gene has saved me from some of the travel travails that D.G. Kaye humorously recounts. The need for a travel scale to weigh suitcases. Customs enforcers frequently finding fault, or at least doubt, with her attention to limits on the value of goods brought into the country.
Whether you’re a shopper or not, there’s no doubt that flying is not as much fun as it once might have been for many. The seats get smaller, the aisles narrower, the allowable luggage more compact and of course the security checks have become over the top. Ms Kaye covers it all in a breezy book, reminiscing on her adventures around the globe with friends and fellow shoppers. It’s a fast and funny read.

Necromancer Awakening (The Mukhtaar Chronicles #1)Necromancer Awakening by Nat Russo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this book very much. Why? Relatively fast paced, develops interesting cultural artifacts in the realms in which Nicholas, the main character moves. He is the familiar (but well done) reluctant hero, at first bewildered but eventually growing into his magical powers. Russo does a good job of sketching the mental gyrations of someone developing magic that requires interactions with forces both living and dead within the world he is unexpectedly transported to. The only improvement that could be asked for is some additional development of secondary characters. But as this is basically an action-oriented thriller within the speculative fiction genre that is not something to be expected. I assume we will see more development of the other characters in the following books in the series, which I will be reading soon.

View all my reviews

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The Politics of Self-Identity

On the forms asking for race I always check other and write in “human.” Since we all really are members of that race and the others are just constructs that are not genuine scientifically speaking, my act of civil disobedience reflects my personal view. Oh sure, it defeats the noble purpose of assuring that a given provider of services, etc., doesn’t discriminate based on the arbitrary observations of bigots. Still, as a Caucasian married to an African-American with children from our union, it seems the right thing to do. All the more so given our experiences in elementary school. My son had some learning disabilities that required/entitled him to some assistance. That assistance comes with governmental regulations that require an annual Individualized Education Plan. That in turn requires a periodic meeting with a whole host of school officials–a special education person, a representative of the principal, a social worker, a psychologist and some ordinary teacher. The telling thing came when one of the people, either the social worker or the psychologist I believe, asked whether our son identified himself as black or white. This being the 80s, perhaps she might have been excused for failing to foresee the commonplace adoption of the mixed-race perspective among those who are members of that group. We said neither. She persisted, insisting that he must eventually come to self-identify as one or the other. We basically, without rancor and not in so many words told her that she was full of fecal matter. He’s in his 30s now and I am unaware of his choice, if any. Undoubtedly there are many who still feel the same way as she. But that is their problem, not his. Our daughter, on the other hand, happily considers herself among the “mixed” group. Neither has had a problem with living with that perspective.

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The Rudelican Party

Oh it is so early in the season for a political rant. Somehow, despite the calendar showing October 1st on Thursday, it seems to be time already for it. Republican doesn’t seem an apt name, why not change the party to the Rudelican Party? After all, so many its political stars as well as its supporters among the media are demonstrably rude much of the time. One might think that many were among the bullies at school during their teen years. So who are these people that are deserving of the epithet rude? Well, unless you live under a rock, you know who they are. Here’s just a highly abbreviated list:

  • Donald Trump (is he really Don Rickles in disguise?)
  • Ted Cruz
  • Rush Limbaugh
  • Sarah Palin
  • Jason Chaffetz
  • Michele Bachman
  • Darrell Issa
  • Ann Coulter
  • Harold Gowdy (Rep from South Carolina)
  • Joe “You Lie!” Wilson of California (outburst at President Obama during a State of the Union)
  • Bill “Oh Really” O’Reilly
  • Sean Hannity
  • Glenn Beck
  • Most members of the “Tea Party”
  • Most members of the “Freedom Caucus”

The list could go on and on but that should be unnecessary. How many of them spent hours badgering Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood? How many still claim President Barack Obama was not born in the US or is a Muslim? If they don’t actually say it, the polls are clear that they believe both of the specious claims about the President. Note, Ted Cruz was born in Canada and does not deny it, but apparently may qualify to run for President because his parents were American citizens. While we have lumped together media types with the politicos, the baggage falls more heavily on the latter. Unknown to many, if not most of them, the point of being elected to office is to a job. That job is to govern; a concept unfamiliar to them. If they want to sit on the sidelines and throw stones, they don’t need to be in Congress to do that. All they need to do is get a gig on Fox News , certain websites, etc. More on this below.

In addition to rudeness, the way that they behave when things don’t go their way one might think many were only children, so similar are they to spoiled brats. As some might say to them, “put your big boy pants on when you come to Congress.” How many votes past 50 did they take in futile efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (which they persist in calling Obamacare)? The newest campaign is to stop funding Planned Parenthood for which they are willing to throw rocks and sand in the gears of government—to shut it down if they can’t get their way. Why not simply throw temper tantrums on the floors of Congress? Roll on the floor, scream, kick their feet and so on like the infantile non-adults they are? Whatever merits their objectives may have (little to none, of course) what happens when the government is shut down? Air traffic controllers, the FBI, the Border Patrol (those people they are so concerned about for keeping those Mexican rapists and murderers out of America) and other essential employees must keep working. Others may be furloughed. But NONE are paid their regular checks on time. Oh, eventually they are. Unfortunately for them, most still have mortgages, a need for groceries, utility and medical bills, etc. But hey, they’re just part of that no good federal government. “F**k ‘em” the Rudelicans most likely say in private, if not in public.

OK, there are some of the Republicans that have sense. Some that are civil and courteous. Some that care about government employees and about actually governing and not pontificating rudely. People like John McCain, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and even—a fair part of the time, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell (but not all of the time. So for those that don’t belong in that new wing, let’s leave them as Republicans. For the rest, you know who they are and they know who they are—why not adopt this more accurate moniker, Rudelican?

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