Archive for March, 2009

Affliction #1

March 28, 2009

A few days ago, I was bicycling along the waterfront—Marina Green, for those who know San Francisco—when I suddenly remembered something that happened to me the day after the 1989 earthquake—the “Kind of Big One,” as some people here call it. I was riding my bike through the hardest hit section of the city, the Marina, checking out the damage, when I saw ahead of me a stooped, white-haired man. He was around 100 yards away, and from that distance I couldn’t make out his face, but somehow I knew instantly that it was Joe Dimaggio. When I got close, I saw that it was indeed him. I’m not even a sports fan. That reminded me of a day ten years earlier when shortly after entering the Stockton tunnel I saw, from the same distance or greater, a large group of walkers coming toward me. The tunnel was loud with passing cars, so I couldn’t hear them talking, but the moment I saw them I had the instantaneous thought, “Germans.”  And it turned out that it was, indeed, a group of Germans.

We live in a time where many people insist that the only mind that’s real and trustworthy is the rational intellect. But that’s wrong. I find the intuitive mind more fundamental and of greater value than the dry, crusty intellect. More entertaining, too. We need the rational mind to make sure that we don’t go overboard, but our denial and suppression of intuition is killing the spirit. It’s one of the three great afflictions of Western Civilization.

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Bush! Bush!

March 25, 2009

Judy and I live with two members of the wild parrot flock, both of whom have permanent disabilities. Whenever any of their wild brethren are in the area, the two start screaming. I’ve been working with a speech recognition program, hoping that it will make the task of responding to e-mail less onerous, and it’s funny how the program responds to their screams. Around 90 percent of the time it translates each scream as Bush.

Progress Report #11: An Open Sore

March 22, 2009

Judy is out of town for a week, so, feeling a bit lonely, I called a friend to see if he wanted to do something. We went for a walk on the beach along the bay shore. It was extraordinarily beautiful—the water, the wind, the light, the tall white clouds against the blue sky. But, as often happens, I was distracted by the work I’d done that morning. Sometimes it takes me hours to leave the head space I get into when I’m writing. It’s uncomfortable to be out in public when that happens. Consequently, I wasn’t really there with my friend—not even when I tried to be. I felt bad about being so distant from him. I tried clumsily to explain. I think he understood. He’s a film editor, and he must go through the same thing or something similar. I described my condition as feeling like I was walking around with “an open sore.” There are times when I know that I’m lucky to have a creative project, and I love working on it. But there are also times that it feels like an ordeal, like a wound that will never heal.

Radicals aren’t dangerous, but extremists are

March 21, 2009

It’s difficult to address certain ideas in contemporary English. One example is when we use “radical” and “extremist” as synonyms. “Radical” comes from a Latin word that means “root.” The opposite of “radical” is not “central,” but “superficial.” The root grows in the center, but it grows deep. On the other hand, an extremist, either of the left or of the right, is off to one side. My hunch is that the two words became identical because of our modern discomfort with strong ideas and ways of life. We want things to be easy. So we’ve gotten sloppy.

Reading Rexroth

March 19, 2009

I’ve been reading Kenneth Rexroth lately and enjoying him a great deal. In his long poem (200 pages!) The Dragon and the Unicorn I found in one small section two statements of belief that I’ve held myself for quite some time. They’re related. The first one is this:

A real religion is not
Believed in, it is practiced.

I think that’s an important idea. A lot of Christians think that all you have to do is believe in Jesus, and you’re covered—which isn’t true. You have to put the principles he taught into practice—and they’re tough ones. You can’t understand religious ideas any other way. You can’t take your understanding from a book. Books get messed with. More importantly, religion—real religion—is ineffable, and no book can contain the ineffable. It’s only there to get you started.

The second statement is:

Neither Augustine nor Karl Barth
Are religious men. They are
Emotionally unstable
Philosophers…

I don’t know anything about Karl Barth, but I’ve had a gripe with Augustine for a long time. He wasn’t a saint; he was an intellectual. And while not the first, he was one of the biggest distorters of the teachings of Christ. He was, in part, trying to make the new religion palatable to the Empire, which has nothing at all to do with spirituality. It’s a perversion of it.

Progress Report #10

March 16, 2009

I finished the second draft of Chapter Seven, “A Tree With Roots.” Coming up, Chapter Eight: “Highway Song.”

The Real World

March 15, 2009

I’m always thinking up posts that are in response to something I’ve seen in the media or on-line. My understanding of what most people are thinking and doing these days is taken from secondary sources. Not many people talk about anything serious in public anymore—at least not here in San Francisco where people are supposedly controversial and outspoken. I find that when I’m outside, moving through the real world, most people are just passing from one building to another—a cafe, a restaurant, a job, a store, and so on. It feels dead out there. When I first arrived in San Francisco, people were out on the streets talking and checking out interesting people and places. Now, everybody’s at home or at work staring at a monitor. The last couple of years, I’ve been a cave dweller, too. One of the things I loved most about the wild parrots was the reminder that reality is magical. We’ve withdrawn our attention from the real world. Gadgets impress us more, but gadgets aren’t magic. Magic is where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Technology is never more than the sum of the parts.

I’m going to start getting out more.

Utter Madness

March 11, 2009

Some comments made by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh on March 10 at a forum at the University of Minnesota:

“After 9/11, I haven’t written about this yet, but the Central Intelligence Agency was very deeply involved in domestic activities against people they thought to be enemies of the state. Without any legal authority for it. They haven’t been called on it yet. That does happen.

“Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command — JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him. …

“Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths.

“Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.

“It’s complicated because the guys doing it are not murderers, and yet they are committing what we would normally call murder. It’s a very complicated issue. Because they are young men that went into the Special Forces. The Delta Forces you’ve heard about. Navy Seal teams. Highly specialized.

“In many cases, they were the best and the brightest. Really, no exaggerations. Really fine guys that went in to do the kind of necessary jobs that they think you need to do to protect America. And then they find themselves torturing people.

“I’ve had people say to me — five years ago, I had one say: ‘What do you call it when you interrogate somebody and you leave them bleeding and they don’t get any medical committee and two days later he dies. Is that murder? What happens if I get before a committee?’

“But they’re not gonna get before a committee.”

Progress Report #9

March 11, 2009

Before I started writing this book, Street Song, I had a strong notion, but not a clear vision of what the story should be. Par for the course. I’ve always enjoyed the process of creativity. I’m fascinated by the way connections get made unbidden. It’s as if there’s somebody behind the scenes working things out for you, handing you solutions when you really need them—and not a moment before. My thinking about the book has become much clearer in recent weeks. As I’ve said before, the draft I’ve been working on is probably three times longer than what I want to end up with. Again, this is so that I can see all the threads and know which ones really do the job. It’s working out the way I’d hoped. As usual, the answers to my questions have been right in front of me all along.

I’m reluctant to talk too much about specifics—although some of my thinking will no doubt be reflected in what I have to say about the book in the future. Nobody should know all of what it’s about before it’s finished. I want it to be fresh for the reader. For that very reason, I avoid certain topics when I “blog.” (Lord, how I hate that word.)

This is all to say: I’m happy with the way things are going.

Progress Report #8: The Second Coming of Astral Weeks

March 4, 2009

When I was in my early twenties, I was a member of a cult—the cult of Astral Weeks. (For those who don’t know it, it’s a recording by Van Morrison.) That record had a big influence on the direction my life took. It gave me a big push toward the street. It’s interesting to me that just as I’ve started working on the section of the book that deals with my encounter with the record, Astral Weeks, and its creator are in the news almost every day. Late last year, Van did a live performance of the entire album at the Hollywood Bowl and included one of the musicians from the original recording, guitarist Jay Berliner. The recording of the concert is out now, and Morrison is promoting it heavily. I stopped following Van years ago, but I was curious to hear how the concert turned out. I know what he’s capable of doing in concert, and I’d been hearing that he really pulled it off, that it was a remarkably inspired performance. I’ve heard it now, and I don’t think so—not at all. It has bursts of energy, but not much else. He’s lost so much of his voice. That happens with age, and I’m not judging the record on that account. My biggest problem with his performance is that there’s so little conviction in his singing. His conviction, his resolute connection to the lyrics, was the quality that made the original recording so astonishing. The general enthusiasm for the Hollywood Bowl performance puzzles me. For me, the star of the show is Berliner.