In Search of the Champagne Life
by Jennifer Barnick
See It Then Be It (1/12/05 Vol. 3 No.30)
In yesterday’s column (click here to read) I talked about Carlos Castaneda and whether or not his large body of work on the magic and wisdom of the Yaqui Indians through the teachings of Don Juan were a hoax or genuine reporting. Through this question I found that when I applied personally one of Don Juan’s lessons, not to take oneself so seriously, I found that I benefited. The complicated issue was, however, that even though I found depth and effectiveness in the teachings of Carlos Castaneda’s Native American teacher, my overall faith in the instruction still was tempered by whether or not the teachings were authentic. I still do not have a solid consensus regarding the validity of Mr. Castaneda’s work, however, I am continuing to enjoy laughing at myself. One of the key elements that eggs on, so to speak, the skeptics is the seemingly fantastical elements in Mr. Castaneda’s work—leaping tall bounds, traveling long distances using just the mind, seeing people as “luminous beings”, and giant animals (such as moths) bringing wisdom and guidance to aspirants and sorcerers alike.
In an opening of a defense for the more outrageous elements of Mr. Castaneda’s work I suggested yesterday the idea of vision quests and visions and within that context absolutely anything is possible…large moths giving wisdom are nothing for the immensity of the human imagination. On this point, however, I felt unsettled by the amount of time I was afforded in including with this idea of visions and the vision quest that the wisdom and indeed the take on reality they offer, the vision, is indeed as real and potent as any ordinary reality—that the vision quest is not the same as saying it was all a figment of their imagination. In fact, it is my argument that invariably our normal waking reality is the product of, as Don Juan calls it “the non-ordinary reality”—that with effort and skill and much “personal power” one can learn to vision or envision their life.
Jean Houston is most popularly known as an author. She writes primarily about learning to live a life of high potentials—learning to take one’s humanity to the highest level. But Jean Houston has also pursued her ideas in a more direct way by working with world and corporate leaders and now through a very exclusive institute she has founded, future world and corporate leaders are being taught skills of leadership and personal excellence. She was a protégée of the great cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead who worked tirelessly on the improvement for the conditions of man. One of Ms. Mead’s most famous quotes was, “Can the world be changed by a single person? Indeed, for that is all who ever has.” She also worked with and was very close to Joseph Campbell another scholar and thinker who strove to find sanity and grace in the human condition. To see Jean Houston speak in person (whether on television or not) is something to behold—she is funny, wise, and impeccably warm. Her authenticity is immediately apparent—she herself practices what she preaches—her genuine love for mankind and drive to improve lives is genuine and not vain for one can sense in her authenticity a sober effectiveness that rarely accompanies vainglory.
When Jean Houston is asked how this all began? How did the only daughter of a traveling performer become such a famed and respected writer, thinker, teacher and visionary Jean explains that it was from a vision she had experienced as a small child. Once when she was very young she found herself lying outside on the grass staring up at the clouds. She described the day as being very warm and wonderful. As she stared up into the sky the whole of the world appeared to have “opened up”. She described it as a sort of complete glow where everything seemed to disappear. Within that moment Jean says she felt the overwhelming presence of benignity and love in the Universe. Which much humor she admits that her experience sounds outrageous and surely was the product of an over-active child’s imagination. However, Ms. Houston’s expression grew quite serious when she says, “It was not simply day-dreaming…I felt a genuine presence of love and greatness in the world around me. It was one of the most profound moments of my life and would alter me forever…day dreams do not have that effect.” It would be this vision that would drive Ms. Houston in her work. For her the vision caused her to genuinely know there was a presence of great goodness in the Universe and it was this knowing that caused to her believe that it was well worth the work to improve the living conditions on earth. Now, one does not have to believe that her vision and experience with “non-ordinary” reality was real in order to see that the vision’s power was. Ms. Houston has the ear of some of the world’s most powerful people—quite a feat for a stage performer’s daughter from Brookline—all driven from a powerful vision.
This is but one small angle regarding the concept of visions and their power. The above story is only one way a vision can profoundly altar, create, and change one’s reality. Native American healers use vision quests for healing, wisdom, and personal power, and it is my argument that these visions are indeed powerful.
In the general excitement of reading Carlos Castaneda I decided to read yet another one of his books. This time I read his fourth book (1974) entitled Tales of Power. Tales of Power takes a departure from a drug/ hallucinogenic emphasis with regards to Native American shamanistic practices and describes magical, spiritual out of body type experiences as well as deep explanations of the nature of reality. The book is outrageously gripping, and in some passages, frightening. All in all though I must say that I loved the book. I personally found the lessons taught by Don Juan, the old, wise sorcerer, healer, sage were relevant, practical, and profound…and at times incredibly opaque.
After reading Tales of Power I found myself wanting to know about Carlos Castaneda and his books. After a short time online I came to see something very clear: that many people do not think Don Juan or his books were “real”. There are several sites, books, etc. dedicated to proving or in many cases espousing that the Don Juan books were nothing but fiction. There were a few fan sites and a few that simply sold Mr. Castaneda’s books or gave a brief bio-sketch of the writer. He died in 1998 from liver cancer. He lived fairly reclusive. Castaneda was not his real name. Carlos Castaneda’s third book Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan was accepted by UCLA as his doctorial thesis and Mr. Castaneda was granted a PhD (1973).
Before I get into the idea that Mr. Castaneda may be a fraud I want to first talk a little about the book Tales of Power and one of my favorite themes throughout the book. “Stop taking yourself so seriously!” would have to be one of Don Juan’s favorite admonishments towards his apprentice Carlos Castaneda. Throughout the book one of the personal details regarding Don Juan is his humor. While Carlos is shaking and crying from fright Don Juan is laughing hysterically. Don Juan is constantly pointing out that while the world is no doubt perilous if one cannot learn to lighten up and find humor then one will not be able to function effectively. One of the main reasons according to Don Juan that people do not function well particularly when things get tough is that they are far too attached to themselves: that taking everything personally and seriously is the road to dire physical and emotional hardships. “Stop taking yourself so seriously!” I have used this line for the past week, and honestly it has caused much lightness in my heart. I cannot say I have used the full scientific method regarding this technique (as to recording and knowing its true effectiveness), but I can say that having the genuine goal of not taking myself so seriously has brought on positive changes in both my outer worldview and my inner personal view. I have found too that as my attachment to myself loosens so does my attachment to others—taking other people not so seriously also has an effect—I have found myself profoundly lighter on my feet and in my heart.
Good lesson…right? Even a lesson that I have decided to apply to my own life…. Should this be affected by the possibility that these books were not the anthropological findings of the ancient wisdoms of the Yaqui Indians but rather the wild imaginings of a man who was willing to lie a great deal? This proved (at least for me) to be a complicated question. On the surface, I could say that if I am benefiting from a lesson gleened from Don Juan then does it matter whether or not he actually existed? However, remaining inspired and ever-vigilant regarding the lightening up on one’s self is difficult and believing that Don Juan genuinely was this wise Native American who knew things…regarding the mysteries of the Universe and the true nature of reality then somehow when I call him up in my mind’s eye and I hear him say “Don’t take yourself so seriously!” I find a real surge of inspiration. But if I take the side of Mr. Castaneda’s critics than I doubt if I could bestow the same reverence and sense of awe to a fictional character. But why? And where does one go in these types of situations?
One thing that did give me comfort is that as I read through the sites against Mr. Castaneda, I could see an over-all trend: pettiness and un-substantiated claims. Some of the claims did have some teeth, however, they often used the incredulousness of Mr. Castaneda’s experiences with Don Juan as the primary cause for suspicion. This to me was fundamentally flawed because after awhile one can clearly see that most if not all of these adventures were highly personal and could better be seen as vision quests, and I do not believe there is any limitation to the human’s imagination. I want, however, to quickly add that I do not mean to imply that the vision quest or the imagination to be understood as somehow being less significant or powerful than if Carlos’ experiences happened for real. In fact, I do not believe the difference between visionary reality and the supposed ordinary reality are necessarily separated or at least in any way unequal in significance. With all that said regarding visions I will say that I found nothing so unbelievable or extreme in the Carlos Castaneda books (at least the two I read) that would warrant such bitter assaults. If one were to take even the briefest of Native American as well as other shamanistic traditions throughout the world one can easily see the parallels between Don Juan’s wisdom and practices and other indigenous peoples’ beliefs regarding the nature of reality.
What to do though? Should a fan of Carlos Castaneda leave the nay sayers alone and carry on happily with the faith that his books were true? For me personally I have decided to open up both possibilities that the books were real and that the books were an elaborate hoax. I have decided to research Mr. Castaneda’s life and work more and then find some inner agreement as to where I stand. In the mean time, however, I have also decided to continue with my ongoing effort to not take myself so seriously…because to be honest, I have really enjoyed all of the laughing.
Expansive—Expansion (1/10/05 Vol. 3 No.28)
One thing I have found on my search for the Champagne Life is the perpetual occasion for expansion—often through books—big books. At times, the language and ideas are quite ornate and complicated requiring me to re-read and re-read passages and look up words. Over the years I have found that to expand one’s vocabulary is an absolute necessity if one wants to expand one’s mind. Often, complicated ideas and thoughts are lost or perhaps worse, over generalized because one can not get the language to explain what they mean, and conversely complicated ideas can be beautifully outlined, however, if one does not grasp the actual words being used to describe said ideas then again, learning will remain elusive. So, without further ado I shall give you a great vocabulary list to study and learn. Have a friend test you on Friday!
Ado—n. busy activity: bustle; fuss. –Syn. Flurry; confusion, upset excitement; hubbub. Ado, to-do, commotion stir. Tumult suggest a great deal of fuss and noise. Ado implies a confused bustle of activity, a considerable emotional upset, and a great deal of talking.
Ebullient—adj. 1. overflowing with fervor, enthusiasm, or excitement; high-spirited. 2. boiling up; bubbling up like a boiling liquid.
Ecumenical—adj. 1. general; universal. 2. pertaining to the whole Christian church. 3. promoting or fostering Christian unity throughout the world. 4. or pertaining to a movement, esp. among Protestant groups since the 1800’s, aimed at achieving universal Christian unity and church union through international interdenominational organizations that cooperate on matters of mutual concern.
Eleatics—adj. 1. of or pertaining to Elea. 2. noting or pertaining to a school of philosophy, founded by Parmenides, that developed systematic methods of inquiry into the phenomenal world, esp. with reference to the phenomena of plurality and change.
Expiate—v.t., -ated, -ating. To atone for; make amends or reparation for. –expiator n.
Gossamer—n. 1. a fine, filmy cobweb seen on grass or bushes or floating in the air in calm weather, esp. in autumn. 2. a thread or web of this substance. 3. an extremely delicate variety of gauze.
Halcyon—n. 1. a mythical bird, usually identified with the kingfisher, said to have the power of calming winds and waves at sea. 2. any of various kingfishers, esp.. of the genus Halcyon. 3. calm; peaceful; tranquil: halcyon weather. 5. wealthy; prosperous. 6. of or pertaining to the halcyon or kingfisher.
Lascivious—adj. 1.inclined to lustfulness; wanton; lewd. 2. arousing or inciting sexual desire. 3. expressing lust or lewdness.
Palliate—v.t., -ated, -ating. 1. to attempt to mitigate or conceal the gravity of (an offense) by excuses, apologies, etc.; extunate. 2. to relieve without curing, as a disease; mitigate; alleviate.
Philologist—n. 1. the study of written records, their authenticity and original form, and the determination of their meaning. 2. linguistics.
Plebian—adj. 1. of, pertaining to, or belonging to the ancient Roman plebs. 2. belonging or pertaining to the common people. 3. common, commonplace or vulgar
Positivism—n. 1. the state or quality of being positive; definiteness; assurance. 2. a philosophical system concerned with positive facts and phenomena and excluding speculation upon ultimate cause or origins.
Putative—adj. 1. commonly regarded as such; reputed; supposed.
Subsume—v.t., -sumed, -suming. 1. to consider (an idea, term, proposition, etc.) as part of a more comprehensive one. 2. to bring (a case, instance, etc.) under a rule. 3. to take up into a more inclusive classification.
Sunder—v.t. 1. to separate; part; divide; sever.
Good luck and remember the best way to truly learn a new word is to weave it into your daily parlance. Make bold claims such as “Positivists are really self-deluded plebians.” or “In order to understand what is truly lascivious one must first subsume if farting at the dinner table is to be considered ecumenically offensive.” And remember that the best way to sound like you know what you are talking about without truly knowing is to use big words.
An Independent Redemption Part II (1/9/05 Vol. 3 No.27)
Today I am going to continue my discussion on Chekhov’s final short story The Fiancée. (click here for part I) The Fiancée is a curious and deceivingly quiet and simple story about a young woman’s quest for personal happiness and fulfillment and how ultimately the price for such a redemption meant to live solely for one’s own self and not for the happiness of others. Simply right? In fact, it sounds rather like many self-help books and talk show themes today…and it certainly, at least nowadays, is portrayed as the healthy thing to do…to help thyself first. And I believe it is in our own time that the most curious anthem of wisdom was coined: that in order to properly love others one must first love one’s self. The problem with phrases and ideas like these, that one must fall in love with one’s self before one can properly manage loving others, is that on the surface (and certainly if said often enough—particularly by celebrity psychologists) they might sound rather profound even wise, however, under rigorous examination major questions arise. This is where writers like Chekhov are so wonderful: they challenge our take on life and living. The story The Fiancée is no exception.
Before I go on I shall breeze through a quick run down of the story line. Nadya is a twenty-three year old woman living with her wealthy grandma and widowed mother. She is about to be married to a handsome, kind man of some wealth and no set profession (as of yet). Sasha is a consumptive family friend who essentially grew up with Nadya, but who is an intellectual living in Moscow and who holds Nadya’s life and world in contempt. Through Sasha’s continuing pressure Nadya flees her life in her provincial and backwater town and runs off to St. Petersburg to enroll in college. Quite unlike many stories of this time and genre (1903) Chekhov allows Nadya to do very well in college and not to somehow be punished (see Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady to see what a writer could do to a woman who goes for independence and adventure).
Chekhov is one of my favorite writers and one of the reasons I think he is such a genius is that he does not give in easily to histrionics. His stories are deceivingly quiet and simple…that if one were to bully their way through his work one is liable to miss the story…and I relish the daring of his subtlety.
You see, as one first runs through this story one is relieved and surprised by Nadya’s release: she is allowed to leave her fiancé at the altar, reject tradition and her family’s wishes, and survive safely and happily on her own. However, as the story winds down a peculiar discomfort arises regarding Nadya and her happiness. Three key things are very, very, subtly included as the story ends, and I stress that without care Nadya’s escape and run to school in pursuit of a life of meaning and purpose (as Sasha told her a life of meaning, work, and purpose was the only life worth living—and her and her mother and grandmother were just lazy wastrels who lived pitiful lives without any meaning and at the expense of others) could be seen as the apex of the story and the end was simple a tidy wrap-up of Nadya’s triumph. However, as above-mentioned three key things caused my mind to stumble a bit and take pause: had Nadya found the noble cause of pursing a life of purpose and meaning as Sasha had pressed her to do? Or was Nadya simple, impetuous, and spoiled? And was there something to be said about self-sacrifice? Could self-sacrifice offer a happier life than self-fulfillment? Because one of the most curious and fascinating ideas that arises is that if one lives under the ethos of self-fulfillment will one ultimately live a life of continued searching and will this restlessness cause life to ever-dwindle into tedium and dissatisfaction? The best part of this story is that Chekhov does not answer these questions. However, he does give us a meaty enough story to use as a springboard for debate.
As triumphant (or perhaps as non-punished) Nadya returns home she stops over in Moscow to visit Sasha the man who had brought about her decision to leave home. She was surprised to find a weak, dying (he was always weak and dying) man who was poor—and here’s the kicker—and well, a little dull, a little provincial. Suddenly, Nadya’s bold hero was no hero at all; in fact, to her he appeared downright lame. When Nadya arrives home at her grandmother’s house all has changed. The once nice home was now not so impressive and due to Nadya’s decision her mother and grandmother are no longer part of any type of social scene. When Nadya was engaged the ladies entertained frequently, now however, they live in shame and isolation. Nadya, however, doesn’t really pick up on this but rather notices how boring, ugly and lame everything is back home including her mother and grandmother. It seems that now that Nadya is a bold, intelligent sophisticate from St. Petersburg her other life is more pathetic than ever.
What is interesting here is that when the story begins Nadya is quite happy with her life and quite in love with her fiancé. And actually while Sasha’s claims were partly correct, they were not wholly correct. For Nadya’s fiancé had recognized Sasha’s claims that he was living a life without purpose and had told Nadya (as they toured what was to be the newlywed’s house) that after their wedding he was going to set out to find a vocation of meaning and purpose. And upon further examination one senses that part of Sasha’s contempt had more to do with Nadya getting married to a healthy handsome man than of Nadya's lack of purpose.
Nadya’s world falls apart as Sasha constantly tells her that her world is terrible. Nadya goes on to live the life Sasha had pressed and with that decision her mother, grandmother, hometown, and even Sasha become dull and stupid, and somehow one can’t help but sense all that Nadya’s bold escape did was make her a terrible snob—and one has a hard time believing that any sort of great redemption was had. One also has a hard time (at least I did) with the quiet, but obvious ruin Nadya’s flight brought to her grandmother and mother. For one realizes that Nadya’s marriage also meant a great deal to the survival and success of the whole familial unit. But even before my heart and mind can wholly stand on these ideas that Nadya was a terrible, selfish brat, I cannot help or avoid the reality that Nadya absolutely did not want to, as the date of her marriage closed in, marry her fiancé, and that Nadya absolutely loved college, was successful at it and unlike her mother (who was not a happy lady) had found a life she loved and enjoyed. But did she? Had young (and I stress the word young) Nadya truly found an enduring happiness through pursing self-fulfillment? Somehow, I feel that her subtle but very real trend of seeing people and places that were once dear as dull and pathetic was a dark foreshadowing of her future. Was Chekhov delicately showing the peril of pursing happiness based on personal predilection—above all else—at the cost of others’ happiness? The peril being that if personal happiness and self-worth become the goal of one’s life then will one find themselves in a treacherous footrace against boredom and a continued sense of dissatisfaction. Would her sense of things once grand going dull continue and move beyond her family and hometown? Would college become dull? St. Petersburg tedious? And would this trend of restlessness become somewhat habit forming—because ultimately nothing could ever match the adventure and exhilaration of her first escape—would this sense of escape and personal adventure perpetuate a miserable trend of dissatisfaction and flight?
However, if Nadya had stayed in her hometown and married her fiancé would her life play out any better? I do not know, but I do know this is why I love Chekhov…I shall be talking about this story and these ideas for sometime…most likely in my kitchen with friends, food, and good wine. And most likely great arguments will arise…and all from a little story written a hundred and two years ago…with ideas that today seem more relevant than ever. For in my time, Nadya’s decision is no longer in question, but rather obvious: of course she was right in leaving her fiancé and going to college. However, when I look at my own time I do not see an altogether happy population, and perhaps if we as a society were to look at our assumed anthems of wisdom such as the key to happiness is found in a deep love for one’s self, than a more complex, helpful and illuminating wisdom could be arrived upon. Perhaps Chekhov could see the tide that has finally wholly washed up and perhaps with deeper consideration some clues for resolution are somehow tucked underneath Nadya’s skirts or the purring samovar on Grandma’s grand old table.
Have a great weekend! See you on Monday.
An Independent Redemption Part I (1/6/05 Vol. 3 No.26)
Chekhov first came into my life the last day of my senior year in high school. For my graduation present I purchased myself a lovely old leather volume of The Complete Works of Chekhov. The book would add little more than decoration for some time. During the spring of my freshman year of college while living in San Francisco I finally decided to open my lovely, outrageously soft leather copy of Chekhov’s works. To say it affected me would be a more sober description of what happened once I began reading the dear, contemplative Russian. In truth, I found myself so overwhelmed and absorbed by Chekhov that I began to dress, think, and most likely (and I admit this with much embarrassment) speak differently. It was an odd contrast to the general company I kept—being an art student most of my friends were tattooed, pierced, punk-rocker, anti-establishment types—for I found myself wearing exceedingly lovely dresses, curls in my hair, silk scarves around my neck, flowers in my room, and a general air that can only be described as existentialism mixed with theology. Oddly, it was at this time in my life when I would find myself in the company, not of other artists’ crying foul to the world, rather an old friend from my home town of Modesto who was shamelessly greedy, ambitious, and who carried a general sense that his overall happiness is what living was about and everything else was to be treated as light-entertainment. I say oddly because it was at this time wine became a big part of my life for he and I would seek out and taste as many fine wines as we could afford, and as we would sip very fine wine we would argue about the nature of life, the world, god, and just about everything else under the sun. Yet we also would laugh heartily and together come to love wine with such a depth that now he owns a restaurant in Northern California with a decided wine theme, and I co-founded a magazine that is half-soaked with sparkling wine.
But back to Chekhov…. Although in truth, the above story is not so removed from what I hoping this wildly straying column to be about: namely Chekhov’s very last story The Fiancée and the troublesome idea that ultimately redemption must be a selfish endeavor.
I have some question as to how much I should “blow” the story, meaning if I don’t give you the ending I cannot really explain Chekhov’s wonderful survey of redemption, however, if I tell you the ending than I risk taking away the joy of discovery if one were to choose to take up reading Chekhov (a highly recommended activity by the way). I have decided in this case to give the ending because I feel that Chekhov’s writing is so wondrous and amazing that it surpasses being a clever story, and that like Shakespeare while we all know the ending to his plays it in no way takes away our enjoyment of them because the themes are endlessly engulfing. Essentially, I can tell you what happens in The Fiancée, however, the deeper themes of redemption, responsibility to others, to oneself and to tradition, and the morals surrounding happiness I believe will be forever fresh and complicated. I heartily suggest you read this story and then see if this writer’s take comes anywhere close to how you saw it…or perhaps you can get a friend and a fine bottle of wine and argue together over it…for it can be read in a matter of a half hour.
I shall breeze us through the story: a twenty-three year old girl waiting to be married, living with rich grandma, and mom in a large but out-dated home where the servants still sleep on the kitchen floor and where there is no indoor plumbing or running water. Male, youngish, consumptive, lives in Moscow, educated, maybe a little in love with above mentioned girl, but dying and more in love with education, modernity, and the idea that all people should have purpose…not, as in the case of the ladies he is staying with, lying around all day having servants do everything. Sasha is the consumptive’s name and slowly over the course of a few months manages to really get to Nadya the young fiancée. Her perfectly safe and quaint life including her perfectly handsome and sweet fiancée are now suddenly dull and terrible and she finds herself in a pretty hefty panic. This is classic nineteenth-century stuff, however, this was to be Chekhov’s last story and it would be written in 1903—a very important time for the world and a very, very, interesting time for Russia. What happens next is truly (if you’ve read a great deal of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century fiction) shocking: Nadya leaves her family and fiancée and runs off with Sasha. However, even more shocking is that it is not some man/ woman thing for Nadya only departs with Sasha, but then heads up to St. Petersburg alone and enrolls in college (Sasha lives in Moscow). And then what makes this story outrageously shocking is that she succeeds! Chekhov does not punish her for pursuing personal fulfillment. Her family forgives her she does well in school and basically knows she has done the most wonderful thing in the world.
Chekhov though is no mere master for he gives the story a subtle but complicated ending. An ending that brings to surface the nature of happiness and perception and the tantalizing question that is fulfillment a noble-enough quest for an individual or is it simply hubris?
That is all I have room for today. Tomorrow, I will be continuing my discussion of Chekhov’s The Fiancée.
Reason and Justice (1/5/05 Vol. 3 No.25)
Today Socrates is seen as a defiant philosopher who under the charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens stood up against his city and challenged their limited beliefs and understandings regarding what is truly just and wise. He is an important figure, perhaps now more than ever, to study and understand because he sought to forge a connection between personal freedom of both action and expression and justice. Socrates argued and felt that the personal freedom of man was crucial but injurious if it was not tempered by a strong sense of what was truly right and wrong. A society based on total personal freedom without moral bounds in Socrates eyes would eventually lead to degradation. A society, argued Socrates must have along with freedom of expression a tandem enforcement of sacred restraints (as Hobbes calls it) and a sense of obligation beyond the personal. If this combination of personal freedom and moral restraint is not achieved than a society of self-hatred, aimlessness, and indifference will arise. It is not surprising that increasingly more and more political thinkers are writing about and looking at Socrates as perhaps being a key to a superior democratic society, as our modern liberalism has not yet met a wholly sane, just, and fulfilling society.
The really big problem with legislating right and wrong is relativity. What is morally right for some might be wrong for others. So how then can a society forge a bond between personal freedom of expression and justice (including moral justice)? This too was a complicated challenge for Socrates because the irony was that Socrates himself was brought up on two charges: impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. Impiety and corruption of youth are both definitely moral concerns—moral charges—and both definitely challenged by Socrates. However, Socrates did in his own behavior show a way that a society could find a justice, a moral justice no less, that rose above superstition, blind adherence to tradition or society preference, and the tyranny of personal opinion. Socrates held his whole life that a universal justice did exist and through rigorously challenging the beliefs that surround one, including one’s very own cherished values, and applying Reason then a person (and a society) could ultimately come to a place of wise and tempered justice.
In Plato’s Euthyphro the question of what is piety is explored. For me what makes Euthyphyro poignant is not necessarily the cleverness of Socrates argument rather one can sense the personal and very real issue of piety as it so dangerously concerned Socrates. The quest for justice or more importantly a just society was not simply an abstract wish for Socrates. Justice was something that unless achieved, Socrates faced criminal indictment.
Euthyphro is a man who is, under the call for piety, bringing a murder suit against his father. In Socrates time, murder was not considered a crime against the state as it is today, but a crime against the victim’s family. In the event of a murder it was the victim’s family’s duty to bring about the charge and argue the case to a “morals judge”. In Euthyphro’s case he was bringing his father to trial on the behalf of one of his servants. This was seen as both heinous and outrageous for family loyalty was seen as paramount to all other loyalties—particularly when it involved honoring the father—the head of the family. The case is also complicated: a servant on the family’s estate got extremely drunk and in a rage cut the throat and murdered another servant on the estate. Euthyphro’s father had the murderous servant captured, bound, and thrown in a ditch and sent someone to get a city official in order to sort out the matter. During the time they were waiting for the government official the bound man due to cold and lack of proper care died. Euthyphro argued that while his father had not intentionally murdered the servant, through his gross negligence his father must be held accountable. The father, the city of Athens, and the rest of the family was outraged that not only was Euthyphro taking his father to trial, but that his father was proper in his actions and that the man who died was in fact a murderer.
Socrates and Euthyphro begin talking outside the courthouse where Euthyphro explains his case and makes his claim that he must bring his father to justice because it is the pious thing to do. Socrates is personally intrigued with this idea because he is currently waiting for his own trial for being impious. The question then Socrates poses to Euthyphro is what is piety? At first, Euthyphro poses himself as being of like mind as Socrates (and Socrates allows this)—both men are being cast as outsiders for having a different sense of piety. As the dialogue progresses, however, one can quickly see that Euthyphro is a bit of a fool: for even though he is calling for the death of his very own father under the moral safety of piety he cannot not really explain or say what this profound piety is. And while Euthyphro never concedes this point one can see that piety for Euthyphro is not a universal truth rather a personal opinion. And of course the deeper (and sadder) implication is that without rigorous examination of one’s beliefs then a political and legal system can bring a person to his death on the grounds of personal opinion versus genuine justice.
Is Socrates the key to our society’s woes? Perhaps, but what I believe is immediately clear is that Socrates brings the wisdom of rigor. When I read Socratic dialogues I find myself recharged with a sense of personal responsibility especially when it concerns judgment: judgment of others, social values, political systems, and myself. Very often it is said (and I wholly believe this) that one’s life is the sum of one’s decisions. However, I strongly believe that making good decisions should not be excepted as a wholly organic process—that becoming a wise decision maker is a skill—a skill that requires earnestness, study, and practice as any noble discipline does.
Fear and the Warrior (1/4/05 Vol. 3 No.24)
Carlos Castaneda is an anthropologist who studied the religious rituals and practices of the Yaqui Indians through an adept named Don Juan. Don Juan was a powerful sorcerer, healer, and wise man. Carlos was allowed deep inside the Yaqui world as no Westerner had by being accepted as an apprentice by Don Juan. This was a great thing of honor, but also for Mr. Castaneda a life-altering experience. Don Juan spoke of not only being a sorcerer and healer, but more importantly being a one who sees. A person who can see is a special man (or woman) of knowledge and this was ultimately Don Juan’s goal for Carlos. A goal that involved a great deal of hallucinogenic drugs such as peyote and a great deal of letting go. Both the drugs and the very real dissolving of the ordinary world proved to be too much for Mr. Castaneda and during his apprenticeship he removed himself from Mexico in order to run from the experience. Carlos wrote about his experiences with Don Juan and found fame in his writings. However, the deeper story is that Carlos found that the teachings had already changed him to the point of no return and Carlos, once again, found himself back in Northwestern Mexico seeking out more instruction from Don Juan. It is this period that is recorded in the book A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, and it is from this book that I shall be discussing fear—which was a topic of much discussion throughout the book.
Carlos Castaneda would go on to write a series of books on his experiences with Don Juan forming one of the most intimate and in-depth looks into the way of the Yaqui healer or wise man. A Separate Reality is not unlike a great ball of yarn in which only over time can the threads be pulled out and understood. Essentially, in no way could I write all of the lessons or even one of the lessons fully, however, my hope is to simply pull out a single thread and share enough of the qualities for you to at least begin to think about what Don Juan is trying to teach or express. I am excited to explore the way of the Yaquis this year and shall be revisiting the teachings of Don Juan throughout 2005, but back to the thread…fear…and more specifically “sham fear” versus the fear of the warrior.
Fear immediately plays a role in Carlos’ return to Mexico. He was terrified of the drugs and even more terrified by how the teachings of Don Juan were altering his view of reality. However, Don Juan saw Carlos’ “fear” in a wholly different light. Every time Carlos would complain of extreme fear Don Juan would laugh or sometimes angrily snap that Carlos was not afraid that Carlos was in fact, experiencing what Don Juan called “sham fear”. Both Carlos and I (as I read) were having a difficult time understanding the idea of “sham fear”. Mr. Castaneda was sweating, suffocating, shivering, balking, and going numb to the point of speechlessness—all great signs of panic. However, his teacher Don Juan would always yell at him and usually laugh brightly and loudly that Carlos was most definitely not truly afraid…again, Carlos was simply exhibiting “sham fear.”
Finally, out of great frustration Carlos pursues aggressively with Don Juan regarding how come Don Juan does not believe Carlos’ fear. And in a beautiful and elegant argument Don Juan explains to Carlos that what he was calling and perceiving as fear was actually frustration and anger that things were not as he wanted them. That for Carlos the drugs and the new glimpses into reality—one quite apart from his Western teachings—rattled his core beliefs and what he was experiencing was ticked off core beliefs not genuine “shit your pants fear”. Don Juan further went on to explain that this type of fear was not the fear of the warrior. This type of fear was a sham fear that had more to do with clinging to ignorance and hubris. Essentially this type of fear was just the ego feeling upset. Don Juan explains that a warrior shits his pants because he is genuinely facing death—not because his worldviews are being kicked around.
For Don Juan the process of becoming a warrior was indeed the only life work of man. That as one pressed to become a person of knowledge that with this accrued wisdom came great perils. It was essential then for survival to learn the way of the warrior. A warrior stood above a sorcerer, indeed the way of the warrior was the impeccable way of being. And fear for the warrior was necessary. Courage, Don Juan explained, was only useful—possible—in the mundane world. However, for the enlightened only fear would make survival possible. True fear was something a man of knowledge wholly embraced and knew was not a sign of weakness rather a sign of great wisdom. Death is always present and as one strips away one’s arrogances and preconceived notions regarding the true nature of reality one begins to genuinely face forces of great danger and significance. Fear would give the warrior the wisdom of preparation, caution, and agility necessary to deal with the gravity of the situation. Basically, there really were things that man should fear—fear desperately—however only the truly wise realize what this danger is.
Natural History (1/3/05 Vol. 3 No.23)
On the Monday after Christmas I decided to engage in one of my very favorite activities—going to the museum. I truly love the museum—all museums. The one I visited on Monday was Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, and let me tell you not only did I have a blast I was transformed. One of the great things I believe about big illumination moments is their absolute randomness when they strike, and for me a major shift in ambition and personal outlook happened.
Not unlike many people, I could most likely be considered a resolution junkie. I thrive on obsessing, plotting, and rumination over massive self-improvement campaigns and for someone like me New Years is sort of my “Life Change” super bowl. So naturally by Monday I was already in full-scale war-planning mode. I was mapping out new strategies regarding working out, eating even healthier, calling far off friends and family more often, keeping my house ultra-tidy—zen tidy, and of course throwing even more backbone into both The Better Drink and my other professional endeavors…and…and as you can see when it comes to New Year’s resolutions I like to take big bites.
So here I am with two beloved and chipper friends, on a very cold and snow packed afternoon, in a quiet no-students town, at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and absolutely swimming in an almost heady swoon of improvement fantasies and my all in all general passion and enjoyment of going to the museum—any museum—all museums. The first section we visited was the mammal room. It was essentially an aging collection of stuffed animals from all over the world behind glass with watery glass eyes and little yellow labels informing one as to what its street name is and what its Latin scientific name is. Sometimes a longish paragraph would be included regarding the animals living preferences or whether or not it is extinct. This museum format proved to be a little problematic for me due to my continued vanity and denial regarding wearing my glasses. In truth, I have had glasses (bi-focals no less!) since I was nine, but never in all these years have I accepted this and still to this day I only wear them when I am working—aka in the privacy of my own home. Anyway, besides experiencing some technical trouble I found myself completely engrossed with all of the dead stuff.
The next area was the fossil slash dinosaur slash early mammal room. Very impressive…I still love, as I did as a very small child, to envision a world in which large, cranky lizards ran around eating each other and trolling putty colored swamps. To make the whole experience extra charming Harvard would periodically post note cards over clearly emptied spots (you could see a yellowed outline as to where the pinned up critter used to be) saying that while they wholly apologize for said critter’s absence it had been removed for scientific research purposes. After lots of dramatically lit twists and turns the pre-historic section spits you out into a large open room dedicated to pre-pre-pre history. It was the evolution—big bang—primordial soup section. Being that there were, in fact, no critters during this time instead of walking through halls of pinned up dead things this room was more of an exciting media spectacle where large photos from outer space and slices of mountains revealing history crushed into thin layers were freestanding and little tables with glass domes on top of them in which you could gaze down into and see tie-dyed microbes. At the far end of the room is a little, quiet video monitor playing a sort of mini-documentary on the Big Bang and lots of explanations as to how or why we could actually come from nothing. There were exactly three little stools and my two friends and I took up all three. Part way through the info-mercial-movie one of my friends ripped off a loud fart—a loud, sharp, clearly understood as being a fart fart. And as always in these situations the two innocent people of this incident had to suffer the same suspicion and snickers as the actual offender.
The next section I visited (as a now suspected public farter) was a glass display. It was a curious collection of late nineteenth century botanical glass works. They were beautiful and one could tell the botanist that made them had an uncommon passion for the natural word. Interestingly enough, the same friend that committed the crime was now complaining of boredom and hunger, and while normally the call for pints on a wintry holiday afternoon is never delayed I insisted we check out one last section—the elemental section. The elemental section is a vast, brightly lit room holding case after case of just about every conceivable crystal and metal formation in existence. This on the surface may seem a bit dull, however, it proved to be profound. Somehow, after looking at all of these dead animals, fossils, microbial soups, and plants’ sex organs in glass (something the botanist was quite fond of reproducing) the absolute beauty and wonder of the crystal formations seemed to…well…just sort of light my heart on fire. Life was grand. The universe was outrageously handsome.
And then it hit me…. Well not wholly yet…. After a brief stop at the gift shop our little party went to a cozy little pub for lunch. And in a broad plate of winter light I realized what my New Years resolution must be: to fall absolutely head over heels in love with life. In a flash I came to see that if one were to completely come to love life (as it stood—without conditions) then the rest would fall into place.
As a curious and tragic epilogue to this experience and ensuing realization the world’s largest natural catastrophe occurred. The universe was indeed awesome, yet within her grandeur was an awesome and mysterious horror. Unlike the wonders of the Museum of Natural History where all of the specimens were long dead, the reality of nature is far more emotionally and physically complex. I wept when I saw the rows and rows of dead children along with the deep, soulless gaze of their parents. Yet within a few days of internalizing this painful world shock, the image of the element room at the Harvard Museum of Natural History came to my mind’s eye, and more than ever I saw that to genuinely seek out a deep love of life is perhaps the finest eulogy and the sincerest saying of grace possible.
Happy Almost (12/31/04 Vol. 3 No.22)
It is almost the New Year. I could not be more happy. I have so much I want to swipe clean…so much I want to bathe. During my time off I have toured a great deal internally and externally. Science, philosophy, and theology…and a great deal of comedy (the noblest of arts) have been heavily pursued. I am in the right mind to continue my sincere search for the Champagne Life. I am excited to once again, re-invite all of my beloved Sailors and Patrons to join me on my quest for wholeness, peace, and an overwhelming sense of feeling good in one’s skin. Themes for the New Year will lie heavy in science, art, and the human experience. I want to do more interviews, more research on the hottest—newest scientific discoveries and the music, movies, and art we should all learn about. I sense an exciting new time for this beleaguered blue marble we call Earth and now more than ever I feel the urge and ambition to un-earth more and more reasons to absolutely fall fantastically in love with life and living…and of course…the passion to continue the search for the Champagne Life.
The below column was my very first column…barring my introductory column. The Leopard when I look back now said a great deal as to the spirit of where I was going. It is a little more personal than most of my columns…and perhaps a bit more opaque…yet the realization that ultimately we are genuinely free to make life-changing decisions still holds true. I am the last person to claim any approximation to living the Champagne Life, but what I do claim is that I’m trying real hard….
On one snowy, cold afternoon in early spring I was at the Franklin Zoo in Boston with a very dear friend. Franklin Zoo has a warm tropical pavilion with a rather charming, musky gorilla family as its main attraction. It is a sweetly strange place to visit on a blustery New England afternoon and yet, just artificial enough to not feel far from home. Across from the modest crowd of gorilla fans was a smallish, corner rainforest-office, and its uneasy occupant was a gentleman panther. He was black and perched high and painfully too beautiful for his lot.
My life at the time was being self-interpreted as “angst ridden”, and I believe the purpose of the zoo trip was to whisk me away from a then daily ritual of impatient malaise. At the time, I had convoluted optimism with a hardy case of the “ I'll be happy whens” . More and more I had allowed my impatience and sense of expectation to remove me from life and perch me high on a simulated limb. Friends would laugh and share stories while I would internally pace on my lofty false branch and think how happy I would be if….
The corner office was dim and not enjoying the same upbeat revelry as the gorillas and those rosy-bottomed macaques. He was plainly and clearly unhappy and looking back, I can see the zoo comers' point in avoiding the panther. However, I found myself entranced by the black panther as he paced back and forth on his vaulted, simulated tree branch. His eyes were wide and sad, and his rich, completely flawless tail hung low with only the slightest arc at the bottom. And he paced and he paced, and as he paced my friend pointed up at him and said, “That panther reminds me of you.”
I looked at my friend and the panther, and then my friend said, “This is an odd coincidence because just the other night I had read the poem The Panther by Rilke, and I thought of you.”
Obviously, when I returned home I read the poem. Here is the second stanza of The Panther (In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris) taken from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell (and I strongly recommend you either see if your local library has it or purchase this amazing volume of poems):
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over
The movement of his powerful strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
I looked up at the panther and said, “I am you, I am you!”
And he replied, “No, you fool! No, you fool!”
Best Wishes (12/24/04 Vol. 3 No.21)
May you all have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Try to love a little more and allow yourself to be loved a little more. Sing more songs than normally would be recommended. Share as often as you can an embarrassing story, a dollar for a drinker, and dishwashing hands. Forget as many things as you can that made you upset, and as many mistakes you can remember making. Sit down once or twice and simply think about life and all of its wonders, and then take a buddy or parent out for a pint to share the moment you had. Take your old dog out for slow, good walks, and have a pleasant conversation with your mother’s cat.
The world is on the eve of a little sweet nap. She’s slowing her noise and spin for us to enjoy her curves. Truly take advantage of what this time of year has to offer…for the new year is coming and we shall all have clean slates and a renewed sense of speed and enthusiasm. Allow 2004 to roll gently around, allow your mind to take in what you know and where you’ve been—then think about where you still want to go—and start making arrangements! Do a little writing. Maybe even poetry—maybe even fiction. This is the top of winter. We are all now safe in cocoons, and have barely three months to re-learn, re-plan, or re-tune the direction in which we want our ships to sail. Winter is a special time, and if loved and lived deeply whole Universes can be transformed. Christmas is the celebration of this profound truth—that redemption is always within our reach. However, Jesus is not a symbol for us to not work, for us to wait to be saved. Knowing that nothing is set in stone is quite a gift already.
I thank you all for supporting The Better Drink and my column, and I wish you all a truly wonderful Christmas and a safe, magical New Year.
The Logic Behind Modesty (12/23/04 Vol. 3 No.20)
One of my favorite Taoist parables goes something like this…. A gentleman living in a warm, but modest home hears a knock on the door. When he answers it he finds standing before him a stunningly beautiful woman. He asks her who she is and she answers, “I am Fortune. If you let me in I will be a wonderful and loving wife. I will bear you many healthy children. I will bring an enormous dowry and you will have more money than you can imagine. I am also of high birth so I will bring your house a title of great fame and honor.” The man dumbfounded by such good luck still can hardly believe what is being offered to him. He asks, “What is it that I have to do to receive all of this?” And the woman answers, “All you have to do is let me inside of your home. Then all that I have promised will come true.” The man scratching his head in disbelief again asks, “How can this be? Is it really true that all I have to do is let you inside of my house…and you will agree to be my wife? And you will bring to me much honor, fame, and fortune?” Again, the beautiful maiden answers, “All you have to do is let me inside of your home.”
The man with much joy and excitement swings open the door to let the beautiful maiden in. As she steps inside a very old and very ugly woman quickly walks behind the maiden, heading towards the entrance of the house. She is dressed in dirty rags and her face and nails are dirty. “Wait,” said the gentleman, “Who are you?” The old woman answers, “I am Misery. When I enter your house I promise that many of your children will die in war and intrigue. I promise your friends will betray you, and I promise that you will suffer many painful maladies caused by too rich of foods and drinks that you develop a taste for. Also, when I enter I promise that you will rarely enjoy your fortune or fame or honor for you will have to spend most of your time, resources, and energy defending all that you have.” The man blocked the entrance of his home and laughed, “You are crazy old lady. What type of fool do you think I am? Why on earth would I allow you to enter my home?”
The old lady smiled and answered, “She is Fortune. If you let her in then you must let me in. You cannot have her without me.” The gentleman gazed longingly at the beautiful Maiden standing before him and pondered if a creature as lovely as her was worth the hideous price.
Now, surely under the context of this parable one usually insists that they surely would chose to continue a modest country existence over the deal laid out before him. However, one of the most constant themes throughout the I Ching and many other Taoist writings is that people rarely decline the Maiden Fortune…even with the very possibility that Misery is not far behind. One of the guiding principles behind Taoism is the idea of Yin and Yang—that Nature always will find balance—where there is more less will come. The trick to living a truly good life is to live a life of balance. Modesty plays a crucial role in this thinking, but what is interesting is that modesty, at least in the Taoist framework, need not necessarily mean one does not have fame, power, or money. A powerful ruler that is modest will not have his power stripped from him. The key is perspective. If a person of extraordinary fortune sees his wealth in a balanced light then nature, or the gods, will not send out Misery to set things in balance.
Modesty in Taoism is seen as one of the more important and profound characteristics a person must acquire. It is held in high esteem and is seen as having deeper implications beyond being a nice person: in a sense Modesty is the only way one can continue in exalted positions.
For me this concept of modesty is very comforting in that it helps one to become slightly less attached to one’s perceived riches as in the case of intelligence, money, status, or beauty—an attachment by the way that can cause much heartache when it disappears, is lost, or stolen. It teaches to keep in perspective the things we hold as having value and to view them more as blessings than as personal achievements. In truth, fortune comes from many causes whether birth or the support of loving parents or the fine education of teachers. To claim achievements solely as one’s own, and then to further believe that those achievements make you a better person over someone else is a dangerous folly. However, to share the credit in one’s achievement and to keep in perspective what the actual value of beauty or wealth or power is can lead to a life of greatness.
We Interrupt…(12/22/04 Vol. 3 No.19)
Today after a day of shopping I found myself cranky, starving (I’m on a terrible pre-holiday diet), and tired sacked out in my favorite chair and tuning in to the second half of my favorite soap opera. Around ten minutes into my show Peter Jennings interrupted with a now thoroughly feared Special Report. Over the years just about every American has come to fear the dreaded Special Report, however, since Sept. 11, I believe we all could agree that the television show interruption now has a bit more teeth. Today, the largest U.S. base attack in Iraq occurred killing at least 24 with countless others injured. And this may sound funny or shallow or terrible, but somehow it took this to fully jar my mind into the reality that it is just a few days until Christmas and we are at war.
Now, let me back it up a bit…. Of course I have intellectually understood we have been at war, and yes I, like many, have gone through many complicated emotions and opinions regarding the merits of us attacking Iraq. But somehow it took this moment to jar my heart and head entirely.
When I was in High School I took a most curious elective: Vietnam: A Veteran’s Perspective. The class was taught by a Vietnam vet and essentially everyday we were able to meet and talk with a new Vietnam vet. It was one of the most enlightening experiences I have ever had in all of my school years. The men and the few women were so humble and funny when they talked about their experiences. Almost all of them when confronted as to whether or not they agreed with the Vietnam War replied that at the time they were too young to really have an opinion. Most said that between getting drafted, boot camp, and being shipped off they really didn’t have much time or mind to really contemplate what was going on. Between visits from the veterans we learned about the war including being able to see much of the original television coverage of the war. It would be referred to as the first war fought on television. The first war people could sit in their favorite chairs, nibble on some cheese and crackers, and simultaneously keep up with their soap opera and the war. One of the most common things the veterans spoke of was the shock when they returned home that everybody had just sort of been living the life they always had…. “It was as if nothing had happened…as if nothing was going on…and yet I had just seen and experienced hell on earth…and no one…no one was or wanted to talk about it.” I still remember the veteran saying those words, and quite ironically I remember thinking how terrible people were then and could never imagine a war going on and everybody just continuing on as normal…. I suppose I shall broil my crow for dinner tonight.
There is a little salvation for the wicked I suppose, and after the Special Report I must admit there was a pretty sharp change of heart. In truth, I am not the biggest fan of Christmas, and for me it is often a time of crabby pessimism and feeling sorry for myself. And deep down inside I am always waiting for my Christmas miracle…like Scrooge or Charlie Brown’s tiny tree…but it never comes and every year I find new reasons to brace myself for Bah Humbug! However, as I type these words I must freely admit that this year I finally—actually—received my first Christmas miracle. From today and clear through the twenty-fifth of December I shall be grateful to be alive, to be in my warm home, to be loved, to still have my baby brother…father…sister…mother…for tonight twenty-four will find out that some of the presents they purchased will not be opened, and before today’s tragedy, hundreds of other families will have to celebrate with a haunting loss blanketing every tradition. It seems terrible—almost tragic—that it takes a horrific event to pull one’s head out of their _ _ _, but out of nothing more than a way to honor all of the brave men and women serving in the military this traditional “holiday depressive” will most definitely work to mend her ways.
A New Psychology (12/21/04 Vol. 3 No.18)
I first heard Jacquelyn Small speak on a television show dedicated to teachers sharing their own spiritual hardships and ensuing journey to healing. She was a self-professed southern belle who had watched her whole life of luxury and society crumble. Throughout the process of her undoing a slow personal evolution occurred and from that experience a new school of psychology was founded: Soul-Based Psychology or as it is sometimes referred to as Spiritual Psychology. Ms. Small would pioneer this field and train many other psychologists over the course of the past twenty-five years. She also founded an institute dedicated to healing and personal growth called the Eupsychia Institute in Austin, Texas. What really struck me about Ms. Small’s approach to psychology was both her insistence that human’s had souls and this soul had to be worked with along with the ego for a person to truly grow and heal, and that times of crisis and hardship should not and must not be pathologized as depression, anxiety, and relationship conflicts so often are in traditional psychology. For her, times of great hardship are actually times of growth and if we genuinely live through them with great effort our depressions, anxieties, and divorces can actually serve us and lead us to greater states of being.
In her book Psyche’s Seeds The 12 Sacred Principles of Soul-Based Psychology Jacquelyn outlines the essential principles, philosophy, and practices of her version of psychology. For her we are a marriage between flesh and spirit and that for us to find happiness and success in our lives we must work to balance to two. Personally, I liked this. Since I have begun writing my column I have been reading several spiritual and self-help books and one of the conflicts I have been finding is that either the writer insists I am essentially 99% spirit and 1% flesh (as one writer boldly proclaimed…without any reasonable argument as to how he came up with such a number) or that to find happiness I must come to terms that I am a fleshy, hungry animal, and if I were to only eat the proper foods, avoid the proper toxins, and take in the right amount of exercise then all of my anxieties, depressions, and relationship issues will evaporate—along with a few extra pounds. Yes, I do think it is important to recognize a spiritual life within my day-to-day life, and yes I believe a healthy lifestyle can improve the overall quality of one’s life, but too often I am turned off by anyone saying they have the key, because usually these “keys” are either unrealistic, bizarre or at the very least absolutely trite to ever really help anyone find real peace from a difficult life passage. Yes, I suppose learning to love everyone in the world would perhaps give someone a fully blissful existence, however, is that really possible? And is that really what we are meant to do?
What I love about Jacquelyn Small’s book and soul-based psychology is its practicality and its overall balance. Yes, it is important to allow our spirits to soar and for us to find profundity in our existence, however, it is equally important for us to look soberly and clearly into our earthly lives as in our dealing with money, sex, and our bodies. In essence, we should indeed allow our minds to feel the divine and soar into deeper levels of being, however, we should also balance our checkbooks and enjoy a good dinner out from time to time. Ms. Small is unusual in her genre, as she seems to not be afraid to talk openly about the need for the flesh to live and be celebrated, and equally as daring is her call for us to allow our souls to dance around and be acknowledged as a fully integral part of being human.
I personally enjoyed her book immensely; some of the stuff was a little fruity (I must admit) particularly in the beginning where I think she stretches the mythological story of Eros and Psyche a bit too thin. However, once you get to the seed part—her twelve sacred principles—then the book becomes completely engrossing. Along with the concepts are exercises one can do to fully experience the principles. And as very often at the beginning of new years the yearning to change one’s life for the better gets strong this is definitely a good book to check out if you have ever wanted to clear out some old emotional baggage or some sabotaging habit that may be limiting you from living the Champagne Life.
A Zen Parable (12/17/04 Vol. 3 No.17)
A great scholar was traveling on a pilgrimage carrying commentaries on the Diamond Sutra. He had dedicated his life to the holy Buddhist scriptures and found no equal to his knowing of the Diamond Sutra. He was excited to teach and share his findings with other great masters he had heard about. One day he passed an old lady selling fried rice cakes, and he decided to stop for a light repast.
The old woman asked him what he was carrying and he told her that he was carrying the Diamond Sutras and that he was a scholar of them. The old woman then said, “I have one question for you. If you can answer my question then I will give you the cakes as an offering. However, if you cannot then you will have to buy them somewhere else.”
The scholar agreed and the woman asked, “It says in the Diamond Sutra that it is impossible to catch hold of the past mind; it is impossible to catch hold of the present mind; it is impossible to catch hold of the future mind. Reverend monk, then with which mind will you satisfy your desire for something light to eat?”
The scholar had no answer and the old woman directed him to Ryutan, a Buddhist master.
The scholar went to see the great master. By nightfall the master came to see the scholar and said, “Why don’t you leave?”
The scholar was about to leave when he noticed it was dark outside. He went back to the master and said, “It is dark outside.”
The master then handed the scholar a lit paper torch, and as the scholar took it the master then immediately blew the flame out. The scholar then suddenly experienced a profound enlightenment. The scholar, so overwhelmed by the experience and his revelation that for all he had studied it never brought him enlightenment, burned his commentaries of the sutras immediately after.
A great medieval Japanese Zen master named Bassui told this parable to his students. Bassui is one of my favorite Zen masters. He was rebellious and honest. He cared little for the strict adherence to the ceremony and ritual of the monastery. For him pursuing enlightenment was the only goal for a Buddhist whether one was a monk, a nun or a layperson. This parable came from Bassui’s collection of teachings called Mud and Water. The essays are all dialogues between Bassui and his students who were comprised of monks, nuns, and laypeople. The parable above comes from an essay entitled: On the Value of Knowledge.
After telling his students the parable of the scholar and the old woman selling rice cakes he explains the deeper meaning to the story. Bassui explains that regardless of how learned a person is if they have not discovered their true nature then they will never find enlightenment. However, Bassui also points out that simply keeping ignorant will also not lead one to salvation. The key is in the heart. Bassui teaches that gaining enlightenment wholly depends on one’s aspiration and not on whether or not one is educated. When the aspriring heart is shallow than lack of education becomes an obstacle for the ignorant, and knowledge becomes an obstacle for the learned. When the aspiring heart is deep, education becomes the basis for understanding the Way for the learned, and lack of knowledge becomes the basis for understanding the Way for the uneducated.
For Bassui, enlightenment was only to be found within. One can become great at anything—sports, writing, or even knowing the scriptures—however, only a deep earnestness and looking into one’s own self will ever lead one to the Way. For me personally, I think this teaching can be applied to just about anything of importance—that ultimately to succeed one must not depend on our depth of knowledge rather our depth of commitment. For some, what they understand will lead them to greatness, and for others it is what they do not understand that will lead them. However, for all who have achieved success the heart is always the road they traveled.
Have a great weekend! See you on Monday
Back to School (12/16/04 Vol. 3 No.16)
Remember those good old days when you had a weekly vocabulary list? Well I do, and to be honest, I sort of wish I still did. Due to this column I have found myself reading all sorts of self-improvement books. Some of them I have loved while others I have rolled my eyes and wondered if the writer genuinely believed what he/she was writing. However, one self-improvement book never ceases to amaze me: the dictionary. One of the most used books in my library is my now thoroughly worn dictionary. I can check correct historical dates, capitals of nations, and definitions of big words.
Big words are funny things. Most of the time they are tacky, over-qualified show-offs, but sometimes a five-cent word can be just what one needs to correctly express oneself. But big words aren’t always the words I look up. Another fun thing to do is look up more common words and very often there are some surprises: like fell can be an animal skin and forte when used to refer to someone’s specialty or expertise is actually pronounced fort as in a tent-like structure I liked to build in the family room as a child—not for*tay as everyone currently pronounces it (forte when pronounced for*tay is a term used in music). One of the disciplines I have tried to keep up with is giving myself a weekly list of new vocabulary words (well…maybe not weekly…perhaps quarterly). And since we learned in my previous column where I interviewed Dr. Smith regarding the brain (Work Those Brains), and the fact that as one ages one of the ways one can keep their brain young and flexible is to constantly learn new things, I thought I would come up with a good vocabulary list. So, for today work those brains a bit and try on some new words.
Perquisite—n. 1. an emolument over and above fixed income or salary. 2. informal any bonus or fringe benefit granted an employee. (this is where the slang term “perks” comes from) Hubris—n. excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.
Fulminant—adj. occurring suddenly and with great intensity or severity.
Demulcent—adj. soothing or mollifying as a medical substance.
Mordant—adj. caustic or sarcastic, as in expression.
Mordacious—adj. biting or given to biting. [mordacity] biting power. (I see a lot of possibilities with this word!)
Slake—v.t. 1. to allay (thirst, desire, wrath, etc.) by satisfying. 2. to cool or refresh 3. to make less active, vigorous, intense, etc.
Polyglot—adj. 1. knowing many or several languages; multilingual. 2. containing, composed of, or in several languages.
Umbrage—n. 1.offense; annoyance or displeasure. 2. the slightest indication or vaguest feeling of suspicion, doubt, hostility, or the like.
Verisimilitude—n. 1. the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood; probability. 2. something, as a statement, having merely the appearance of truth.
Well, here are ten to work with. Good luck and remember, keep pumping-up those brains. Because while I still am not sure what the sweet shores of the Champagne Life are like, I do suspect I’ll want a rather sharp intellect when I mingle with the natives.
Keeping It Real (12/15/04 Vol. 3 No.15)
Believe it or not this current (and most likely waning) rage for reality TV actually has rather classy roots. Our time is not the first to recognize expression in “ordinary folk”, and while one could argue that today's reality television could not and should not be considered an art form its emergence was absolutely made possible by some of history's greatest artists. Paris in the late 19 th century would not only have to reconcile with the Industrial Revolution, but a profound artistic revolution as well, namely Realism. Realism was an art movement that insisted for the first time not to use highly stylized, historical, and idealized subject matter and techniques such as painting biblical, quasi-historical, or mythological paintings with skin like glowing pearls and robes that seem to ripple and wave miraculously. The Realists sought to paint the world as it was, right now, in the present. They strove to show the plain, ugly, and mundane with absolute honesty. But why? How did this movement begin? And what does it say about us today and our current obsessions?
Gustave Courbet would have to be without a doubt the father of Realism. Painters such as Manet would follow in his footsteps and bring on another movement: Impressionism. Oddly or ironically, it would be Realism that would make the first “loose”, “abstract”, or “expressionistic” techniques for painting as in the case with Monet and more obviously Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. However, after seeing Van Gogh's paintings of the victim's of the Potato Famine and self-portraits one can see the immediacy and honesty of Realism in their work. But why? Why did artists almost suddenly become driven not by broad, grand historical subject matter, but by simple daily living? A quote from Courbet gives a great deal of insight: When asked why he never painted angels, he replied, “Show me an angel and I'll paint one.” In a relatively brief period from 1789 to 1852 France had gone from being an absolute monarchy under Louis XVI, to the empire of Napoleon III, then the revolutionary reign of terror, a republic, the Napoleonic Empire, a royal restoration, a constitutional monarchy, and then a socialist commune. Along with the unbelievable amount of political upheavals an even larger, more world altering revolution was taking place: the Industrial Revolution. Workers in the 18 th century saw a tangible exchange between their labors and payment as in the case with produce and handmade wares, now they exchanged the intangible elements of time and labor for a paycheck. Science too was questioning and dissolving long-held religious beliefs; in short, the world had transformed at such a speed and such intensity that writers such as Balzac and Dickens became more concerned with social and political criticism than grand heroics or religious idealism. Courbet's quote could not better encapsulate the mood of the day… “Show me an angel and I'll paint one.”
How does the Realism movement in the late 19 th century have any relation to the early 21 st century? And furthermore, how does this movement affect one's quest for the Champagne Life? Today, there is a current obsession with reality TV. And while I will be the last to compare it artistically speaking with painters such as Courbet or Honoré Daumier (a great social critic), I can immediately recognize the relationship between reality TV and Realism—one could not have happened without the other. To sit and be entertained by a chunky housewife trying to come to terms with a bossy teenager, or an over-sexed twenty-something crying because perhaps not everybody likes him or her is surely a case of demystifying art and the human experience. Basically, Wife Swap is no Dallas or Dynasty . But why did we turn to the ugly and the mundane, and turn our backs to the fantastical? While it is nearly impossible to see clearly above when one is sitting deeply in the middle (as I am in my own time), I can say that it is possible that some of our social and technological advances have moved somewhat faster and stronger than perhaps we are consciously acknowledging. I remember when the “latch key kid” phenomenon was seen as rare, now both parents work in over sixty percent of families today. That is just one example of how our social fabric has profoundly and dramatically changed in just over a decade. Science too has advanced at an unbelievable pace with stem cell discoveries, cloning, and genetic screening testing every ethical notion of humanity and the sacredness therein. Have we become a society that like Courbet will paint an angel when we see one?
While I will be the first to say that I do believe reality TV to be like all things and eventually fade away or at least retreat, however, Realism in the nineteenth century also faded away and new movements such as abstract expressionism and Fauvism would evolve. However, while Realism did slowly give way to other styles its imprint would be permanent—the singular human was now a subject for art and expression—one no longer needed Zeus, Moses, or a king to express profundity.
What does this all have to do with living the Champagne Life? Everything. The artists of the nineteenth century gave us an incredible gift: our own right to drama. A shoe salesman, a housewife, or a widower are all fascinating universes to be discovered. No longer are the days when only an incredible luck of birth must occur for a human to be expressed and celebrated as complicated, profound, or interesting. Yes, we do still love to obsess over Royals and movie stars, however, we also like to see movies, television shows, and read books about policemen, butlers, or hapless souls falling into all sorts of love. So, thanks guys…Courbet…Zola…for making the case that “the great unwashed” actually was where the heart of the world thumped.
My Imitation (12/14/04 Vol. 3 No.14)
My grandmother passed away a few years ago, and still, very often, I think of her. Her name was Janet and we called her Grandma Janet. My father's mother was called Grandmother Barnick. What has sftruck me as of late was really how enigmatic my Grandma Janet was. I do have many memories of her, and yes a solid sense of her personality, but I do not have any real knowing of who she was on the inside. And I know for every person there is this "inside" that processes, rationalizes, and feels life, history, and the people around. What was she really like as a teenager? How did she feel about love, life, kids, and marriage? What made her scared? In many ways I have answers she told me over the years regarding those questions, however, answers given to granddaughters very often are so woven into a need to inspire, idealize, and teach that I can't help but think many of her answers were a little "do as I say.not as I did".
One of her biggest worries was other peoples' soul, and my soul was no exception. My Grandmother was a very, very devout Catholic. She actually converted to Catholicism in her thirties after a pretty wild and decadent stint in San Francisco. I started to understand, as I began to study theology and religion almost obsessively, that it was the fact that she was a convert.particularly her Saint Paul-esque conversion that gave her sense of Catholicism such extra zeal. I would learn later that converts (apart from people converting for marrying purposes) tend take on a more personal and profound identity in their newly adopted faith: after all, she chose to be Catholic (unlike me who was born into it). She also viewed Catholicism as her ultimate achievement and redemption-salvation from a life she roughly sketched as being very wild. A life I might add, that I drilled her on, and most likely emulated when I lived, just like her, in San Francisco. And oddly, I too found myself converting to another religion as I moved from that fair city: Buddhism.
My Grandma once gave me a most curious little book-it was actually her own copy-I believe she gave it to me some time ago as I cannot wholly remember whether she handed it to me or mailed it to me. I do know that while I was touched by the gesture (I'll give you the inscription in a minute), I was not at all up to or willing to read her little, personal copy of My Imitation of Christ by Thomas `a Kempis. My Imitation of Christ is a spiritual book that presents the fundamental principles of the spiritual life. It is five centuries old, and the copy she gave me was illustrated in the fifties and published by The Confraternity of the Precious Blood.
The book sat up in my cupboard near my glassware for I believe five or six years (maybe longer). For some reason I simply could not get myself to read it. After my grandmother died I decided to for once have a look at this thing. It was after all, a very personal gift-and after she died I wanted to have some solid sense of her and just maybe some sense of what was swirling around in her soul. Right off the bat, my heart jumped: on the very first page is a little note taped in (a note I had not noticed before I rolled my eyes and tossed it up in a cupboard), and in the most touchingly crooked and struggled-with handwriting my Grandma Janet had written: "Dear Jenny, I've read this book for thirty years, but just began to get help from it. I read one paragraph to three pages only-find it gives me peace. It either scolds me or consoles me."
The one page chapter I read for today was Adversity. The illustration provided by those priests out in Brooklyn, NY is of a little boy sitting in his mothers lap by candlelight and they are looking at a picture book open to a page showing a massive nuclear mushroom cloud, and behind them is a framed picture of (most likely dad) in a military uniform. Underneath the macabre illustration is the final line of the chapter: "Adversity. Perfect security and full peace cannot be found in this world". In truth, I really want to lampoon the heavy, nineteen fifties atomic-doomsday imagery, and five or six years ago I would have. However, after September 11 th , I like many people feel profoundly less cozy in this world, and seeing nightly images of a scattered and seemingly endless war in Iraq, chapter twelve, Adversity, doesn't seem quite as quaint as my usual temperament would have supposed. Also oddly, there was a part of me that did not want to see anything thing profound or illuminating in my Grandma's little book. So many people had been harassed and judged by her and one of her ways was informing those around her that they will be damned if they didn't change their ways. This approach to grandmothering did not build strong bonds-fear and frustration were often the rule of the day. In her later years one of the biggest struggles was finding a place that would take her: she had been kicked out of almost every nursing home in town for being mean. Even her favorite nun who had flown in from the east to take care of her finally in tears told my mom she had to go-she could not take it anymore.
But now. Now, in my quiet kitchen just before dawn I have her (now mine) little illustrated copy of My Imitation of Christ, and I find myself consoled by a message written centuries ago, when surely Europe was no pic-nic, that Adversity has utility-that through suffering we go into ourselves and seek a deeper meaning to life. And Grandma Janet, while I left the Catholicism you so deeply cherished, I like you have chosen to be a seeker; and perhaps through our conversions lies a more penetrating glimpse into who you were.
Have We Really Made Our Bed?
Do We Really Have To Sleep In It? (12/13/04 Vol. 3 No.13)
While nursing the beginnings of a rather marvelous Holiday cold I found myself staying up all night reading Jack W. Germond's new book Fat Man Fed Up-How American Politics Went Bad . It's a great book and one I think would be a good gift.and it is that very thinking that wholly supports Mr. Germond's grief. The book is unusual in that it stays remarkably to its intention: a warm, yet studied breakdown of the American political process. The fact that I found myself thinking, "Gee, I think so and so would like this book (with the thought that so and so would be very entertaining to listen too-after a few cocktails-what they thought of the American political scene)," proved oddly that in many ways politics have become entertainment. I believe Mr. Germond is right on when he argues that due to the over-influence of television and polls candidates have become increasingly isolated and over-sanitized in order to win. It is this current necessity of distance that precludes any real portrayal of the politician in which a person can form a reasonable assessment.ie: make an informed choice at the ballot.
Mr. Germond breaks down everything from polls, the power of the "skeleton in the closet", and television coverage and woven throughout is a larger dialogue regarding public apathy and appalling voter turn out. He is, however, more compassionate than the name of the book might suggest: compassionate towards voter apathy and compassionate towards the politicians themselves. He is very consistent and quick to point out that Presidents and presidential hopefuls are rarely as evil or as good as the press and popular convention may have them, and that voters are not showing up because of the growing emptiness in campaigns. For me it was this compassion that offered some clue to how perhaps American can find a higher ground regarding how we pick our leaders. The book does end with a bold and immediate claim that while he should now offer some solutions after his comprehensive lampooning of the American campaign, he admits that he doesn't really have one, and in the very last line of the book he tells us ultimately we get what we deserve. But it is this thinking that I strongly believe will be our national redemption: taking responsibility.
Taking responsibility is one of those lines or statements that is highly relative, however, I would say that taking time to becoming informed would be our nation's "road to recovery". As Mr. Germond clearly points out that too often careers of genuinely gifted leaders are destroyed by a simple miss-spoken line (or as he refers to it as: "a gotcha!"), or are destroyed from over-trumped up polls. If we as Americans closely followed the debates beyond our nightly-news sound bite then we would come to see through all of the hazy inferences that can have, if spun enough, powerful consequences.
Personally, I take the Buddhist's thinking regarding politics: that enlightened societies produce enlightened leaders and that deluded societies produce deluded leaders. The Buddhist argument then is that the individual must first work to enlighten oneself, and if everybody worked to enlighten themselves then a community of enlightened people would chose and support a wise and qualified leader. This thinking, however, is difficult to sell because the enormous patience required and with a war raging and debts rising it seems a bit callous to suggest that we should all turn our attention toward personal growth then at some later date work on the world outside of ourselves. I think though Fat Man Fed Up does offer a more subtle version: see through the floor show, read more, and work to support candidates that actually have real ideas and solutions versus tight slogans and squeaky-clean images.
Fat Man Fed Up-How American Politics Went Bad is a book I would highly recommend to anyone who is finding himself or herself increasingly jaded, and absolutely necessary for anyone who is naïve. It would be fruitless to live the Champagne Life in a world of stale beer, and understanding how our leaders are actually granted power today is a responsibility we all should shoulder.
The Circle (12/10/04 Vol. 3 No.12)
I have two dogs.two beloved dogs. For many years now I have lived on the east coast with all of my family in California. This modern family-less existence has forged an uncommon bond between me and my dogs. They have become my family. Fricka, my oldest at twelve has been with me since she was a puppy, and when I look back at pictures of me when I first got her I can see I was not far off from being a puppy either. Arthur is my other dog. He is only one and is still quite new to me. Arthur is different from Fricka. Arthur is clippy and light-hearted whereas Fricka is soulful and has suffered much in her long years. When Fricka was only a year she nearly died from some unidentified illness. This illness would plague her for many years, and over the course of ten years she would face death many times sometimes so thin and frail that I hardly could believe a being could still breathe. At six Fricka was run over by a car and suffered immense injuries. One of her front legs was torn off at the wrist (it was surgically re-attached), three of her paws were torn apart destroying the nail beds (she now has at times six or seven toe nails growing in all directions from her feet), and some of her teeth were knocked out including one of her upper fangs (I still have the fang-a friend of my found it in the cuff of his blood soaked pants-he had helped me take her to the hospital). With all that pain and near death experiences my Fricka has somehow managed to see old age.
Old age. Caring for Fricka has not been unlike caring for an aging parent or grand parent excepting for the bizarre relationship in that I see her more as my child-and it is a curious thing to have to deal with geriatric care of one's child. She has become somewhat incontinent, and now I need to have several washable beds, a large unfolded diaper underneath her at all times, and frequent bathings to assure she does not get "urine scald". Her poor teeth are going bad so I have had to switch her to canned food, and on more than one occasion I've panicked on her walks because I had walked too far from home and she was really stumbling, and I knew I would not be able to both carry her (she still weighs sixty pounds) and hold on to Arthur at the same time. Many times now she gets up at night and nervously paces, and I have to comfort her and re-show her her bed and cover her up snuggly with a blanket.
While all of the above has been trying at times (including the sixty dollar bottles of high grade Cosequin) the toughest part of all is the absolute stress of seeing her near death. Absolute stress sounds too light-outright fear would be better. And seeing her struggle to get up from her bed or worse (the worst sight in the world) see her fall over is heartbreaking. There is also the terrible death scares in which Fricka falls into a very heavy sleep and I panic when I see her thinking she has passed away.
However, it is just this-this circle of life that spins so quickly for our beloved canine family members that is perhaps the greatest gift dogs give us humans. Fricka is teaching me and helping me prepare for the winter of life: the winter of my parent's life and the winter of my own life. Whenever I think too much, or rather, worry too much about my beloved Fricka.and then my beloved parents.and then my beloved self my mind always goes to one of Shakespeare's poems, and whenever I read the poem somehow my heart softens and somehow senses that all truly is well.
So, to all owners of old dogs or owners of old bodies or owners of lives that are embroiled with worry I give you this poem. And Dad, I think, this is my tape measure.
The Wind and the Rain
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain:
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came to man's estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain:
'Gainst Knaves and Thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came, alas, to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain:
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,-
For the rain it raineth every day.
A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our Play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.
Have a great weekend! See you on Monday.
What America is Watching (12/9/04 Vol. 3 No.11)
One of the most talked about and watched television shows of this season is ABC's Wife Swap, and not one to be wholly original I too have found a deep enjoyment of the show. The title alone got me to see the show, and once I watched I was hooked-no-fascinated.
The format is elegant: one wife for two weeks swaps with another wife. The first week the new wife has to live by her host's rules that are written down by the other wife in a manual. The second week the visiting or new wife has the family live by her rules. Fabulous. The little hitch is that the producers always make sure that each family is as different to the trading family as possible. Tonight, it was a strict Christian family from South Carolina who claimed to live according to the bible-right down to the rigid adherence that the husband rules his wife and family with absolutely no exceptions. The other family was a "rocker" or "rock and roll" family from Texas where they refer to themselves and living "democratically" and all of the teenaged children don tattoos, "punk rock" get-ups and body piercings.
As you can imagine the pierced, tattooed, rock'in mom did not feel very comfortable in her rural, god-fearing household in which a very rigid military-like husband lorded over her and their fifteen year old daughter (the younger son was being prepped to be a future "lorder over" and only had one chore whereas the daughter slaved away like mom). One was waiting for a kind of relief when the second week rolled around-hoping the dad would loosen up a bit and perhaps see that being harsh to the "lady folk" was perhaps not the greatest idea. However, he refused to follow most of the visiting wife's new rules such as cooking and letting his children express themselves a little more. He completely flipped out (yelling and terrifying the teenage girl) when the new wife was going to take his daughter to a tattoo parlor to get a temporary tattoo. It seemed the young soldier turned the wayward ladies in, and Pop threatened to call the police. The new wife and he had it out and did not speak for the rest of the week. However, the teenage girl did get someone to open up to for the first time.
The punk rock family turned out much smoother. At first the new wife cried and was worried she was staying with devil worshipers, after she found out they prayed before mealtime and were, in fact, Christians she began to loosen up. In the rocker family the changes were almost charming: putting the kids in Gap knock-offs from Target and getting them to clean their handsome but messy house (including dread-locked dad) was actually cute. And the funny thing was how gentle the kids were. One downside of the rocker family was that the parents had taken their kids out of school to be home schooled, yet failed to monitor or provide a tutor for the children. The new mom hired a tutor and found there were big gaps in the children's education. The rocker kids actually liked the new tutor and were hoping the change would stick (it did). Their week ended up with a completely weird, yet touching sequence where the young punks dress up the straight-laced mom as a punk and had her front their punk band. It was also touching because the visiting mom realized how she was not bonding with her own daughter and took some sweet advice from the gentle punker-etts. All in all amazing stuff.
Essentially, the show is a massive judgment festival where they take wildly disparate people and have them live out their (in many cases) worst nightmare. One of the best aspects of the show is seeing who is able to lighten up, see through their often-rigid viewpoints, and learn a little. And the funny thing is that I am always surprised who mellows and grows and who just stomps away angry. Another aspect that is almost universal is the immense relief the husbands are to have their wives back-usually the hubbies freak out more than the wives and when it is time to reunite-both couples cry and embrace and thank god they have their little comfy lives and not the freaks they just had to live with.
As a viewer besides enjoying all of the drama, being able to peer inside all of these American homes is amazing. I love looking at their furniture and sense of style. I love seeing how they eat dinner and how they are when they are hanging out at home-you just can't see these things when you people watch at a mall or airport-and yet so often I want to when I check out the people I am sharing a plane with. But I think the most lasting enjoyment of the show is asking yourself this question: what if someone's life or wife swapped with me? Would they think I was a freak and run and cry with joy back into their own lives? Would I find a new appreciation for my little system of living.my little comfort zone?
If you haven't checked this show out you should (it's on ABC Wednesday at 10:00 pm). Then really ask yourself these two questions: what would someone else think of my life? And, what would be my absolute opposite.what life would those trouble-lovers at ABC drop me into? I have asked those two questions-many times since I have been watching the show-and I believe it has been a rather self-illuminating experience.
Gravy Girrrl (12/8/04 Vol. 3 No.10)
Being someone who loves fine wine, good company, and great food I absolutely am a gravy girl. Delicate sauces, rich glazes, and yes, gravies are an important, yet too often in this busy world overlooked part of food. Many people, particularly people who do not cook often are often intimidated by gravies and sauces and usually opt for dishes that go without.leaving the sauce for either a restaurant experience or big Holiday dinners in which Mom, Auntie, or Grandma work out the mysteries of gravy. However, a baked, broiled, or poached chicken breast or fish filet can turn into heaven with a little ladle of sauce, and a meal can genuinely turn quite quickly into a delight.
Granted, some sauces are quite involved like real Lobster Sauce or Sauce Chasseur, but I believe I have created a sauce that can stand up to the heaviest of hitters and is strikingly easy. My sauce actually serves double-duty as both gravy and refined sauce. It is a perfect Country Gravy if you want to serve traditional meals such as roasted poultry, mashed potatoes and stuffing. Or, it also goes perfectly with classics like biscuits and gravy or chicken fried steak. It is also an elegant sauce that can be puddled on the finest of china and topped with a perfectly poached chicken breast or even a fine, medium-rare piece of duck. I have also used this all-purpose sauce with vegetable dishes-by topping steamed vegetables with the sauce then some toasted breadcrumbs for a handsome side dish.
So, next time to are ready to serve up a plain chicken breast or perhaps wanting to glam up your steamed veggies give this sauce a try.
Golden Sauce with Fried Shallots and Sage
1 cup vegetable or chicken bouillon made double strength with a large bouillon (that normally makes two cups stock) such as Knorr or (my favorite) Organic Gourmet.
1 cup milk
¼ cup flour
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon truffle oil (this can be found at most gourmet or health food stores, however, if you cannot find it add 1 teaspoon virgin olive oil instead)
2 Tablespoons minced shallot
1 teaspoon dried sage
1/8 teaspoon (a pinch) of paprika
1/8 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
1 bay leaf
a medium sauce pot
a wooden spoon
a plastic or wire whisk
First, have absolutely all of the ingredients out, measured, and ready to go.once you begin this sauce you cannot leave it.so have everything ready to go and within reach. Heat butter and oils in the saucepan over medium high heat. Add shallot, sage, paprika, and ground pepper. Sauté shallots and spices until nicely browned, stirring constantly with wooden spoon. Once the shallots and spices are browned immediately add the flour and turn the heat to medium. Using your wire whisk cook the butter flour mixture for one minute, stirring constantly. Next add milk, bouillon, and bay leaf. Again, using your whisk, stir the sauce slowly, but constantly until it begins to just boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer for five minutes (or so), stirring often. Taste for salt and pepper. If using as a gravy I like to use a lot of coarsely ground black pepper, however, as a sauce I am very light with pepper. This sauce can be made the night before-just make sure to reheat gently and stir often as you do. Also, the sauce will get thicker as it sits so if you need to you can thin it with a little milk, stock, or water.
Makes two cups, which is generally speaking, enough for four to six people
Apart from spiritual growth I believe knowledge to also be an important aspect to living the Champagne Life. Today, more and more science and technology plays an ever-increasing role in our lives. From challenging ethics to life-saving new drugs, part of being an enlightened soul also means being an informed being. Oddly enough, in art school we were not only encouraged but required to learn a great deal about current science and technologies with the insight that to be an artist of one's time one must genuinely know one's time. How could one truly express art of any profundity if one did not really know what was happening to the world in which they lived? This spirit of constantly updating one's world awareness has stuck with me and while at times I must fully admit I have not always understood all of the newest discoveries and advances in science I have found a deeper understanding and connection to the world in which I live through the process of exploration.
I also feel that keeping informed of all of the current scientific discoveries can also help me live as a better decision maker, and it is my belief that ultimately our lives are an outcome of our decisions. Soon, and even now, more and more ethical, legal, and political questions will arise regarding science that may or may not be recommended practice or "world ready", and I suppose trying to open up a dialogue and maybe even help to inform is absolutely part of one's search for the Champagne Life.
With all of that said, once again, I have decided to sit down and chat with The Better Drink's co-founder, and resident scientist Dr. Timothy Smith (check out, if you haven't already, his science column Arts & Sciences). One of the most aggressive and illuminating new areas of research has been regarding the brain and different strategies to keep the brain fit and healthy through old age.
Jenn-So tell me, am I getting dumber as I get older.because sometimes it sure feels like it?
Tim-No, not necessarily, it's true that as one ages the brain becomes less plastic over time. However, there's a great deal that you can do to keep your brain young and flexible, because the old adage does hold that "if you don't use it, you lose it".
Jenn-Is this new thinking?
Tim-Well, research over the past decade has begun to demonstrate that the act of learning at any age creates new connections in the brain.
Jenn-What do you mean by "new connections"?
Tim-Whenever your brain is stimulated it is physically changed. These changes result in new connections between brain cells called synaptogenesis. Synaptogenesis is an indication of learning and memory and is the hallmark of a vital and intelligent brain.
Jenn-In high school when they told me that smoking pot and drinking beer would kill tons and tons of my brain cells is that what they were talking about? Because honestly I have been a little worried.looking back at my high school and college years I have pretty much been prepared for full senility by fifty.
Tim-Yes.and no. Yes, you can lose brain cells through abuse (he laughs), however, the brain at that time was seen as static. But researchers now know that brain cells can establish new connections and compensate for changes in the brain. That is why even a very old person can combat senility through learning and challenging their mind.
Jenn-So, if high school health teachers really wanted to be of real help they would now teach that if you party-study?
Tim-That's right. A nice study in rats recently demonstrated that learning to blink based on stimuli significantly increased the important creation of new nerve connections in the challenged rats above the controls that were not challenged to learn. Also in people, the learning of a musical instrument-even at old age-studying difficult topics, learning a new language, or doing challenging puzzles have all been shown to generate new growth, new nerve connections in the brain.
Jenn-And why are new nerve connections good?
Tim-Whenever your brain remembers something or learns how to do something new it saves these memories by creating new nerve connections. Think of it like making new circuits in the brain.
Jenn-Okay, so taking up new hobbies and areas of study can help keep one's brain hearty.what kinds of things turn our brains to mush?
Tim-Inactivity-mental and physical. I read a study once that indicated that when seniors take up a sport with hand eye coordination requirements such as ping pong they show a reduction in senility. So, remaining mentally and physically active is the best way to combat the mush. Interestingly, watching T.V. does not have the same stimulus effects as reading or working on a problem.
Jenn-So is that why I feel brain dead after a full night or rainy day of doing nothing but watching television.because it's intense.I always feel almost as though I've been heavily drugged after spending too long in front of the T.V.. Are real things at work here?
Tim-Yes, your brain activity sinks to a state that is even lower than if you are sleeping while watching T.V. This can be observed. By quantifying how much energy the brain consumes, which is directly proportionate to brain activity, scientists have found the T.V. watching brain to be using very little energy therefore very little thinking is going on.
Jenn-Are there any other things that could also be detrimental to long-term brain health?
Tim-Well there are genetic factors such as pre-disposition for Alzheimer's Disease or Huntington's Disease and cardiovascular problems such as stroke. There are also environmental factors that can damage the brain over time such as smoking causing cardiovascular problems and lead.
Well, that's all we have time for today. My thanks to Dr. Smith for taking a little time to chat, and a strong admonition to all of my beloved Sailors and Patrons: work those brains!
Every once in awhile I like to do a little divining in my column for all of my Sailors and Patrons--my fellow explorers searching for the Champagne Life. And often to preface my tarot card readings I like to talk about divination in general, including one of its bigger fans take on divination: Socrates. Socrates was not the only wise cat who supported divination. Many other sages and teachers throughout history have utilized divination. However, as one takes up the study of divination one begins to learn that more often than not divination is more about personal growth than whether or not you will find love in the upcoming year. The Tarot cards are no exception, in fact, as one studies the cards one begins to find a book of wisdom not a fun party activity. Over time I have come to use the cards almost solely as a tool for personal expansion and self-reflection. Carl Jung was an enormous fan of tarot cards and used them in his practice. Today many psychologists use tarot cards therapeutically. I actually have a guidebook for counselors on how to use the tarot cards with their patients. The cards can help a person find their own feelings-feelings that perhaps were latent or hidden-regarding their life. Say, when someone asks, "Should I take this job?" and then pulls some cards. The cards, by how they are read, can tell a great deal as to whether or not the person really wants to take the job. The cards are also therapeutic in that they all offer a lesson and meditating or pondering on any one or set of cards can often help one improve their ability to deeply question themselves. Additionally, the actual lessons can help a person find a "rudder" of sorts-particularly in a trying time-which is usually when someone reaches for the tarot cards. Personally, I have not had a friend ask me for a reading because everything in their life was going peachy. More often than not people come to me after divorces, major job decisions, suspicion in personal relationships, and ill health. And while when I do initially give them a reading (meaning I divine for them) as the reading progresses I find the person begins to really open up and talk about the problem and usually the cards served more profoundly as a catalyst than as an oracle. The pictures can also be a helpful way for a person to reach into deeper levels of thinking, and within those pictures thousands of years of human wisdom has been distilled.
Today I shall be talking about the next card in the deck: The Magician (see my previous column for the first card of the deck: The Fool). The first card in the deck The Fool is all about pure energy-totally open and unformed-waiting to be utilized. The next card, number I in the deck (The Fool is aptly numbered 0), is about using that energy. On the actual card is a magician with all of the universe's "tools" lying before him: wands, cups, swords, and pentacles. Wands represent creative fire-the inspiration and energy required to commence anything. Cups represent one's emotions or motivation-the soul or heart of the manner. Swords represent actual intellectual know-how-one cannot be a heart surgeon until one learns how. And pentacles represent the actual physical undertaking-meaning you can have the energy, motivation and how-to, but if you don't do anything with all that, you have not really succeeded. The Magician tells us that to succeed in any project we must utilized all four of the elements.
There is also a deeper, more philosophical message behind The Magician. Above the magician's head is the infinity symbol. For all things present in the universe are products of the magician: meaning that a tree, a human, a moon, or even a television show has gone through the cycle of the four elements in order for it to manifest. This manifestation is continuous and without end, and we as humans are part of this constant flow of intent. The universe is made up of pure usable energy (as represented in The Fool) and all things are first an inspiration, then a motivation, then a thought, and then a real object that can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, or heard. The Magician suggests that the world we live in is intelligence manifested, which is a different outlook than seeing the world as a phenomenon of chance. It also teaches that our own lives should be lived accordingly: we should realize that our lives are are own creations and hopefully with time we will come to live as magicians and not as blind victims of circumstance.
When doing a reading and The Magician comes up it is more often than not a call for the person questioning to remember that ultimately they create their own reality and that to accomplish anything one must use all of the elements necessary for creation: energy, heart, intelligence, and action. In some readings, where a very grave issue such as when a tragedy occurs it is a reminder that all things have meaning and that we humans no matter how seemingly small we may seem in the immense shadow of the universe are part of that meaning.
I suppose the obvious question is what is that meaning ? And all I can say is that I have trimmed my sails and remain committed to finding The Champagne Life..
All Those Little Things (11/24/04 Vol. 3 No.8)
As we near the day of thanks as all writers anxious to take some days off to do not much more than eat, drink, and sleep I too want to write about the most predictable pre-Thanksgiving topic: things we should be thankful for. However, I thought that in an effort to at least be somewhat original I would try to point out all the little things in our lives.those unsung heroes, if you will, that make our days run smoothly and comfortably. So, instead of spending time on being grateful for family, friends, and good health I shall deal with all those little things..
I am grateful for:
I am grateful for whoever invented the plastic shopping bag. For those who live in cities and often have to walk their groceries home, or for those who while drive but still have to climb one or two flights of stairs these plastic-handled dreams are truly marvels of invention. I can now hoist six to eight bags at a time up the stairs to my kitchen that is on the second floor of my duplex. In addition to the ease of carrying, the plastic grocery bag is also one of the more important tools of a dog owner: the poop bag. Being the proud owner of not one, but two dogs I can say that no bag equals in poop management to the shopping bag. I have tried fancy store bought bags designed for poop pick-up, however, they were not quite the right size (a little narrow), and they did not have the handy handle, which is invaluable when one is trying to both hold onto a couple of bags of poop and two anxious, not-so-well healed dogs.
I am grateful for the spiral notebook. Yes, the spiral notebook. I am not always the most fastidious person I know-this being the case I find that little metal spiral that holds all of my to-dos and notes together is amazing. And mind you the spiral is a whole different game than the three-ring binder or the most irritating-the solidly bound, glued notepad in which the glue eventually dries out and all of the pages begin to loosen and then eventually start falling out-but not ever with the snappy spiral notebook. The spiral notebook, unlike its competitors, can take a beating. I am noted for dropping things and not picking them up until they have been finely trampled or ran over by cars. I am also known for accidentally leaving things at restaurants, theaters, and shopping centers and the hidden quality of a humble spiral notebook-unlike the often gaudy and ostentations "professional" line of leather bound three-ring binders and folders encasing glue-bound notepads-is that no one ever snoops, defames, or steals a bright, spiral notebook decked out with puppies or a rearing-up horse on the cover.
There are also many other even "little-er" things that I find myself (once I give it some thought) extremely grateful: I am grateful for canned soup. I am grateful for the genius invention of the giant platter of "Super Nachos". I am grateful for ice machines, food processors, and microwaves. I am grateful for the ballpoint pen (have you ever messed around with quill pens?), the Sharpie pen, masking tape, and gift-wrap bows that curl when you run them over the edge of some scissors. I am grateful for lycra, Velcro, nylon, polar fleece, polyester, vinyl, "space-age technologies", and ultra-suede. I cannot believe people had to live without supermarkets (the music.the carts.the in-store deli/ bakery.forget about the Olde Worlde), 24-hour stores, microwave popcorn, walkmans, super-instant-deep-conditioning-hair-restorers, table tennis, and diet soda.
Well, I am quite sure you can all think of many other little things that one should be grateful for, and I suppose that was my objective: that it is all well and good to be thankful for antibiotics, the artificial hip, and one's loved ones, however, learning to be grateful for all of the things one has come to use, enjoy, and count on can help one develop a genuine sense of gratitude. Personally, when I began to say a small gratitude prayer before every meal I found my life wholly changed. That may sound dramatic, but I assure you I am not exaggerating. The other day I was asked what I thought was the single most significant thing a person could do to change their life and without hesitation (and with some genuine experience) I said, "learning gratitude." So, to all my beloved Sailors and Patrons I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving, and I will leave you with a little "homework" assignment: that sometime over the holiday you sit around with your friends or family and see how many "little things" you guys can come up with.
Grande Dame It (11/23/04 Vol. 3 No.7)
Recently, in celebration of the release of the Holiday Issue a few good friends came over. Our intention was to all go to a very nice restaurant in Cambridge, however, I was still quite tired from putting out the magazine and was in not quite in the mood yet for a push-up bra and heels. Not wanting to go out without a push-up bra and heels I decided to entertain the little group casually in my home.
The night was purring away nicely. We all decided to just sort of nibble and sip our way through the evening versus any type of formal meal and we were being rather experimental with our music. At about half-way through the night one of my lady friends pulled out a black, narrow box with a snappy carrying handle on top and handed it to me with a breathy "here ya go for doing such a good job with the magazine", and there she handed me a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin La Grande Dame champagne Brut 1995. And without thinking (and with some animation) I yelled to Dr. Timothy Smith (who was in attendance) to "get the ice bucket!". Then the most curious thing happened.my lady-friend's face completely sunk and she said (with some gravity), "Oh no.don't open it now.wait for some special time in the future." I then looked at her quite caught off guard and replied, "But nothing is guaranteed-not even my own life tomorrow-so I want to open this wine now." And again she frowned and implored that I do not open the bottle. By this time the other guests seeing their fate in my hands, no doubt, implored my generous patroness to allow me to pop the cork. Finally, she acquiesced, but I sensed it was not a comfortable agreement because as I giddily wrenched the bottle from its highly stylized box she nervously laughed and said, "I thought that bottle would be one that would gather dust." And my inner thought was, "but I do not want to drink it when I have gathered dust." My outer reply was something like I could not really see a better time to celebrate.how often would I celebrate the third issue of my new little magazine.never. Also I had argued that I do not do well under pressure and holding a bottle 1995 La Grande Dame over my head-not to be opened until a truly special time seemed like a lot of pressure. It's like Valentine's Day for me. I always refuse to celebrate that holiday because I just always get overwhelmed by having to be lovie dovie on command.
Once the bottle was opened we all marveled how wonderful the wine was and took our time enjoying it. I put on first Schumann and then Handel as we drank and we really did not talk much. What little we did talk about was the little drama before the bottle-should one just dive in with the nicer things in life or would it have been better for me to save the bottle for some "special" occasion? For me, I think I like both-sometimes it is good to have some type of prize dangling over your head through life-daring to be used only for the finest time. Other times I think it is best to make the "yes" call. I made the yes call that night because I really wanted to have the good wine. I also wanted to celebrate the magazine. The Better Drink is still new to me and I still feel a little in shock regarding my new big demanding child.and somehow I felt that if I toasted it with some uncommon honor that it will sink into my skin just a little deeper. Also, I just felt that a wine like that really should be shared with guests.I didn't want my guests having to plow through the night with a lusty and sumptuous widow winking at them.only to remain in her tightly sealed box.
But the call to save has also struck me (though I must admit not very often), and having something like a special bottle of wine on hand for truly wondrous moments is well, worth the effort. However, I have not ever found one of these moments to be planned. For this writer the perfect moment always has come at a complete surprise. As for planned events.well let's us just say that planned events that turn out as special as planned are as rare as special events of any kind.meaning they are rare and when they come I genuinely believe one should give it the "special" stamp and enjoy the heck out of them-like popping corks of vintage champagne. So, I suppose even in the paragraph I was suppose to argue for the "save it for a special occasion" I have really only re-insisted that one should Grande Dame It when they can because really special occasions are just that- special -and one should not ever pass one up. And for me the very presence of a great bottle of wine is in itself a special occasion-let alone the third issue of The Better Drink
Soup Kitchen (11/22/04 Vol. 3 No.6)
Soup for company? Soup with very fine wine? Soup served after nine? Well.yes. Soup is good with company, wine, and later hours because the making of it involves chopping, tossing, and stirring things that seemed only to be enhanced by conversation, a sweet buzz, and a good bright moon. I can always see the moon out of my kitchen window and mixing in the moon with champagne and a good discussion regarding wayward siblings, war, and literature can be nothing short of heaven. Then if you can imagine slowly tending to a savory simmering pot of homemade soup-only to be accompanied by crusty bread and a humble spread of good cheese-well, then I believe there is a good earth heaven made.
This was my Saturday night. And today I am going to give you my soup. This soup was a slow personal evolution, and quite like the humble simplicity of the evening I have found over the years that the more I took away from the soup the better it got. The soup can be served two ways: with pasta or without. Both taste like heaven, and I have served it both ways. Usually for dinner I serve it with pasta and with lunch without. Boys tend to like noodles in their soup. Girls tend to like anything warm without any seeming preference regarding noodles. If you let boys serve up their own soup they will pile on the noodles in a great big heap.so make the pasta accordingly.because while girls do not necessarily have a preference regarding to noodle or to not noodle they are not so happy when the noodles are all gone and they are left with none. It appears that none is not the same as never. I do not think this is a boy girl thing. I think this is a human thing.
Great Northern Bean Soup and if you are in the Mood.
Great Northern Bean Soup and Pasta
1 lb. Bag Great Northern Beans sorted, washed and set out to soak in a large bowl of water overnight (after soaking, drain and thoroughly rinse beans)
7 cups water
2 carrots chopped
1 ½ stalk celery chopped
1 large white onion chopped
3 med. Ripe tomatoes peeled* and chopped *(to peel cut out top core and score an "X" on the bottom of the tomato with a sharp knife. Then place in boiling water, one at a time, for ten seconds. Pull out and quickly peel tomato)
1 large vegetarian or chicken bouillon cube (the kind that makes two cups broth)
1 teaspoon "Wild Mushroom Soup 'N' Stock" by Organic Gourmet or an additional bouillon cube, however, I would strongly suggest that you take the effort to find this product. I find wild mushroom concentrate to be indispensable in the kitchen. You will usually find their mushroom concentrate at gourmet and natural food stores right by the bouillon cubes, powders, and concentrates.
1 Tablespoon of olive oil
2-3 teaspoons of Thyme
2-3 teaspoons of dried parsley
salt and pepper (do not salt until the beans are tender-salt toughens the skins of the beans and will hamper cooking if you add salt in the beginning-usually after an hour of cooking the soup is ready to be salted)
1 lb. Pasta-my favorite for soup is almost always Orecchiette-it's nicely bite-sized and the little "ears" cup the soup
Place soaked and rinsed beans in a large stock pot and add seven cups of water-have a small bowl and a large spoon handy. Bring to boil and then take care to gently skim the white foam that surfaces. Then add the rest of the ingredients (excepting pasta). Cover and simmer for two hours. Stir occasionally. Remember to adjust salt after the first hour, and to monitor the liquid levels. If too thin take off lid, it too thick add extra water.
Make pasta just after soup is done. Do Not Add To Soup! Put a spoonful (around a third of a cup-or more-or less) in each bowl then ladle the soup on top. Serve it with some good bread, and if you like, some good cheese. Also bread served with garlic and herb infused olive oil works great with this soup. Take care to store the noodles and soup separately the pasta will swell and make the soup too thick and mushy.
Enjoy! This is actually one of my favorite meals. I have served it with both red and white wines and find it really only boils down to what kind of mood you are in.both go well.
Tarot Time (11/19/04 Vol. 3 No.5)
Socrates was a big proponent of divination, and so, dear readers, am I. His reasoning was thus: A man can find and marry a beautiful woman with every fine quality imaginable-this is Reason. However, a man cannot know whether or not he will have a happy life and marriage with said woman-this is Fate (an only the gods know situation). Socrates strongly believed that man should employ both tactics-reason and divination-if one wants to live a successful and productive life. Conversely, however, as Socrates warned against the conceit of acting on pure reason, he had a similar warning regarding divination. Socrates had sharp words for those who use divination when reason should be employed. In other words, do not bother the gods with things you can handle on your own.
Today, for my column I have decided to act as High Priestess and do a little divination for everyone. I am going to use the Tarot cards for my reading. And while I in no way claim the title of Adept I will say that I have been reading cards for over nine years and within that time I believe I have at least gained some insight. The Tarot consists of 78 cards. Twenty-two of them are called the Major Arcana cards. The remaining 56 are the Minor Arcana cards. The Major Arcana cards are both numbered (0-21) and titled: the Fool, the Empress, the Lovers, Death, etc. These cards are essentially the major life lessons that one must undergo in order to attain complete enlightenment. In a reading they usually signify the deeper significance to any one event. The Minor Arcana are much like normal playing cards. Like playing cards they are divided into four suits: Wands (clubs), Cups (Hearts), Swords (Spades) and Pentacles (Diamonds). And like playing cards each suit has court cards: King, Queen, Knight, and with the Tarot there is an additional card: the Page, which is the card for children, unmarried women (usually under 30) and for communication (letters, telephones calls visits etc.).
While the history of the Tarot is still quite obscure a few things are known about it. It originated thousands of years ago and is directly related to a system of theosophy known as the Quabbalah (yes, that Quabblalah-Madonna's Quabbalah). The Quabbalah is the name of the Jewish oral tradition or esoteric doctrine. Many people also believe that the Tarot perhaps has shared roots with the I-Ching or Book of Changes, which is the ancient Chinese oracle. The first known decks that are in their current form emerged in Italy around the fourteenth century and were used in a game called Tarocci. In fact, today Italian playing cards still use the symbols of Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles verses the clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds of American playing cards. The French word for Tarocci is Tarot and there we get the Tarot cards.
My question: "What lesson or advice do all who read my column on Friday, November 19, 2004 need?"
The answer: The Page of Pentacles, The Nine of Swords, The Three of Wands and The Six of Swords..
The Page of Pentacles is a card for beginnings, and generally speaking this page represents new things involving education, money or career. Pages can also represent letters, telephone calls and sometimes meetings, although generally speaking Knights usually represent meetings in person. Naturally then, The Page of Pentacles if representing a telephone call or letter this communication would be regarding business, education or money. With the page sitting next to The Nine of Swords I would say that there is a great deal of worry surrounding this new business or educational venture. A great deal of worry. The Nine of Swords depicts a man sitting up in bed in the black of night with his head in his hands and nine swords looming above him. What is important to realize about his card is that it is for worry only-not actual disaster-which does come with The Ten of Swords. The two cards that cross The Page of Pentacles and The Nine of Swords are first The Three of Wands then the Six of Swords. So instantly I will tell all of my beloved Sailors and Patrons not to fret-seriously stop your worrying-everything is going well. The Three of Wands is a card that represents established strength. It is a card of high virtue and honor. To have this card connected with Page of Pentacles is significant. It suggests that the more experienced players in this business venture are in fact, honest and sincere-also quite strong. Wands cards are idea cards and have a great deal of energy. This can also signify that the ideas that are being dreamt now have a good chance of flourishing-so again-do not worry! The final card is The Six of Swords. The Six of Swords represents relief from anxiety or relief after much strife and/ or hardship. So, even if your worrying does have some root from a bad experience in the past, know that the hardship or strife genuinely has passed.things really are different now.
Essentially, the cards are saying that for those that are commencing something new regarding your career whether going back to school or seeking out a new business alliance know that the more experienced people involved are genuinely strong and have integrity and that your worries while most likely founded in real past hardships are not to be adhered to now.times have really changed and real relief is coming.
Have a great weekend! See you on Monday.
Right This Right That-Part V (11/18/04 Vol. 3 No.4)
Today is the last day of my multi-part series on The Eightfold Path. Please check out my past columns for the other parts (I, II, III, and IV). For those of you who are just joining us The Eightfold Path is the list of rules or precepts that a Buddhist aspirant is implored to follow if they want to smooth or hasten their journey towards enlightenment. They are not unlike the Ten Commandments in flavor or intent, however, they are meant to be used as an aid or tool and not seen as instructions handed down from a deity. In addition, to laying out the meaning behind the list of "Rights" (like Right Speech, Right Effort etc.) I have also been talking about the often difficult path of trying to adhere to a strict and exacting moral code as in the case with The Eightfold Path. I have so far landed at a sort of reasonable stance.try the best you can.but don't go nuts about it. This is not to mean that I think we should be lax in areas such as violence or crime, but it is to suggest that getting too wrapped up in "right behavior" can lead to harsh self criticism as well as harsh judgments of others' behavior, which I believe can become life-damaging habits.
The final two "rights" are both connected to meditation. Meditation is of extreme importance in Buddhist religious practice, and some could argue, as with the case of both Zen sects, meditation is the religious practice. These two precepts are Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
The best way one should first look at or see Right Mindfulness is to immediately think of one's senses and add one more: the mind. For in Buddhism man is considered to have six senses not five, and they do not see our sixth sense as ESP. In Buddhism the mind is considered a sense organ like the eyes, nose, ears, mouth, and one's sense of touch. Right Mindfulness is the practice of purifying one's senses so that one can genuinely experience reality as it is.not necessarily as one thinks it is.or in some cases, as one wants it to be. There are really two approaches to this purification of the senses. One way is physical. One must take care to get enough sleep so one's senses are fresh and bright, however, one must not oversleep as this too would dull the senses. One must take care to be moderate in consumption of food and drink as too much or too little would alter our ability to read or access our senses. Essentially, one wants every advantage one can have regarding one's ability to take in sensory data at a physical level.
The other aspect to purifying one's senses is at a mental or psychological level. If one is obsessed with sex or money or even how someone upset you than one will be unable to truly "be in the moment". Right Mindfulness is the conscious practice of clearing one's mind and becoming like a placid lake where the phenomenal world such as treetops and the moon can be reflected upon the lake's waters without distortion. If, for instance, you were rolling over and over how your co-worker had ticked you off then most likely you were not noticing that perhaps it was a gorgeous sunny day, or that maybe your spouse was having a very rough day and genuinely needed some extra love and support.these types of things get lost when one occupies their six sense or the mind with other things. If, however, one learns to genuinely stay in the moment with senses that have not been dulled by sleepiness or over-indulgence and with a mind that is freed of obsessive thought-loops then one can begin to experience the world as it really is. It is this goal.this immense experience of living consciously or mindfully that will allow us to become enlightened and operate at a higher level as a human being. Compassion and wisdom are only to arise when one is truly able to know the nature of reality, and has moved beyond delusion. A delusion that is brought on by dulled senses and mental pre-occupations.
How is one to begin this purification? With meditation-the whole purpose of practicing meditation is to purify or train one's senses including one's mind to stay in the moment. The goal being that if one purposely sits with the intention of "just sitting" then one can begin to train the mind. The logic being that it is profoundly more difficult when one is dealing with the rigors of the world, so one takes a little time out to train with the ultimate goal of achieving mindfulness both while meditating and while mowing the lawn or disciplining one's kids.
Right Concentration is essentially putting "purpose" behind one's meditations. Wanting a highly trained mind can be an extraordinary skill that can be used apart from spiritual development. In fact, many studies by scientists have confirmed what the many masters have claimed for over a thousand years that regular meditation can enhance one's mental, physical, and emotional capacities. This advantage was known and often men would pursue the practice not necessarily to develop spiritually but to have an edge over their enemies or competitors. This being known and foreseen the inclusion of Right Concentration was meant to implore the aspirant "to keep their eyes on the prize", which was liberation not a promotion or a superior back-hand or chip. This is not to say that Buddhist techniques should not be used in areas such as performance enhancement (which it surely is used and is very effective), it is to say that if one truly wants to walk the Buddhist path and gain enlightenment then as one trains the mind and purifies or sharpens the senses that one should always be mindful that this practice is meant to seek out spiritual truth and to enhance one's innate sense of compassion and wisdom. In a way, Right Concentration could also be interpreted as right motivation .
Well, this concludes my five-part series on The Eightfold Path, but I want to say that it in no way is conclusive. The Eightfold Path should be seen as an ever-enfolding path towards profound understanding. Each precept has a physical and psychological component as well as an ever-deeper philosophical or spiritual level. The Eightfold Path was not intended to be memorized and blindly followed: as with most things in Buddhism The Eightfold Path is meant to be experienced and traversed. And as one walks, swerves or sometimes stumbles along this path than overtime many of the deeper more subtle aspects regarding The Eightfold Path begin to unfold.
Right This Right That-Part IV (11/17/04 Vol. 3 No.3)
Once again, we are working our way through The Eightfold Path. Please check out my previous columns for Parts I, II, and III. Today, we are going to tackle Right Livelihood and Right Effort. For newcomers The Eightfold Path is, in a way, the Buddhist version of the Ten Commandments, however, as we have seen there are some major differences between both their approach to morality and its pursuit therein. I have also throughout this multi-part series discussed my own precarious relation to moral aspiration: essentially adhering to The Eightfold Path or as often is the case with any strict code of conduct can be tricky business and failing can have complicated results. Complicated in a life sense.say for instance stealing and then getting caught, and complicated in a personal sense.say have a crushing sense of guilt or insecurity when unable to achieve the sort of perfection asked or pressed upon by a religion's set of moral codes. In both cases, baring hideous crimes, I have come to believe that a large dose of compassion and humor must be attached to any moral undertaking.both with oneself and others.
Right Livelihood is essentially Right Action "taken to the streets". Basically when it comes to making money one must not sacrifice one's ethical and moral standing. In Buddhism the main issues are causing sentient creatures harm or death, dishonesty or swindling, and the selling or pushing of intoxicants. This one is still under debate.does it mean that one mustn't be a drug pusher, or is it saying one must not sell alcohol of any kind? Also, with regard to the harm or death issue does this also include say owning a store or restaurant where meat is sold? Venerable Yin-shun writer of the book The Way to Buddhahood-Instructions from a Modern Chinese Master most definitely instructs that one must not ever sell meat or alcohol. However, Chogyam Trungpa, a preeminent Tibetan Buddhist master, and highly respected teacher of both Buddhism and walking the Buddhist path was not only personally a "party animal" when it came to alcohol he personally felt that drinking was a healthy and important part of the human experience-including one's path towards enlightenment. Now, I will be the first to say his stance is definitely on an extreme, however, it is important to point out that within Buddhism there is a certain flexibility because essentially all "Buddhism" is, is the journey towards enlightenment, and the best road for any one individual to find said enlightenment ultimately must be highly personal and unique. However, wanting to take the most common path I would say that if you were to sell alcohol it would be important to do so with care and responsibility, including personal consumption. Because genuine love and compassion for living beings is not a Buddhist issue that is under debate or ambiguity (unlike the concept of sexual "misconduct" a Buddhist precept that remains a debate), and gaining wealth by hurting others is simply not noble.
Next, we move on to Right Effort. Right Effort is a precept that is meant to apply to the whole of The Eightfold Path. However, Right Effort in Buddhism is not necessarily what a Westerner might quickly assume. In the West we have come to take on the super "be all you can be" or "push yourself to the limit" take when it comes to effort and the best way to apply effort. However, one of the key points that Buddha realized on his road to enlightenment was something called The Middle Path. The Middle Path was realized after nearly dying from self-starvation and other self-induced physical hardships. Buddha came to realize that one must be healthy, well nourished, and personally balanced if one wants to pursue enlightenment. Essentially, a body and mind that is pushed too far ultimately becomes exhausted and weak and can no longer do the contemplation and meditation required to actually reach liberation. Right Effort deals with this concept. One is to definitely do the best one can to follow The Eightfold Path and to pursue enlightenment by studying the Dharmas (or Buddhist teachings), by learning from good teachers, and by meditating and contemplating, however, one must also take good care of themselves and not become over zealous or obsessed causing fatigue and mania. Personally, I really love this one and its teaching: that one must seek a healthy balance and humor regarding one's spiritual aspiration and that not only will it cause one to be able to walk the path or keep to the journey it is in fact, the only way in which one can succeed. It is the idea that being balanced is more than just "a good idea" which could still invite or leave room for zealous overachieving; guarding one's sense of equilibrium is actually, from a Buddhist perspective, imperative if one wants to ever achieve enlightenment. I also like the implication of non-competitiveness in one's moral and spiritual practice versus the often-cruel "moral marathons" of other religious traditions. For in Buddhism, one is instructed to follow The Eightfold Path at one's unique pace that will not exhaust nor will it bore one to debauchery, however, that pace may be wholly different than that of your neighbors'.
That is all for today. Tomorrow, I will be finishing my series on The Eightfold Path with the two remaining precepts: Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration
We are once again back to those pesky Buddhist precepts.if you thought Buddha was bringing down the gavel in my last column with Right Thought, Right Understanding, and Right Speech than I assure you we have only just begun. (to read Part I and Part II please see my past columns section in the Fall Issue, which can be accessed by going to the Past Issues section on the top tool bar or by clicking here. Now, we are up to the "biggies" as far as moral fortitude goes, and I mean Biggies. I believe it is at Right Action and Right Livelihood that, once firmly realized, will eventually turn most modern Americans off of their current love affair with all things Buddhist. In truth, while there are several philosophical differences between the Buddhist approach to morality and the Judaeo-Christian (with their classic 10 Commandments) when it comes to strictness Buddhism has Christianity hands down. I say this with a sort of knowing honesty considering that I personally have been attempting a sort of lame, stumble on the Buddhist path over that past decade, and when it comes to this road-The Eightfold Path-I personally have found myself taking many, many detours. However, with all that said here we arrive at the difference between a path and a commandment . For me, knowing I am not so good at keeping to the moral precepts means I also know my path or road towards enlightenment is going to not be smooth and is going to take a whole heck of long time versus the smooth and timely ride The Eightfold Path affords an aspirant. Under the commandment schema when I break the rules I tick off an already peeved God.not a good situation.however, in all fairness this abovementioned peeved God is also a forgiving God and with some genuine regret I can find myself back in tip-top shape with my beloved deity. So all in all it's a tough call who has the easier system. Personally, I sort of go back and forth and use a good mix of prayers involving groveling, and intense self-recrimination that leads to loads of personal promises to do better next time. Now, with all that said.whew! Here we go.Right Action.
I have this really great book called The Way to Buddhahood-Instructions from a Modern Chinese Master by the Venerable Yin-shun. This Venerable Yin-shun is one Buddhist bad-ass.I am not kidding.and yes mom I had to use that word. This gent is one tough dude and his take on Right Action is firm. He does, however, lighten the load somewhat for lay followers versus monks, but the tone is pretty clear that generally speaking, one should follow his moral instruction as close as one can if one is truly serious regarding liberation-i.e. enlightenment. Here is his list for monks: (1) no killing (2) no stealing (3) no sexual relations (4) no lying (5) no drinking (6) no use of perfumes, garlands or personal adornments (7) no partaking in singing, dancing or play and no watching or listening to them (8) no use of luxurious high seats or beds (9) no eating at improper times (10) no accepting of treasures or of coins or of objects of gold and silver. This list is actually is sort of "cheat sheet" or quick overview, and there are actually several more exactitudes one must adhere to if one really wants to "do it right" so to speak. And it is important to note that these are what he calls "the close by" precepts that lay followers are to follow when they decide to leave their lives for a while and live "close by" a monastery. The day to day precepts for a lay person are often under hot debate because when Buddha laid down the law he laid it down for his monks, and as for lay followers he essentially said in the sutra (Buddhist Gospels) Instructions to Lay People in the widely recognized collection of writings called The Long Discourses (which are the oldest known Buddhist written scriptures) for lay people to be cool. He told men to love and take good care of their families and to say nice things and give fine gifts to their wives. He told men to be fair in business and treat their workers with respect. He told women to be nice to their husbands and treat their household servants kindly, and pretty much that was it. Now, if you wanted to shave your head, drastically reduce your diet and material possessions then Buddha had a whole list of "how to's". However, with all religions, over time a solid list of precepts has gelled and it recognized as precepts for the laity. Generally speaking these rules are: no killing (and in Buddhism no killing is generally taken more intensely than the no killing of the Ten Commandment's fame. No killing in Buddhism means no killing in war, no killing in terms of criminal punishment, and no killing of animals including fish and insects), no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct (whatever that means.and I say that seriously.Buddhism is an evangelical religion and it is also quite old, this means that it has moved through several cultures and several eras all having their own unique spin on what sexual conduct is proper and what is not. So, like all things today there is a great deal of ambiguity regarding sexual conduct and Buddhism), no drinking or as it is often written no imbibing of intoxicants (this precept too is debated some feel strongly that the no drinking was only meant for monks and that lay followers are allowed to drink.just not to excess.however, the Venerable Yin-shun teaches that no drinking means no drinking-especially for the lay followers). These pretty much wrap up what monks and lay followers are admonished to follow if they want to walk steadily on The Eightfold Path.
As I mentioned in the beginning of my column, I personally have found my moral ability when overlaid onto the Buddhist ideal as "just okay", but I do try which puts me in good standing with the Right Effort part of The Eightfold Path.which in turn makes me admire this fine and old religion. Tomorrow, I will be continuing my multi-part series beginning with Right Livelihood. Take care and have a great day.and maybe.perhaps. have a good go with Right Action.
Our New Issue.Fresh off the Griddle (11/15/04 Vol. 3 No.1)
On Tuesday, November 16, I shall continue with my multi-part series on The Eightfold Path-the Buddhist moral precepts. Today, I want to introduce you to our newest issue.the Holiday Issue. Once again, I am unbelievably proud to launch another Better Drink issue, and once again, I have many people to thank. This issue marks our third issue and what I believe to be our very best. I am also proud and excited to introduce a whole new column: Under the Goldlight- True Tales of Drinking Champagne . I also want to thank Laurent Perrier for sending our reviewer, Mark Kernaghan, out in Seattle a bottle of their amazing Brut Rosé. Needless to say this writer was more than just a little jealous. However, just when I was prepping for a really good pout G.H. Mumm came in and treated us to a sumptuous collection of wines. They sent to us at The Better Drink a bottle of Brut Prestige by Mumm Napa Valley, a bottle of Blanc De Noirs also by Mumm Napa Valley, a bottle of Mumm Cordon Rouge (the classic), and Mumm Joyesse their demi-sec wine. As for my review.well I will say that the Napa wines were elegant and offered a buzz not unlike my native California's sun.the Cordon Rouge tasted just as champagne should when you want to smell a bit like perfume and you want your company to have interesting conversation.and as for the Mumm Joyesse all I can say is that I think I will always blush quite deeply when I write or speak those words. Mumm Joyesse I feared would be too sweet for my palate, but I must now count it as one of my "go to" wines.particularly when most, if not all, of my dinner guests have left. I suppose there really is a time for a little tender sweet, which is how I would describe this wine.
In addition to a new column, The Better Drink also has some new writers that have signed on to join us at The Better Drink as staff writers and regular contributors. David Sirois who is the writer of this issue's "Goodbye" (of HelloGoodbye) is a local Boston area writer and poet who will be contributing throughout 2005. J. Blake Gordon is a poet and photographer from Chicago who not only is our Holiday Issue's featured poet but will also be writing other pieces and contributing his photography to our many upcoming issues. Paul Donaldson who wrote this issue's interview with Jepson's winemaker has joined us at The Better Drink as our California correspondent. Paul lives in Santa Rosa and is currently growing Pinot Noir grapes and will be soon making his own wine. We look forward to tasting it!
Besides the "new guys" the Holiday Issue also has some wonderful return writers. Suzie Sims-Fletcher (who wrote the "Goodbye" of HelloGoodbye for our debuting Summer Issue) writes a funny and honest "Hello" for this issue. She has also warmly accepted the title and challenge of being listed as one of our regular contributors. She is a worldly and amazing woman with many achievements, and I feel exceptionally proud to have her on our team. Anna Luciano (who write our last issue's "Hello" of HelloGoodbye) wrote a funny holiday tale to hopefully lighten-up the often stressful, holiday season. She is one of our youngest, but also one of our most talented writers. I am very proud to publish and support her writing. I look forward to talking her into many other projects in the future. Mark Kernaghan, our wine reviewer, is also back with another one of his splendid gems. I am still not quite sure why someone with his talent is willing to work for us, but not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I will say that I am very, very grateful. Dave Brown, now a staff writer, has returned full force with a hilarious piece for our newest column with a great drinking story. Dave Brown was a featured poet in our Summer Issue and wrote a great "Goodbye" for our Fall 2004 issue. Being an editor with my tiny budget is never easy, and I am still quite amazed by the quality of work I receive from many gifted writers with I must say, very impressive and involved day jobs.
I also want to thank Dr. Timothy Smith's father Dr. James Smith for sharing with us his long time love for opera in this issue's Passion Forum. I was so thrilled when he (reluctantly) agreed to write the piece for us. Dr. Smith is very modest and a little shy, however, as someone who has known him for years hearing him speak about opera is truly inspiring. He has truly made an art out of being a fan. I want to thank Felisha Foster our "behind the scenes" lady. Felisha is our sales and marketing person and has helped The Better Drink profoundly. She is perhaps the funniest and most frank person I know. She is also an amazing wine expert, and I have learned a great deal about wine and the wine industry from her. Last but certainly not least I would like to thank Anthony Lobosco for letting us show his wonderful paintings. He is unbelievable kind and has cooperated with us in everyway, which makes me feel profoundly honored considering the level of talent and experience he has as an artist versus the relatively baby status of The Better Drink.
Finally, I would like to take a little time to tell Dr. Timothy Smith how profoundly proud I am to call you my partner. We've done it again I suppose.and once again, I cannot believe it. The Holiday Issue is our most ambitious yet, which meant that Tim had to rebuild many aspects of the magazine. Tim also contributed a great deal of writing for this issue. He wrote an amazing feature on the birth of champagne and once again, wrote a great piece for our Art & Science column. I will be honest for a moment and admit that I have a bit of a temper and am known to swear a lot particularly when I am overstressed.. To give you some understanding of Tim's position I also must include that I quit smoking (cold turkey) three months ago.so this gives you some idea what it is like to work closely with me. Throughout all of this Tim has been amazingly patient and has produced everything I have asked (well okay.at times.demanded), and in several cases he has offered a profoundly better alternative. Thanks T-Bone.
I want to end this column with one last thank you. I would like to thank all of my loyal readers-my beloved Sailors and Patrons-who have all decided to join me on my daily quest for the Champagne Life. The Better Drink is genuinely growing into a fine little magazine, and it would not be possible without our readers. As the editor and the writer of the daily column I know I would not be able to put in all of the hours if I did not know I had a little gang of adventurers that were willing to take a little time and join me. I am so completely touched and honored that I often have a difficult time comprehending what has happened since the birth of The Better Drink. Personally because of my column and all of the research it involves, I have genuinely found myself evolving. I read up to five books a week and find myself interviewing more and more people asking them what they think the way to the Champagne Life is, and searching the internet and other news sources all in an effort to learn how one may become happy and whole. And it is my greatest wish that perhaps through all of this effort that you my dearest Sailors and Patrons and maybe even me will someday find the sweet shores of The Champagne Life.
So, with all that said I want to welcome you all to another issue of The Better Drink A Sparkling Wine and Living Magazine , and I hope that this holiday season proves to be the best yet. Cheers.