Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A handful of nothin’

Thirty spokes converge on a single hub,
but it is in the space where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the cart lies.
Lao Tzu

So, there are these two prisoners—Dragline, kind of a leader, and a bully, and Luke, a perpetual wiseass locked up for cutting the heads off of parking meters. Quickly running afoul of Dragline, Luke gets challenged to a fight, and the two face off in a makeshift ring of their fellow prisoners. Luke is knocked down almost immediately, but quickly regains his feet, only to be knocked down again, and again, and again. Each time, he rises, painfully, only to be knocked down yet again. Over and over, as he's mercilessly battered and the other men plead with him to stay down, Luke hits the dirt only to lift himself back up. After a while, a distressed Dragline himself says “stay down. You're beat.” To which Luke, coated in blood and dirt, mutters “you're gonna have to kill me...” and gets up yet again. In time, frustrated and amazed, Dragline walks out of the ring, leaving a staggering Luke on his feet, worse for wear and tear but victorious, simply because, no matter how many times he was hit, or how hard, he refused to stay down.

Dragline (played by George Kennedy): Nothin'. A handful of nothin'....He beat you with nothin'. Just like today when he kept comin' back at me—with nothin'.
Luke (played by Paul Newman, January 26, 1925—September 26, 2008): Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.
Cool Hand Luke

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Something the Buddha Never Said....

Suffering exists...particularly when you've biked 175 miles over the weekend....

Friday, September 26, 2008

Not Exactly Dante...

Heaven is a place
where nothing ever happens
David Byrne

There’s an Opus comic strip with Opus the penguin sitting in a grassy field while Lola Granola does yoga poses nearby, and the two talk about heaven. According to Lola, everyone goes there. Opus, having clearly seen far too much of what passes for religion in our great American public sphere, incredulously asks about liberals, evolutionists, feminists, ACLU lawyers, Kennedy Democrats, French people, and manly women who don’t shave, receiving a yep for each. At last he asks with Jerry Falwell? and receives another yep. Goodness must he be annoyed, he says, to which Lola replies eternally.

A year or so ago, I was working through a lot of stuff, through, among other means, a lot of really intense personal writing. At one point, digging into the past, I started writing out the names of some people I knew a long time ago...and cursing them...damning them...it was a rush...it was cathartic...it felt good...left me kinda wired, though, incredibly edgy...so I started doing some yoga to try and mellow out...and then, not being the kind of advanced yogi who comes even close to stopping those endless waves the Yoga Sutras talk about from flowing in the brain (full disclosure: I thought up this post while lying in savasana in yoga class earlier today), I started thinking about other stuff...also from the past...times when I was mean...cruel...nasty...one or two incidents when I really should’ve had my ass good and kicked...and, not surprisingly, I started feeling really, really bummed out...seeing myself as every bit as damnable as anybody I’d been writing about...and realized that if you don’t want to hate yourself, you can’t hate anybody else either...it’s as simple as that. Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote Hell is other people, and I won’t try to argue with him (it wouldn’t be fair, anyway, with his advantage in being considerably smarter than I far outmatched by his disadvantage in being a whole hell of a lot more dead). However, thinking of Lola Granola and Jerry Falwell, I might wonder if Hell is, in fact, nothing other than hating other people....

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Let it loose, let it all come down....
the Stones

In the Autumn of 1985, I saw Stanley Jordan, the jazz guitar player, in Boston, and his opening act was this comedian who poked fun at all the people driving around New England looking at “foliage.” What they were going to so much effort to see, he pointed out, was nothing but decay and death—which is true, in a way, but, ya gotta admit, those leaves know how to go out in style....

The soothing sanity and blitheness of completion,
The pomp and hurried contest-glare and rush are done;
Now triumph! transformation! jubilate!
Walt Whitman

That in mind, this could be a good time to look at some things that keep hanging on, but just might be ready to drop off and die: old hatreds, maybe, or unrequited loves and lusts, old anger, old frustrations and disappointments, old wanting, old losing, old getting, old insults, old flattery, old thoughts, old beliefs, old masks, old lies, old sadness, old wounds...to let it all out in glorious color, then watch it fall and turn to mulch....

Monday, September 22, 2008

Apocalypse Here and Now (Kind of a Movie Review #3)

The first time I saw Apocalypse Now was when it first came out, on big screen. I was somewhere around twelve years old, expecting a cool war movie—and why not? War seemed a whole hell of a lot more fun than those peace-loving sentiments associated with the incredible boredom of having to sit through Quaker meeting every Sunday...but wasn’t expecting to see that family get blown to pieces for a puppy, or the guy holding in his guts and begging for water, or the mother’s voice on the tape that kept playing, wishing for the safe return of the son lying dead, or the hanging bodies...the horror, the horror...and so, with the Reagan/Bush era that, thirty years later, we have yet to leave behind looming a mere year or two in the future, I felt my first glimmer of political consciousness...Charlie don’t surf to this day sounding like as good a three word summation of a half century's foreign policy as anyone’s likely to hear...as well as a good Clash song...though a decade later, already burned out as a left wing anti-war activist, and watching it again on VHS, smoke far less toxic than that from napalm filling the air, I thought whooooah...this shit’s trippy...particularly the opening sequence and ending, comprising what is without a doubt the coolest rock video ever....of our elaborate plans, the end, of everything that stands, the end, no safety or surprise, the end, I’ll never look into your eyes, again....but it was only in my thirties, in therapy, probing through the wreckage with an intensity equally exhilarating, liberating, and terrifying, that I could understand what authentically drunken Willard said in between Jim Morrison’s lines, beneath that Saigon ceiling fan...when I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle...wondering if perhaps the apocalypse—that ultimate battle between heaven and hell taken so literally by fundamentalists and conspiracy freaks, and so overmined for imagery by heavy metal groups and horror movie scriptwriters—might, in fact, be always here, and always now....

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W.B. Yeats

Q. How Can You Tell That Your God is Man-made?
A. If He Hates All the Same People You Do.

One evening on the Appalachian Trail, I wandered into a shelter some few miles south of Delaware Water Gap. Sitting there already were another thru-hiker and a skinny guy whose jeans and flannel shirt showed he clearly wasn’t one, holding up his watch and asking what we thought he might get for it at a pawn shop. We made some guesses, and he told us a story of middle class woe—how he lost his wife, and kids with her, along with a house and three or four failed businesses, leaving, it seemed, only his “God”—a woman, as it turned out, who lived at some kind of ashram somewhere in New York state. He was walking to her. “She sees everything,” he said, “she knows I’m here right now.” We started preparing our respective dinners, and he just sat there quietly, until I asked if he had any food. He said no. “You hungry?” “Yeah!” I dug out a bag of instant grits I’d found somewhere, offering my stove once I was done with it. He didn’t want to wait, though, upending the bag and inhaling its dry and tasteless contents before pronouncing it good. That was when I realized his hunger wasn’t the haven’t eaten since lunch variety, but closer to haven’t eaten in days. Digging deeper, I found a bag of granola, which he wolfed down in no time, as well. It was the last food in my pack, which was okay, since I’d be getting into town in the morning anyway, and a diner breakfast would be all the better after a couple hours hiking on an empty stomach.

I didn’t see him again, but somehow doubt his “God” was gonna be too receptive to a supplicant showing up with empty pockets—no different in that way from third world dictators raising gilded cathedrals in their impoverished cities, or countless ministers of the "prosperity gospel" on cable TV with their bogus stories of people sending in their last dollars, only to have God drop hundreds in their path the next day. Those folks tend to be really into the apocalypse, too—no need to worry about global warming, the more things blow up in the Middle East the better, that just means the rapture’s coming sooner, so keep sending in your checks and you won’t get left behind. Faith can offer consolation to the desperate, certainly; all too often, though, it takes the desperate for whatever they may have left.

Thanks to Friendly Atheist for the God joke.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Mental Mountains

In the mountains, there you feel free.
T.S. Eliot

I've been doing a lot of abstract painting lately, extremely abstract. No brush, no paint, no canvas, I just think about it.
Steven Wright

In Valley Forge National Park—best known for George Washington’s troops eating bark and freezing their asses off in the long winter of 1776—a couple of hills are home to what I like to call the allegorical hike. First, I walk up the soft, grassy slope of Mount Joy. Then, after a pleasant jaunt among the rabbits and deer, I come down, cross the road and creek, and begin to climb a steep colonial ruin-lined trail to the top of Mount Misery, following a noose-shaped course before going back the way I came, again reaching the heights of Mount Joy, descending to my car, and driving home. Deep, isn’t it?

I thought of you as my mountaintop, I thought of you as my peak
I thought of you as everything I had but couldn’t keep...
Lou Reed

There’ve been times I’ve been hopelessly infatuated with someone I didn’t know well at all. Looking back, after things have gone bad, or didn’t happen at all, I’ve wondered how I could’ve been so wrong, or what the hell it was all about in the first place. The trouble, I think, has generally been that I saw a projection of something I’ve always wanted, or needed, or lost, not another person at all. There’s this movie called An American Crime—young Ellen Page gets left with Catherine Keener who turns out to be a psychopath and tortures her to death, with the help of her children and their friends—based on a true story—the kind of movie that’s well-made with strong performances, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to subject yourself to it. Shortly after seeing that, I was reading about David Pelzer, who’s written a bunch of books about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his deranged mother. “How could they do that to an innocent child?” is a valid question, certainly. But I wonder if they see that innocent child at all, rather than a malevolent symbol, or some part of themselves they hate. Maybe it’s similar to the way depression causes a person to see nothing but itself, and mistake it for the world.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
William Blake

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pieces of Eight

I got eight carburetors and boys I'm usin' 'em all.
Bob Dylan

Yoga for Cynics is feelin’ the love as, just in the past few days, it’s been awarded honors by blogger friends Svasti, Juliet, and Tony the Acoustic Guitar Playing Red Panda, as well as being called upon by Samantha Grace (not her real name) to provide the following list (which also answers some frequently asked questions):

Eight Things You Might Not Know About Me:

1. After getting my PhD, I could hardly wait to be on a plane or somewhere and have somebody say “is there a doctor on board?” so I could reply “yes! I’m a doctor!” A month or so later, I was on a plane, and that very question came over the loudspeaker. I decided nobody’d think it was funny, though. So, I came up with the “can explain Faulkner while you die” thing, which people do think is funny (or at least that’s what they say).
2. I was once called “yoga faggot” in an online forum.
3. Ironically, enough, others have suspected me of going to yoga class to ogle women.
4. Much as I’m into the idea of being bisexual, I’ve sadly never actually met a man I was attracted to.
5. I know lots of places where I can see women without having to twist myself into gurudasana to do it.
6. Besides, as I am sometimes the only male in yoga class, I fill the quite necessary role of providing the low end on OM.
7. The quotes on this blog are mostly from memory, though I usually look up the exact wording. J. Krishnamurti wrote “if you quote some high authority, then you equally stop thinking,” and I agree with that...I mean I don’t agree with it...I mean....
8. No matter how perplexing you might find this blog, you’re still not nearly as confused as I am.

we must stand up and say “eight is enough.”
Barack Obama

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Biking the Back Roads of My Mind

The account of perception that’s starting to emerge is what we might call the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception: perception is the brain’s best guess about what is happening in the outside world.
Atul Gawande One time I was riding my bike to work in Ithaca, New York, by a slightly different route than usual, and decided to cut across a parking lot. I got distracted, looking off to the side and remembering something about the last time I was there, and, all of sudden, was lying face down on the pavement. My bike, meanwhile, was tangled in the chain that, as it turned out, was across the entrance to the parking lot. Picking myself up, I realized that blood was pouring down my face. It wasn’t, however, until after a brief conversation with a passerby who had a cell phone and offered to call 911 that I saw the strikingly unnatural direction my left middle finger was pointing, and, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff but not falling until he looked down, felt a sudden, overwhelming rush of agony. Two fingers turned out to be dislocated, and my first and second metacarpals broken badly enough that, in order to hold the bone parts together until they healed, the orthopedist needed to insert four “pins”—called that because nobody’d show up for surgery if they called them nails, though that’s what they were. So, for a month and a half, I had four metal hooks sticking out between my knuckles—kinda like Wolverine, except, rather than being able to hold my own against evil mutants, I couldn’t even button my pants.

But that’s not my point. What I meant to write about here has to do with the part I don’t remember, that period of a second or two when a number of really unpleasant things happened. What those things were can be inferred from the above, but they’re not my point either. My point is that I didn’t lose consciousness, but all that happened seems to have been instantaneously forgotten, as if it never happened, except for the obvious and painful consequences. It’s as if my unconscious said “you don’t need to see this” and pulled a dark curtain, and that was that. The mind, in other words, didn’t simply receive outside reality, but edited it.

Speaking of biking, right now I’m preparing for a two-day 150 mile ride, benefiting the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, on September 27-28, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey (near Philly) to Ocean City, NJ (right on—you guessed it—the ocean) and back—except that, being a masochist, I’m planning on doing 175 miles—a “century” the first day, 75 the second. The photo at the top of this post shows me pre-training, pre-yoga, and here I am now:
For more info, check out:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Playing With Puppies

A fellow blogger commented on my last post: “I order you to go play with puppies this instant!” I suspect there may be some implication here that recent Yoga for Cynics posts have, perhaps, indicated a somewhat introverted, depressed and/or generally out-there state of mind. Could be. As a shrink once said, after an hour in which I'd brilliantly subverted her every attempt at introducing a more positive outlook, “it’s rough inside your head!” Point taken.

And yet, alas, I have no puppies at hand. Nonetheless, here’s a picture of my good friend Fargo, who's moved to Colorado, so I don’t get to play with him much these days.
It's nearly impossible to do yoga around Fargo, and he's anything but a cynic. That has not, however, kept me from writing fragments of an epic poem about him, collectively known as the Fargo Cantos (imaginary gardens with real dogs in them), including the following:

Because I could not stop for Fargo—
he kindly jumped up –
and got mud all over my pants


Two roads diverged in a wood, and Fargo—
He kinda ran back and forth between them, like a maniac.
And that has made all the difference

and who could forget:

What happens to a dog deferred?

Does he curl up
like a pillow on the couch?
Or growl and snarl
like Oscar the grouch?
Does he slobber on your knee
Like a leaky hose?
Or whine, bark and puke
right on your toes?
Maybe he just slumps down
on his furry butt

Or does he go nuts?


Fargo! Fargo! Barking bright,
In the backyards of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Apologies to Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, and William Blake. And thanks to April for the pic, and to Dano MacNamarrah for a lovely blog award that I can't figure out how to paste into this post (so it's in the sidebar).

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Got My Yoga for Cynics Mask On...(Reflections From a Stagnant Pool #2)

It’s just Halloween.
I have my Bob Dylan mask on.
Bob Dylan Yeah everybody wear the mask but how long will it last.

masks under masks under masks under masks
until I myself don’t know where they end
or begin, for that matter
or which mask is doing the thinking about it
or if there’s anything underneath at all
or if that’s a problem
or if it just requires a different perspective
from, perhaps, a different mask
as they all, it seems, turn different ways
some are cool like Bogart
others sputtering like Don Knotts
and all of them looking different to others than they do to me
so they all tell me that I’m laid-back
even happy-go-lucky
once, long ago, a close friend for years said she couldn’t imagine me angry
more recently someone I didn’t know so personally said I was so up-beat he couldn’t imagine me depressed or unhappy about anything
though I suspect that wily old coot may have known more than he let on
seeing through the masks and telling me through his own up-beat and genial mask that he wasn’t buying it
but what if those masks are actually the deeper ones?
what if rage and depression are merely layers of onion skin,
waiting to be sloughed off?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Reflections From a Stagnant Pool #1

So long as the mind is seeking further experience it can only think in terms of sensation; and any experience that may be spontaneous, creative, vital, strikingly new, it immediately reduces to sensation and pursues that sensation, which then becomes a memory. Therefore, the experience is dead and the mind becomes merely a stagnant pool of the past.
J. Krishnamurti
Reflections of
the way life used to be
Reflections of
the love you took from me....
Diana Ross & the Supremes

Thoughts written down after late night yoga (a little over a year ago) (edited somewhat, to protect the guilty, as well as to eliminate stuff that doesn’t make sense even to me...though those who get freaked by my weirder posts might consider themselves warned):

The body has its problems, suspicious pains here and there—all over, really, aches, noises, chronic gas. These are the things I can’t get rid of. But everything else—fleeting impressions that swirl around, in and out, but are they just that? Are they interchangeable? They are mirrors of reality, or shadows, at least—not necessarily in the Platonic sense, but resonances. Precious things I can’t let go of....For a friend I’ve known, the outside world seems to be as ephemeral as passing thoughts, though even he tends to suffer and be made self-conscious by it, having to hide away in the booze and weed, sometimes....

Thinking of that Lou Reed line—yeah, I got a million of ‘em—I’d like to have a kid I could pass on to/something more than rage, pain, anger and hurt. I like that, in the sense that the child is father to the man (who wrote that? Emerson?...off to google...is the internet a blessing or curse?) (the porn and kinky chat rooms at times make me think one, but are probably proof of the other) (of course, what comes up first, in the first three or four hits, no less, is that fucking Blood, Sweat and Tears album, but then...Wordsworth, the Prelude):

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Having something to do with holding on to something, inside, that is deeper than the rage, pain, etc. (though he doesn’t refer to those. Then, Wordsworth wouldn’t. He and Lou Reed probably wouldn’t have hung out much, even if given the chance)—a sense of wonder and beauty, here: the very definition of Romanticism, I guess. It’s also what both Stephen Batchelor and M. C. Richards talk about, though: creativity coming from that inner, still, solid place, rather than an escape from this world, a way to create and flower within it.

And, certainly that Lou Reed/Wm. Wordsworth notion relates to the experience I described before, half a year or so after first starting yoga, seeing a then-three year old niece playing twister at the cousins’ place, and realizing that she was, without knowing it, doing a perfect downward facing dog—that’s what you can do, I thought, without thirty-plus years of tension built up in your body. And yet: can it all be released?

...and later, watching Hiroshima Mon Amour—the meeting of parallel lines of personal and political, or the fact that they were never separate in the first place, along with the strange Japanese love of neon—like my just-post 9/11 experience, in the midst of my last great depression, when I was actually, for a moment, there at a good friend’s house, with another friend puking in the bathroom, feeling like here we were all together in it, all in ruins like those buildings: but then, the next day, there I was, and everyone else was back to work, back to normal, and I couldn’t even give blood because there were too many others who wanted to, and they got there ahead of me, so there I was, standing in front of the fucking hospital, thinking maybe I should commit myself, but instead took a bike ride on the Erie Canal towpath beginning just behind there—and then, riding along, I seemed to have almost a vision of a small towheaded child, deep inside, so like what Eliot described, in Preludes of his own—the notion of some infinitely gentle, Infinitely suffering thing—almost glowing in strange yellow mind-neon. And there, and then, feeling a connection to that wounded self, still whole and alive, tears flowing as I rode, glad to have sunglasses on especially when passing a couple of students who would’ve been in class with me then if I hadn’t cancelled—probably it would’ve been okay though, because it was, hell, the day after September 11—and I knew then, seeing that wreckage inside, so like the wreckage on all our minds, but far more ephemeral, that I was going to be okay, even if America and the world weren’t....

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Here and Elsewhere

Life is elsewhere.
graffiti seen by Milan Kundera during the Paris uprising, 1968
There’ve been times when I’ve been in a beautiful place, with good friends, at a show, spending time with someone I want to get to know better...and I’ve thought "man, it’d be cool to be here...doing this."... The logical fallacy isn’t exactly hard to see...but the problem remains that life, often enough, does appear to be hopelessly elsewhere...and experienced by someone else....

Depression does get boring after a while...I have of late but wherefore I know not lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory....yeah, yeah yeah, tell it to yer goddamn shrink, Hamlet...no shrinks in Elsinore?...tough break, but maybe just as well...as a million despondent teenagers sing along with their Pink Floyd mp3's running over the same old ground, of how we found the same old fears....

History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.
Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but any student of history can see that’s often just as true of those who remember it. The past holds on tight, those memories from growing up that everyone tells you to treasure often as not taking the form of wounds...no matter how many yogis and Buddhists say it’s nothing but illusion...which is not to say that they’re not right...in most cases, the only walls that matter are those in the mind...but that’s not to say they’re easy to get over....

I work a few hours a week tutoring recovering addicts in reading. How amazing it is to see an adult go from having a handful of very basic nouns at her disposal to reading full sentences...even if she never gets to the point where she can read Dostoyevsky, it means a lot...far more than any particular words on the page...then, how great is it to be writing this right now?...skipping through thoughts and experiences, messing with words and meanings...lines from Shakespeare, Joyce, and Wish You Were Here...or even to be reading it, even if you think it’s all pretentious, boring bullshit...you can enjoy thinking what a dickwad I am...life given to words is itself miraculous....

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It's So Cold In Alaska....

Texas always seemed so big, but you know you’re in the largest state of the union when you’re anchored down in Anchorage.
Michelle Shocked
Alaska First -- Alaska Always.
motto of the Alaskan Independence Party

From what I’ve seen, Alaska’s incomprehensibly beautiful, as well as the coldest, most merciless part of America.

It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.
Jack London

I’ve never actually been there, but I’ve seen lots of episodes of Northern Exposure. I liked how that show portrayed a wide variety of weird people...as people rather than punchlines, or subjects of pity or derision...even if it had to stick them all so far away. More recently, there’ve been some good movies about people going to Alaska to die. One of them’s Into the Wild, based on the book by Jon Krakauer—to which I feel kind of a personal connection. In the early ‘90’s Chris McCandless and I were both not long out of college, and led by overwhelming alienation into the woods. In the summer of 1992, while he ventured into the Alaskan wild, I hiked the Appalachian Trail—idly wondering if it might cure what ailed me, or provide skills necessary to one day escape permanently. I came back. He died. I wondered aloud to a friend if the difference was that he had the courage to go further and deeper. My friend laughed, said maybe I was less afraid of other people—didn’t need to go to Alaska.