Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday Beefcake

Monday, April 18, 2011

Zen Spice

Last night, or in the small hours of this morning, I dreamed I was watching the Spice Girls perform the Japanese tea ceremony.  Some interest in how the Spices became skilled in the way of tea, particularly as they were brewing a particularly thick tea, was my only remembered response to the ceremony.  I learned the ceremony in a sixth-grade class in Japanese culture in the mid-1960s, but I have forgot it all, consciously anyway, although the dream--and its seemingly accurate details--would suggest that some of that knowledge still clings to my unconscious.

I've taken the dream to be a self-admonition to be more mindful in my daily life.  Good luck on that, I say to myself, having descended to a kind of willful slovenliness in the past several years.  Still, I made my bed smartly before leaving for school this morning, and tried to be there while washing some bowls and serving ware in my sink this morning.  I may not get to the point of ritualizing dusting and sweeping, as I really should, but who knows?

Baby steps.  Baby steps on the flat stones towards the irregularly clicking water wheel.  Wannabe-zen.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Socialist Leanings

Cuba looms large in the imagination, disproportionate to its size and population, as large in most Americans' imaginations as Mexico, at times larger than Russia or China.  Its history is linked with ours--New World colonies (Cuba's independence lagging over 100 years after ours), shared ethnic heritage (like ours, its culture is a distinctive blend of native, European, and African influences), and shared economic interests in the first half of the twentieth century, especially for the decade after World War Two, when US investments enriched the island nation and Havana was a playground for rich American playboys.

At the time that the Batista regime (i.e. those most enriched by US investments) fell to communist guerrillas, the US was succumbing to what President Eisenhower shortly thereafter warned was the malign influence of "the military industrial complex."  Fidel Castro governed Cuba through the ups and downs of nine, ten, or eleven US Presidents, depending on whether one counts Eisenhower and Obama (whose inauguration preceded Castro's retirement by a month).  [Point of interest:  if we go with the number eleven, Castro's presidency equals a quarter of total US Presidencies since Washington.]  Reportedly, Castro survived 638 assassination attempts by the CIA--arguably, if one is prone to see history as Oliver Stone envisions it (and, frankly, darkly, his view of things strikes me as often fairly close to the mark), that's 638 more than JFK.  At 84, Castro still casts a daunting shadow over US capitalism.  His death, inevitable if not imminent, even at such a great age, will no doubt be treated by the American political right as a godsend equivalent to the unforeseen (and, as yet, unexpected) capture of Osama Bin Laden.

Much is made of Cuba's human rights violations.  They are indisputable.  I should note, however, that the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and the transgendered have been protected under Cuban law since 1979--24 years before the US Supreme Court overturned states' sodomy laws criminalizing the lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness of America's equivalent citizens.  On Saturday, Fidel's brother and successor, Raul Castro, announced further democratizing steps--limitations on presidential terms (to no more than two five-year terms per president) and continued support of loosening restrictions on private enterprise and decreasing government subsidies where such funding tends to diminish citizens' drive to work. 

The catch, as one commentator on public radio expressed it, as I was waking up this morning, is that Castro wants to put caps on the amount of wealth an individual can acquire.  Three years ago a reader of this blog called me a socialist because I suggested that it might be reasonable to cap CEO salaries at no more than 100 times what a company's least well paid employee earns--so that if the lowliest receptionist earns, let's say, $25,000 a year, the company's highest paid employee should earn no more than $2,500,000.  The proposition still strikes me as generous--but then I do favor unions over Wall Street--and an even lower cap at 50:1 still seems generous (and fairer) to me.

I can't say I'm a particularly adept socialist.  My knowledge of economics is all but nonexistent.  I have a pretty good bullshit detector, though, and most of the cant I hear through the American media sets its alarm off.  I can't see how, for instance, advocates of the idea that all Americans should be responsible for themselves, especially those advocates who claim we all have the capacity (on a "level playing field," no less) for pulling ourselves up into wealth by our own bootstraps ... I can't see how these same advocates can complain about inheritance taxes (what the right likes to peg as "death taxes").  Why should a billionaire's children inherit anything at all?  Isn't it the billionaire's responsibility to train her or his children to make their own billions?  When a billionaire dies, what's wrong with cashing in the estate, minus a generous allowance for a surviving spouse, if incapable of maintaining an independent living, and putting the money into public works--hospitals, schools, military, highways, national parks, air traffic control, fire departments, and so forth?

While I am confessing my failure to understand the US economy, let me pose three more questions:  At what point in history, ever, has the wealth of the wealthiest in America "trickled down" to the poorest?  And, two, how is it possible that businesses must be ever-growing and ever-expanding to survive, when resources and demand have natural end points?  And how, if capitalism's "invisible hand" ensures that the ready, useful, and hard working are rewarded as they deserve, did we ever reach the point where WWE wrestlers make more money than nurses--or Jersey Shore cast members (presumably both untrained and relatively inexperienced as entertainers) make more than police officers?

I may be a "socialist" for just asking such questions, but at what point does somebody become a "greedy capitalist pig" for expecting the poor to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and still plummeting deeper into debt, while letting GE not pay a cent in federal taxes for 2010 and pampered heirs of adult age, already privileged with tony business contacts and legacy admission to the country's best universities, claim billions as their own, to the earning of which they contributed nothing?

[Note: The chart at the head of this post is dated 2009.  It is used only to prettify the post, and I make no reference to it whatsoever.]

Sunday Beefcake

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Sunday Beefcake

Saturday, April 9, 2011


We're doing Quixote again in World Literature class.  And, again, it impresses me with its modernity, its central theme being the madness and the irresistible romance of living by outdated principles and beliefs.  Who today can't relate to that struggle?  The mind is an impressionable organ, and the dents and nicks it receives in just a single lifetime pretty much define what it is and how it will be remembered for however long it will be remembered.  And, on top of that, an entire culture!  The baggage of culture--norms, revelations, prejudices, myths, traditions, laws, rites--all received ready to wear, and into this crib we are born, and in it all the hard knocks of the individual life are defined, contained, and reinforced.  

Don Quixote does irreparable harm by living in his dreams, spawned from too much reading about false realities that, as Cervantes notes in his prologue, Aristotle, St Basil, and Cicero never spoke of--that is to say, as I take it, realities that science, charity, and civil law know nothing of.  His chivalrous concept of justice leads him to attempt to rescue a 15-year-old servant from the harsh master who has tied him to a tree to beat him, but no sooner has Quixote left the scene, self-righteously waving his makeshift spear, than the master ties the boy back up again for an even worse beating.  And the harm ultimately comes back to Quixote himself, in the end, surrounded by mirrors and confronted with his measly absurdity and decrepitude, so that his relatives and neighbors may "cure" him of his "madness"--a cure that succeeds admirably ... and absolutely, since Quixote dies immediately thereafter, a shivering, neurasthenic mess.

So, too, there is the romance of living in one's technicolor dreams.  Reality is a bitch, as they say, and it's a crutch, Lily Tomlin said, for people who can't handle drugs.  In Don Quixote, what we see of the outside world, the world outside Quixote's romance-fevered imagination, is no great shakes--peasants who have learned to thrive on cruelty and guile; businessmen whose whole world revolves around turning an ever-inflated profit, unaware that supply and demand are limited; noblemen whose whole world languishes in inherited wealth and a jaded and corrosive sense of irony.  No wonder Quixote cracks and decides to wear kitchen utensils and speak lines straight out of potboilers.

Then there's Sancho Panza, too.  Not an educated man, foolish enough to cater to Quixote's grandiose fantasies just on the promise of an island kingdom of his own at the end of the line, but with enough native wits about him to see the plain light of reality more often than not.  But then, being a realist, why does Sancho persist in following Quixote despite strong, well-founded doubts and an ability to recognize that Quixote's quests pose more risk than glory for them both?  The answer is sad yet understandable.  Without Quixote and his madness, there can be no island kingdom at the end of the line either.  Sometimes to give up the fantasy is to give up hope--as, again, demonstrated in Quixote's ultimate downfall:  bereft of illusions, his life is demolished.

At the end of Annie Hall, Woody Allen recounts an old joke: "This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, my brother's crazy.  He thinks he's a chicken.'  And the doctor says, 'Well, why don't you turn him in?'  The guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.'"  The human need for illusions--even destructive and paranoid ones--is an idea Allen explored in other films (Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and most recently You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), and it's one our culture has not yet worked its way through yet--witness the growing number of atheists and agnostics coming out of the closet, matched only by the number of theists arguing their beliefs in a deity and an afterlife on the basis that life would be too terrible without them.  But the postmodern condition is not modern, much less post-modern.  Cervantes was outlining it 400 years ago.

Friday, April 8, 2011


It occurred to me this afternoon, while mulling over Milton's Paradise Lost, that for years I had misread the story of the Garden of Eden.  In my youth I thought it was about man's disobedience to God in a vaguely sexual way, what with all the co-ed nudity and all.  Later, Milton's epic half-convinced me that it was about man's failure to put God first in his life, Adam choosing damnation with Eve as opposed to everlasting life without her, then that the curse for disobedience would be mankind's inability to understand goodness from a pure state of innocence, but only in opposition to evil and suffering.  Even later, I considered the possibility that it was about missed opportunities--that is, man's failure to nab something off the Tree of Life (which granted eternal life and, I assume, youth) before being ousted from Eden by the angel with the fiery sword--sort of like a primordial Aladdin using up his three magic-lantern wishes without remembering to make one of them "three more wishes."  It was only this afternoon that the (now) obvious psychological significance of the story struck me.  In Eden, Adam and Eve were permitted to eat of all of the trees in the garden except that of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Isn't it just like human nature to want precisely the one thing that is disallowed?  And even in a garden so perfect as to have allegorical trees and talking animals, the quintessential human impulse is to cross boundaries and fly in the face of authority.  Go, humankind, go!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Beefcake


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