Progress Report #110

July 16, 2017
PapaJohn

Papa John Karas “making sure that the fish can swim.”

I’ve started work on Chapter 33 of a planned 43 chapter book. One of the remaining chapters has already been written, which leaves ten chapters to go. Without forcing it, the pace of the writing has accelerated, and even though I’m mostly vacationing between July 31 and September 8, I anticipate finishing within a year. I’m exhausted, but happy with what I’ve been doing.

My favorite aspect of the creative process is the unexpected development that seems to come from a source beyond my own mind—certainly beyond my conscious intentions. Music is a big theme in my book—I used to be a street singer—and you can’t really describe music with words. So I thought it would be a good idea to record a few songs to accompany the book. I’m still in the process of recording, but one stands out already, a song I wrote on the island of Hydra in Greece, when I was 17. It was based on John Karas, the Dean of Boys at my high school. A friend of mine called him Papa John, which is also the name of the song. He wasn’t a flaming liberal, but he was a decent man, friendly to the students during a time when turmoil was spreading through the country. He listened to us. I moved away from the area the day after I graduated, but heard through the grapevine later that the school’s football coach thought Papa John was too lenient, too understanding, and got him fired. Try to do something good and the forces of darkness will work to undermine you. That was the theme of the song. I retired “Papa John” from my repertoire decades ago, but the book brought it back to life. I rearranged it and came up with some musical ideas that I liked a lot. Besides my acoustic guitar and voice, there’s a subtle electric piano and three street horns blowing wild. I love it.

Judy likes the song too, and one day it occurred to me that since I have an in-house filmmaker, I ought to make a music video. So we’re in the middle of that now. We came up with an idea that actually means something to us, so it’s more than a commercial for the book. I won’t be lip-synching. I’m barely in the video at all. The subject of the song, John Karas, died more than a decade ago and never heard it. It’s a real pity. As the last line of the song goes, “I wish the best for you, Papa John.”

Progress Report #109

June 12, 2017

A month or so ago I finished Section 3 of Street Song and saw myself taking a few days off and then rolling into the start of Section 4, which is the final section of the book. It didn’t work that way. My brain revolted. Section 4 marks a real change in the story and is the strangest section in the book. My insides needed a bit of time to make the adjustment. But I’m back now. In fact, I’m almost finished with Chapter 29, the first chapter of the last section. I know how it goes, what voice to use, what approach to take—all the essentials. So this is the last leg of what has been so far an 11 year journey. Probably a year to go. It’s taken a lot out of me. As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s been a much greater struggle than I ever imagined.

Office

Progress Report #108

May 15, 2017

ms_in_may

My work-in-progress, Street Song, has four sections. Today, with the completion of Chapter 28, I finished the third section. So I have just one section to go. The light is getting brighter. This last chapter was particularly grueling. Day-to-day reality got in my way a lot—as it tends to do anyway. But I think also that there is an arc to the story that my psyche resonates with as I move through it. As I come to the end of a section (which is never arbitrary) I feel the exhaustion that comes with the end of any period of life. Section Four promises to be the most difficult of the book—15 chapters, most of which are relatively brief, but unusually intense. Strange occurrences call for careful depiction. Otherwise you sound like you made it all up—which I didn’t. But I need a few days r and r first. I’m so tired…

God and Mammon (Revisited)

April 11, 2017

Here’s an old post (lightly edited) from seven years ago that I’m putting up again. It deals with one of my biggest annoyances: the false assertion that Americans are a “religious people.”

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed by anyone within Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is a basic tenet of our economic system. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how to get people borrowing and spending. We have to “grow the economy,” as they say. And the great majority of Americans believe that we should always be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means living solely by principle. The deep meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” says that you should abandon your materialist existence and follow truth—never do anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus insisted that his disciples leave their jobs and become homeless beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

“Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

April 5, 2017

I sometimes say that the only thing I’ve ever done that was harder than writing the book I’m working on, Street Song, was living out the events the book describes. It’s probably true, but it’s hard to know for certain while I’m still in the midst of it. Writing a book (as opposed to a “read”) is one of the most difficult things you can do. So much is involved and it all has to be organized in an organic way. This book is difficult not because it’s extremely personal, which it is, but because how you present your personal stuff has to be done with a special kind of care or it comes off all wrong.

When I started Street Song I thought it was one thing. Working on it, however, it turned into another and another and another. But then, a book, if it’s any good, is lots of different things. The book is partly my attempt at making sense out of my life, partly a warning to others, partly a long letter of explanation to someone I alienated that I didn’t want to alienate, and partly a plain old job. (We all need something to do.) Hopefully it will give some people inspiration—not because of anything I did, but because of what I saw.

As you’ve always heard, writing a book is an incredibly lonely task. You’re inside your head nearly the entire day—even when you’re not writing—and it goes on for years. In my case, nearly 11 years now.  It has led me to places in my daily life that I never expected to go to, created problems I never would have anticipated, as well as misunderstandings that I haven’t known how to correct. (I often feel at a remove from the world around me and can’t reach across the gulf.) This is not to say that there are no joys involved. They have happened, but they are few and far between. Writing is grueling. The greatest joy for me , I think, is the last pass, after you’ve finished the last draft and are fine-tuning the language and massaging the subtleties. I’m nearing that point. About a year away now—maybe less. I’ll be happy when it’s over.

The Three Views of Existence (Edited)

March 7, 2017

[This is an old post that was originally in three installments. I’ve edited them together and am reposting them. I’m surprised at how much of what I wrote then I still stand by.]

Five years ago, down with the flu and having to spend all day in bed, I found myself thinking about the three fundamental views of existence, which are the creator god view, the scientific/materialist view, and the pantheistic, or everything-is-god, view.

To elaborate a little, the creator god, or monotheistic, view is what most people in this culture think of when they hear the word “religion.” It’s the belief in a god who exists apart from his creation. There are many different schools of thought within the fundamental view, ranging from followers of intellectuals like Augustine to populist evangelicals. The scientific/materialist view maintains that there is no spiritual realm whatsoever. There is only the material plane, and consciousness arises out of the workings of chemistry and physics. These first two views are currently duking it out. They barely recognize the existence of the third view, the pantheistic view, which says that the entire universe is god. (I once thought pantheism meant “nature religion,” that the “pan” referred to the Greek god Pan—or something. But “pan” means “all,” as in “Pan American.” So Pan-theism is “everything is god.”) We are god. The rocks are god. The trees are god. It says that the material realm arises from the spiritual, that everything is mind. It includes schools of thought and tribes that range from serious, committed Buddhists to frivolous New Agers. (While Jesus is seen as representing the creator god view, I believe he was actually teaching the pantheist view. But more on that later.)

Each of these views, even if we’re not all that serious about them, affect how we live and respond to events. If you believe in the scientific/materialist view, which is probably the most popular and widespread view, there is no such thing as “wisdom.” There is only knowledge. A people that sees knowledge as the be-all and end-all of life also sees material and scientific progress as essential to our growth as a species. We are currently entering an era when we are hitting the limits to material progress—the end of growth. Whenever this idea is brought up, the materialists become either angry or despairing. There will be no reason to live! But it’s not like that. We will never truly start living until we get past our present-day obsession with money, possessions, and scientific progress. We’re committed to an enormous misunderstanding of what the material plane is. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars that you see. You are still one with everything. That is more true than I can say, and more true that you can hear.

Shunryu Suzuki

Of the three fundamental views of existence—creator god, scientific/materialist, and pantheist—I subscribe to the third. (I should add that “pantheism” is short hand for me. It’s a Western term, that is, from the world of Western philosophical speculation, and has a lot of attached baggage that is not real.) I don’t see myself as having sought out this view. At one point in my life I was reading a lot of Taoism and Buddhism in order stay afloat. I was doing a lot meditation, too, but, again, simply to survive an extraordinarily rough time. (I write about this in my work-in-progress Street Song.) In the midst of my reading I kept coming across the idea that everything is god, or mind. For a long time I assumed that this was just a metaphor. Eventually I saw that the people advocating this idea really meant it. It’s difficult to see the material plane as “merely” mind. If you cut me, I will bleed. If I kick a boulder with all my might, it will hurt like hell. The turning point for me came when someone I was reading, someone whose opinion I trusted and valued, stated that the material plane is an illusion, albeit a very thick one. His statement tied together a bunch of others I had floating around in my head. Suddenly I understood how the material plane, while having laws, is one with the spiritual background from which it arises.

I don’t read a lot of science. I try, but I can’t hack the attitude that a lot of scientists adopt. They want to be the go-to guys, the great explainers. But science can never explain existence. It can only probe one layer of it—the material plane. I’ve read enough science to know that as scientists delve deeper into matter, they find that, essentially, it disappears. It’s a big mystery! But scientists insist that there is a rational order to reality, that through experimentation and research we can eventually understand everything—soberly. But that’s not what the sages say, and I take their word—the word of the real ones—over that of the scientists. The sages say that when you take the journey that leads to an understanding of what existence really is, it astonishes you. It blows your mind. If what you saw didn’t blow your mind, then you didn’t see fundamental reality. And fundamental reality is ineffable, that is, it cannot be put into words. You have to see it for yourself. (There is more on this in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, in the chapter called “Consciousness Explained”.) I’m not asserting here that I’ve had this vision. I haven’t. Just bits and pieces. So, in a sense, this is a statement of faith. But my journey isn’t over.

Our present-day understanding of religion is poor. When people discuss religion they are usually arguing about some doctrine they read in a book somewhere. Most of today’s religious institutions and organizations are led by people who’ve had no direct experience of the spiritual, but have ideas about what it. You can’t get religion from a book or from speculative thought.

In real religion a person sets out on a path that takes him, or her, to the very edge of what can be understood with the thinking mind. At the point he can go no farther, he has to let go of his ego and take a leap into the unknown where he has a vision of the oneness of all existence (and nonexistence). To most people this sounds like some kind of Eastern religious trip. But I contend that Jesus took the same journey. If you read the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, it’s easy to recognize. One of the good things about the Gospel of Thomas is that it’s all sayings and aphorisms. There isn’t any mythology attached. It’s simply religious instruction. And religious instruction is mostly about how to safely manage the spiritual journey, which is incredibly dangerous.

Maybe it’s pointless to try to talk about this. To most ears, the journey I’m referring to sounds mythical rather than real. But that’s because of the time we live in, which is mundane and materialistic. In any case, for the moment, the door to the journey is closed. It wasn’t so long ago, however, that the door was open, and thousands, if not millions, went in pursuit. Even then, it was difficult to get people to understand. For many years, I was one of those who refused to hear of it. I contend that real religion is simply the search for the truth about existence, about reality. There is only one true religion, and it doesn’t have a name. It is simply the laws of existence—an existence that goes beyond physical reality. Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, and others are all examples of individuals who  made that journey, and then came back to tell the rest of us how to go there. In each case, only a handful of the original hearers had any real understanding of what Buddha, Jesus, or Lao Tse were talking about. But they were impressed by the power of the speakers, who had been completely changed by the experience. That’s where the big churches came from—from the mass of people who didn’t really understand what they were hearing, as well as from those who heard it second and third hand. In the first group I would include most of Jesus’ disciples; in the second, people like Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, and so on. (I’m being critical of Christianity here, but I see Buddhism as having identical problems. One of the problems is to think that there is a “Buddhism” or a “Christianity.”)

It’s not easy to get people to understand what’s true. It’s easier to give them a jealous god who sits on his throne, sees all, and crushes his enemies. They can understand that much more easily than the idea that everything is god, that everything is mind. We all have, at the very least, an unconscious awareness of the spiritual roots of existence. That’s why the churches became so powerful. But as the churches—Buddhist included—have grown ever more distant from the source, their doctrines have become more at odds with observable reality. A few centuries ago it got to be too much for the well-educated, and they began to question what they knew as religion, that is, the creator god religion they’d inherited from Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther et al. Eventually they created science and philosophical materialism as a replacement. Today those two sides are duking it out, making headlines, trying to win converts. I can’t take either one of them seriously. There is that third way, which is quieter and more intelligent than either the creator god or philosophical materialism. It has the added advantage of being true. But, as I say, the door to understanding it directly is not open right now. That will change, however. Sometimes I feel that that’s all I live for—for that door to open again. When it does open, everything changes for everybody everywhere.

gpnf_trail

Progress Report #107

February 25, 2017

I have some great news. Last week I discovered that I’m much closer to the end of Street Song than I realized. I have some confidence now that I can get it done in a year. (I’m up to ten and a half years on it.) I didn’t see it before because I’ve been ploughing with my head down. When I paused to inspect the field I figured out that I’d made some miscalculations when I laid out the outline–miscalculations that work in my favor. It’s a big relief, a big burden lifted from me. It has often felt as though I would never finish. I feel reenergized.

ms

Karma is Inexorable

January 29, 2017

A lot of people these days believe that life is random. But that’s not the case. Life is ruled, as it has always been, by Karma. Karma is a Sanskrit word, so it often sounds exotic to some and hocus-pocus to others; but it’s just plain old “cause and effect.” (As you sow, so shall you reap. It’s universal law.) It’s important to understand that Karma is inexorable, which means that it’s impossible to stop or prevent. Sooner or later it’s going to get you. One of our poorer understandings of Karma is that it has to do with deserving or luck. Expressions like “parking karma” reinforce that idea. But Karma is, again, cause and effect. Martin Luther King didn’t deserve to be assassinated, but his cause (taking on the hatred of the racists) put him in their crosshairs. You have to be extremely cautious to survive that kind of hatred. Or maybe you see yourself as destined to be sacrificed, which is how King saw himself, I think.

All this is to say that we as a nation are going to suffer through some ugly events in the near term. (Karma is inexorable.) Some of them will be effects stemming from older actions, but there is even heavier stuff on the horizon because of the psychopath in the White House. Whatever ugly acts are visited upon us will be the inevitable result of the actions of Donald Trump and his cronies. (I’m not talking just about terrorist actions. Economic collapse and other calamities would be logical consequences of their agenda.) Regardless of what happens, I will not rally around or stand with Donald Trump. More than likely, he will have been the one who brought the trouble upon us. (It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: his actions may well bring him down in short order.)

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Progress Report #106

January 18, 2017

I just finished Chapter 22, which is the last chapter in what I call Section 2 of my work-in-progress, Street Song. There are four sections, so I’m approximately halfway done with this, the final draft. The book takes a real turn at this point, so I’m going to take a short break in order to point my mind in that new direction. I’m also going to be busy over the next few days, walking the streets, protesting Trump’s inauguration.

Trump’s presence creates an interesting development for my work. The period my book describes was a time of crisis and upheaval. But I’ve had to soft-pedal that some because we’ve been passing through a time of decadent languor, which has often made the urgency of that earlier time seem false. Not anymore. I’ll make one last pass through the entire book after I’ve finished this draft and will feel free then to reestablish the crisis atmosphere that was present then. Much of the book is about committing oneself to the great universal ideals, something that’s going to be required of us again—soon.

Where I Stand

December 20, 2016

I’d originally intended to write this piece after Clinton won the election to explain why I couldn’t vote for her. I’m writing it anyway. It’s meant to explain where I stand culturally/politically.

I was born into a mainstream “moderate to conservative” (I put the words in quotes because I think they’re deceptive) Democratic Party household. Eugene McCarthy’s near upset of Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary inspired me to leave the fold. I became what would be described today as an “ultra liberal.” Then, with the election of Richard Nixon, I dropped out psychologically and philosophically, switching my allegiance to the counterculture. The change coincided with my deepening disillusionment with Western civilization and ideas.

In its early days, the counterculture was divided into two fundamental factions: the spiritual hippies and the New Left politicos. The essential difference was that the hippies believed you had to change yourself before you could change the world, while the leftists believed you had to change the world before you could change yourself. I sided with the hippies. By the time I was 20 I completely dismissed mainstream American culture. I saw it as dying. At the same time, the hippie image and philosophy were being diluted and destroyed by the Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll crowd, who were not hippies, but looked like them. I ended up dropping out of the counterculture—dropping out of the drop-outs—and landing on the streets of North Beach, where I continued my search for what is “really real.” It wasn’t exactly a deliberate move, but neither was it an accident. I didn’t find all my answers there, but I did find many. And I came to a solid understanding that America really was in a death spiral, something that’s quite apparent now.

I remained a complete outsider—no home, no job, no ID—until the wild parrots came into my life. By getting involved with two creative projects, the book and the film, and having to present them to the public, I got pulled back into the System. (Both projects happened naturally. They were not calculated.) But I remained essentially a counterculturist disillusioned with the counterculture—not to mention the System. My return coincided with 9/11, so in 2008, I was happy to be seduced by Obama. But he turned out to be more of the same—a so-called centrist Democrat. I vowed then that I would never get fooled again. The only individual I could imagine ever supporting was Bernie Sanders. He was from the edge of the counterculture, its political side, so he felt close enough to where I stood. But I never thought he’d run, and when he announced, I pretty much ignored him. He started saying things that for so long had needed to be said, and I was amazed by how many responded to him. I was riveted throughout his campaign. But the establishment Democrats had no intention of allowing him to succeed.

Since the advent of computers the Empire has become corporate and global in nature. (That’s obvious, yes.) I am adamantly opposed to the Empire, which is indifferent to everything save money and power. Its massiveness has made it the biggest threat to world peace, a healthy environment, and a sane life. Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is a supporter of the Empire. She made it clear that she would use military power to keep the Empire in place and thriving. Trump, who is a genuine sociopath (that needs to be understood), is more like a domestic terrorist. He will fail because of his ego. The Global Empire demands an ability to work with others, something he is incapable of doing because of his “disease.” He’s going to cause a great deal of harm to his fellow Americans, but it’s difficult for me to think of Trump as objectively worse simply because he is more of a threat to me personally. If I did, it would make me indifferent to the suffering of those who Clinton would have squashed in her effort to maintain the Empire, which, like America, is also in its death throes. Both Clinton and Trump are devotees of Mammon. They simply had different constituencies supporting them in their quests for power. Mammon has no principles.

My allegiance remains to the counterculture, which needs to revive itself and develop greater maturity. There is no hope for the established institutions of the modern world, which are completely off-base philosophically. I don’t care about economics, politics, or science, all of which now serve as tools for ambitious egotists. The only thing I’ve ever cared about is love. It’s the only thing that has never fallen away from me.