Tuesday, March 20, 2018


I have not forgotten my serious conversation with myself. Honest. But I have been distracted by a troublesome book review, one that did not come easy. Having requested a review copy and having read--and liked!--the book, I felt an obligation to get the review written. Once I get started on a review--the first words or sentence are usually enough to propel me through the rest--I stalled on the follow-up. My head felt muddled. The ideas came, but in no neat verbal package as they often do. Lacking focus, I wrote too much. Un-usefully, the adjectives and adverbs came pouring out, often a sign of having little of substance to say and using the decorative words as an excuse.

So... I finished a draft, and was not happy with it. I gave it to Ellie to read, as I often do; and did not believe her when she said that it was good. She knew I had been struggling and wanted to be kind. She did, though, add a little kicker about there being, just possibly, a bit too much retelling, a bit too much description. So yesterday I scrapped the whole thing and started over, this time with greater success. Not great, I told myself when I was through. But a whole lot better.

The experience left me wondering about the brain--whether what I'm observing is in fact a diminishing intellectual capacity. I have trouble, these days, finding that mot juste that Flaubert, ever the perfectionist, wrote about: exactly the right word. I find myself resorting a great deal to the easily accessed Thesaurus on my computer, reading through lists of (mostly) adjectives (!) to find the one that works best; and I don't like that dependency. Having written reviews of scores of books and art shows over the last nearly five decades, I find myself, first, less motivated to write them and, next, when I do commit to one, having the kind of trouble I describe. My head, I conclude, is not working so smoothly as it used to do. (It does work pretty well for crosswords, though--a less meaningful occupation...)

So that's what I've been dealing with. I will consider it a part of that serious conversation with myself and be grateful for whatever small insight the experience inspired. This morning, in meditation, I found myself resting in contemplation of the heart, looking for the goodwill to be found there--and allowing it to nudge out the darkness of ill will, where I found it. A short session, because the gardener and his crew arrived, but a rewarding one. I comfort myself with the knowledge that the heart is a more important organ than the brain!

Oh, and a pair of birds have chosen to make their nest in one of the three bird houses outside our bedroom window. They have been there since we inherited them from the previous owner and, to our knowledge, have never been used before. So we have reason to rejoice. They sing loudly. As I told Ellie when we woke, we have new noisy neighbors.

Monday, March 12, 2018


In the first part of this "serious conversation," I spent a while reviewing how it is that I actually spend my time, with a view to evaluating my priorities. This, given the realistic acknowledgment that the time ahead of me is limited; it's important to be sure that it is not misspent.

The preeminent priority is family. That's the first, reactive thought of course, but also the one that stands the test of deliberate review. And when it comes to family, there is one primary relationship: Ellie and I have known each other now for very nearly fifty years, and will have been married this November for forty-seven of them. As I look to the coming years, I see that my first priority is to honor that relationship, to nourish it as best I can, and to accept my own part of responsibility for mutual care. To be realistic, once again, is to acknowledge that care--both physical and emotional--will demand more and more time and patience as the years progress, and will likely require the surrender of other, me-oriented needs and wishes. As one who is not known for patience and who obsesses over time, I have still much to learn about both giving and receiving care. I will need to allow time to pass more slowly, even as it seems to be inevitably speeding up.

In this context, another priority: myself. (And I do not see this as being "selfish." I cannot be of any good to others if I am not good with myself). I have not yet learned to abandon some of the behaviors and expectations of much younger years. The body has different needs and I am, to be honest, less attentive to those changing needs than good health warrants. I know that I eat--and drink!--for a younger man than I, a man with a speedier and more responsive metabolic process. The net result is that I gain needless weight and, while vanity is a less powerful motivating force these days, I find myself uncomfortable in my body and the clothes I wear, and I do not enjoy the discomfort. I am also exercising less than I used to do; was a time when I was active four or five days a week, but now I'm down to two or three. So this, too, remains a priority. If I wish to age gracefully and in good health, I must spend the time I need to maintain strength, stamina, and flexibility.

Aside from the body, of course, there are the other three corners of what I have come to see as the properly balanced life: the intellect, the emotions, and for want of a better word, the spirit. Meditation is unquestionably the best thing I have learned to do to sustain these aspects of my life, and I value the practice of more than 20 years more than I can say. A half hour every morning allows me to sharpen my attention and, for the most part, maintain some semblance of emotional balance, even in difficult times. It also keeps me connected with that part of me that I can't define, but whose presence I am increasingly aware of--the part that transcends all the others and seems curiously independent of them. I know it's there, because it becomes almost tangible in meditation, a kind of space "I" inhabit with an unfettered sense of freedom from time and space. I want to continue to spend time there, and hopefully to share its benefits with others.

These thoughts, then, for Ellie and myself. I'll have more thoughts about family when I resume my conversation next time.

Friday, March 9, 2018


It came to me this morning that it's time for a serious conversation with myself. Given the relatively short amount of time I have left on this earth--and no guarantee of the persistence of those intellectual, emotional and physical faculties on which we all so much depend--I need to be sure that I have my priorities straight as of this moment. Is there anything left that I need to do while I'm still able? Am I spending my limited time in useful and rewarding ways, of benefit to those with whom I'm privileged to share this planet? Or in wasteful or destructive ones? What do I wish to be my legacy, insignificant though it may be in the larger scale of things? Few of us, of course, are granted more than a passing, rapidly evanescent remembrance in the minds of our fellow human beings, let alone those who will come after us; but even a short-term legacy leaves ripples that can affect especially those we love and those whose paths we cross or intersect with.

Why now? I have been increasingly noticing the passage of time each day, and from day to day and week to week, and finding myself less and less "employed"--by which I mean not gainfully, as in "work," but engaged in activity that seems necessary and important.  I post with less frequency and with less of a sense of urgency in my blogs. In this one, The Buddha Diaries, in which I used to explore my thoughts on an almost daily basis, I note that days or even weeks can pass without that urge to write them down. Indeed, I've noticed that I'm generally engaged by fewer "thoughts" of an extended or challenging nature. Even when I go looking for them, they're not there. Today is the exception rather than the rule. In one sense, this feels good to me: the detachment, the disengagement, call it what you will, brings with it a sense of freedom, an escape from mundane responsibility, perhaps something like what Buddhists mean when they use the term "equanimity." On the other hand, there are negative implications in the word--and practice of--escape, and I tend to revert to judgment of myself. I call myself lazy, or negligent, or accuse myself of taking the easy course and succumbing too readily to the wonderful excuses I invent.

I'm more dutiful with my other blog, The Rohrabacher Letters, which has become the receptacle for all my thoughts on politics and social issues. I say "dutiful" because I cling to it out of a sense of civic duty in a political environment that I find profoundly troubling, even frightening. I was brought up with a strong commitment to social justice, a good lefty, but live today in a country that has been tilting further and further to the right for, now, five decades. Each time I think it can tilt no further, I am proved wrong. Today, the government of the United States seems dedicated to the elimination of every social value I believe in: taxes increasingly favor the already disproportionate privilege of the rich; in education--the foundation of a healthy democracy--public schools are starved for the funds that are redirected to promote private education for the few who can afford it; the courts and the judicial system are heavily skewed against the poor and the disadvantaged. And so on. There is no end to it. In Washington I see corruption, ignorance and indifference to the needs of those whom politicians are elected to serve; in the electorate, I see willful ignorance, gullibility and, at best, blind self-interest. In view of this, I tell myself I need to "do something"--anything, really--to fulfill my duty as a citizen, and writing is the best thing I can do.

So I write. But even on this front, I'm watching a tendency--perhaps a desire--to disengage. Along with the intellectual dissent and the emotional outrage, there is a sense of despair, a feeling that what I can do falls far short of what is needed. I engage a few other minds with my posts, but mostly they are like-minded, so I end up preaching to the already converted. Does my writing "make a difference"? I fear not. I can be sure that the letters I write, as a Democratic constituent, to my right-wing Republican congressman go unread. Since starting The Rohrabacher Letters, there have now been nearly 250 of them--thoughtful, polite--not only posted on the blog but every one of them hand-signed, hand-addressed and sent via the US mail to the congressman's office, and I have received not one single authentic response. Over the past year and, now, some months, I have received from my representative, via email, fewer than half a dozen boilerplate position papers in response to my personally-written, carefully-argued letters. Clearly, he neither hears nor cares what I have to say. So I ask myself why I write them. I do it for a handful of readers, yes, but not with the expectation of changing any minds. I do it in order to remain conscious, to not allow myself and others to NOT pay attention.

These are grounds, then, on which I need to have that serious conversation. Enough for one day. I do not wish to hurry the process, which needs time. Please stay with me, if you're interested--if, perhaps, you share this particular concern--as I pursue my thoughts further in subsequent entries.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018


I usually restrict my political thoughts to my other current blog, The Rohrabacher Letters. If I make an exception today, it's because I'm interested in the character and psyche of the man who sits in the Oval Office and who is capable of inflicting inestimable damage on the country he was "elected" to serve. (I use the quotation marks because it seems increasingly clear that the 2016 election results were dubious for a good number of reasons and, were it possible, should be voided).

As I noted on that other blog, I have had difficulty believing the one part of that now-infamous "Steele dossier" that made no sense to me. I refer to the scurrilous "golden shower" story, in which Trump was reported to have brought a number of prostitutes into his Moscow hotel room and paid them to urinate on the bed. This seemed to me too outrageous, too improbable even for a man of known (and admitted!) crass sexual behaviors. Aside from all other considerations, the risk of indulging in this fantasy in a Moscow hotel room seemed too fraught with peril even for a high-roller like Trump. When I visited Moscow, many years ago, it was widely known that hotel rooms in that city were the least secure of places. Why would Trump think otherwise?

So it was only on reading the tail end of a sentence in the long Jane Mayer article in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine that I found a convincing reason to believe the story. The performance, the article suggested, was staged in order to defile the bed in which the Obamas had once slept on a state visit. And suddenly the story made perfect sense. First, it fits inarguably with the character of the man, the petty, vengeful spirit that has so often been on display, especially with regard to President Obama and Trump's former political opponent, Hillary Clinton--whose memory seems to haunt him ceaselessly, like some Dickensian ghost of Christmas past. He cannot let either of them go. They are his go-to excuses for everything that goes wrong in his administration. He is obsessed with such a persistent, unfathomable hatred for both that we may justifiably suspect it to be rooted at some deep level of the unconscious mind, in the form of primal racism and misogyny.

The Obama hatred, I'm convinced, originated in that moment at the 2011 White House press dinner, when the former president had some innocent fun with Trump's absurd obsession with the birth certificate. (It's worth re-watching that speech, by the way; it proves uncomfortably prescient, toward the end, with a vision of a gaudy new facade to the White House.) It's clear, watching Trump during those few minutes, that he is not the slightest bit amused by Obama's light-handed, eloquent humor; and plausible, in retrospect, that what he experienced as a humiliating slight proved the motivation for the revenge he's currently wreaking on its source--and, not incidentally, on the country. Given the vulnerability of his ego and the absence of any sense of humor or perspective, what has happened since that speech looks to be a continuing act of self-justification and bitter vengeance.

So, yes, there is a dreadful and pathetic logic, even a kind of tragic necessity, to Trump's paying for prostitutes to piss on his predecessor's bed. To his relishing this petty act of getting even, and his choosing this most crassly sexual means of doing it. Along with many of my fellow Americans, I have been appalled by the open, aggressive and unapologetic moral depravity of the man who is supposed to represent us to the world.

Until now, though, I remained skeptical of this story that so aptly illustrates that depravity, but given the plausibility of this motivation, why, it does make perfect sense. And to righteous Buddhists who would fault me for furthering offensive revelations on the grounds of Right Speech, I say it is equally important for us to recognize and speak the truth, even when that truth is in itself repellent. We are not asked, nor indeed permitted, to close our eyes to the despicable behavior of those elected to positions of power over us.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


I have been dreaming more than usual recently--or at least remembering the dreams. I have refrained from posting a couple of recent ones--disturbing dreams about war. By contrast, execution seemed almost a relief.


We are gathered to witness an execution, but the identity of the person to be executed is unknown to me.

The event is to take place at the top of a steep hill in a rural location. The authorities will provide transportation to the site but, along with a few others, I choose to walk.

The path is steep and rocky, like a dry river bed, and the climb is arduous. Ahead of me is a couple, man and woman, dressed in tweedy clothes. Seeing only their backs, I do not know who they are, but they walk slowly, as old people do.

At some point, approaching the top of the climb, I overtake the couple--though without greeting or recognition.

Close to the hilltop and my eventual destination, I find myself at the mouth of a long tunnel hewn into the rock. It glows with light from the far end. I enter it without trepidation... but there the dream ends. I never reach the site of the execution.


Not much doubt about this one, I'd say. It's clearly about the approach of death. My sense is that the old couple ahead of me were my parents. There was a pleasant sense of peacefulness about the dream. Sure, the climb was long and steep and rocky, but I don't remember any feeling of fatigue.


Addendum: a single image from a dream, the rest of which eluded me.

A completed crossword puzzle, whose theme was the name Dali. In the puzzle, the letters of the name were repeated throughout, down and across, backward and forward, around and around...

(I always think of Dali as a pretentiously artsy guy, the epitome of the self-conscious "artist." Perhaps this is a deeply embedded part of me that I still need to relinquish: the "writer").