Soft Fascination

More effective than Prozac or Xanax

There are days when you feel stretched to your breaking point. When nothing makes sense and nothing works out. It feels like being trapped in a snow globe full of sharp rocks being shaken by a brat. Yesterday was one of those days.

I knew it was bound to be bad the minute I woke up and stabbed my toe against the edge of the closet door. The pain was amplified by an email with the seventh rejection to my Memoir and the pre-dawn realization that my credit card debt is reaching its limit which means that, soon, I won’t be able to write full-time and be forced to find a ‘real’ job.

I tried adding my daily thousand-words to my second book, but nothing seemed good, nor worth anyone’s time, so I wasted the morning reading other people’s stuff which only helped heighten my sense of inadequacy.

Surfing for hours across the roiling pages of the Internet – my senses jarred by all the chatter, outrage, and flashing images inside this bleak, abstract landscape we call cyberspace – only added to my distress.

Dizzy and with a pounding headache, I reached for my antidote: the hundred pages of quotes and poetry fragments I’ve collected for ten years.

The poet, Robinson Jeffers saved the day:

“A little too abstract, a little too wise,

It is time for us to kiss the earth again,

It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,

Let the rich life run to the roots again.

(…)

I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers

In the ocean wind over the river boulders.

I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,

That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky.”

All this time, not once had I unglued my face from my laptop to contemplate the verdant scenery expanding in front of the screened porch in which I usually write in spring and summer. Beckoned by its peaceful countenance, I knew what I had to do.

Fortunate to be living temporarily in a house surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness, I closed my laptop and turned off my cell phone. Within twenty minutes, walking across the forest, I reached my favorite spot on the river, where it bends, almost at a ninety degree angle, bordered by a tall, sheer rock wall.

The river’s rush over a natural fall managed to deafen the overhead roar of jets, and the shrill and harrowing sounds of jackhammers, weed-whackers, and leaf-blowers with which humans blazon their dominion and relentless encroachment into the wild.

I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, waded across the other shore, and sat down, staring at the shaded deep pool carved by the river in front of me. Too cold for a swim, I thought. My clothes will get wet.

This time, writer GK Chesterton came to my rescue:

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood.”   

I slid into the chill water and felt an instant current of primordial excitement. Childlike, I floated with the flow staring up at the overhead canopy which gleamed in a variegated kaleidoscope of shades of green I had never seen before. Or perhaps seen, but never apprehended. The air was honeyed by the scent of wildflowers. After swimming a few short laps, I waded across a flatter section scanning the sandy and pebbled river bottom, my eyes attracted by shimmering golden glints of rock flakes. I lay down on a sunny patch of sand with my bare feet inside the water. I closed my eyes and, soon, felt soft, pecking nibbles. Tiny, silver fish were feeding off my skin. I laid back down and turned my head away from the overhead sun. Inches away was a damselfly with a drowsy, hinge-like motion of its gossamer wings.

I did not want to return to the madhouse. All my earlier, petty tribulations had been rinsed by a simple ablution and keen awareness in this small pocket of enchantment. Did not wish to read or write one more thing about the human condition; about flourishing, purpose, happiness, or despair. The answers were crystal out here: balance, harmony, quietude, zero-waste, moderation. Every living thing content with just being.

Not one who takes Prozac or Xanax, this has always been my therapy for my first-world laments, and current science endorses my remedy.

Stanford researchers recently scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they walked for ninety minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street in downtown Palo Alto. The nature walkers, but not the city walkers, showed decreased activity in the part of our brains tied to depressive rumination. The lead researcher believes that being outside in a pleasant environment takes us outside of ourselves. Nature, he says, may influence how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.

Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan argue that it’s the visual elements in natural environments—sunsets, streams, butterflies—that reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the nervous irritation of city life. “Soft fascination permits a more reflective mode,” wrote the Kaplans—and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors.

I headed back, wet, serene, and lighthearted. My predicament hadn’t changed, surely. The eighth rejection to my Memoir was waiting for me in my inbox. The debt had not vanished. But my outlook underwent a dramatic transformation. The perspective of my tribulations was altered by my soft fascination with river, rock-glimmer, wildflower, fish, and damselfly.

My thoughts no longer swarming like “mouthless mayflies darkening the sky,” I ended my day with a thousand words, which, while perhaps inadequate or mediocre, speak with the authentic voice of my sense of wonder.

 

Raging Under the Heat Dome

It’s 97 degrees today with 93% humidity. The forest is eerily silent, the atmosphere is laden and sticky, the sky phosphorous yellow, the A/C is shot, and I sweat and rage.

As I write this (7.6.18), the heat dome extends its red and orange mantle across most of our planet. It’s the proverbial gasping canary in the coal mine. Ominous. How many must choke until we get it?

During the Great Smog of London in 1952 ten thousand had to die before the country woke up from denial and did something about it. I’m not talking canaries anymore. Nearly three-hundred people had to die from smog pollution in New York in 1953 for the Clean Air Act to pass years later. We had to reach the point in which 30% of our drinking water was unsafe – as were two-thirds of the country’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters – for the Clean Water Act to become law two years later.

Why do we do this? Why do humans wait until smacked on the face to wake up?

Ecological Scientist, Dr. Jason Bradford offers this explanation in ‘The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion’:

“Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought.

Emotions motivate and guide us.

When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards or punishments and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. They become our mental models, setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are.

When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption.

Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal.

The conscious brain is not a simple dupe however. It can actively participate in the act of denial or rationalization. People can erect fancier houses of cards and hold on to their cherished beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Many will admit that is what they are doing by resorting to the expression, Well, I just have faith, even when the subject is not overtly religious. This signals that the mental model being challenged is very important for the person, and to remove it would cause a serious and painful identity crisis.

Because scientists are challenging fundamental assumptions of our culture, such as the basis for progress and the consequences of [untrammeled] economic growth, many cannot agree with [them] without losing their identity. This threat to the mental model is simply too great to accept. Hence you encounter two modes of response from those accepting the prevailing paradigm: (1) the scientific data are not reliable, and (2) faith in technological progress and/or human ingenuity.”

Think of Italian scientist Galileo, forced by the Church to recant his discovery of a heliocentric universe which challenged the notion of the time that humans were at the center of everything.

Or Giordano Bruno, the Dominican-monk, who was burned at the stake for claiming that the earth’s sun is just one of many stars.

These threats to human preeminence and grandiosity were just too great for some to accept making them kill the messenger as I wrote in ‘Off with Her Head!’

Some claim there are as many “credible” scientific studies out there that prove humans are not altogether responsible for the warming of the planet as those proving the contrary. Even if true, who gives a shit? It’s like discovering a giant meteorite hurtling towards earth and doing nothing about it because we did not cause it. Even if scientists were to confirm that it was only highly probable – but not 100% certain – the meteorite would impact earth, wouldn’t it make sense to do everything we can to prevent it?

After 9-11, both the American and British governments borrowed a page from the Green Movement and adopted its ‘precautionary principle,’ which says that not having the evidence that something might be a problem is not a reason for not taking action. It requires imagining what the worst might be and applying that imagination upon the worst evidence that currently exists. You don’t take out car insurance because you believe you’re a shitty driver but because you consider the roads to be chock-full of morons.

What both Bush and Blair argued was that faced by the new threat of a global terror network the politician’s role was now to look into the future and imagine the worst that might happen and then act ahead of time to prevent it. If it made sense to use the precautionary principle to preempt a terrorist threat, why not apply it to an existential one?

Others argue that as long as other countries continue spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere without abatement, the U.S. is right in staying its course. While self-destructive, the argument would hold water if the country – with only 4% of the world’s population – was not responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide heating the planet. It’s like you trashing your neighborhood in an all-nighter and refusing to clean up because you saw one neighbor throwing an empty beer can into the mess.

Finally, there are those who faithfully assert that mankind will eventually get its act together. It might, but at what cost, and will it be too late? We are but a monstrous locust plague, and no matter how valiantly she struggles to heal after every onslaught, the earth’s regenerative magic is no match for the speed and intensity of our rapacity.

Crises are a matter of bad imagination over good imagination. The United States used to be a country of undaunted imagination, one which never shirked when confronted with a worthy challenge. Throughout history, the ingenuity and can-do attitude of Americans have led the world in times of great need or opportunity. It’s in their DNA. Or perhaps was. It could well be that this once indomitable spirit has been tamed by lashings of selfishness and greed. It seems we are living, not in the midst of an advanced culture and heroic civilization, but inside a feverish ant-heap made of concrete, steel and silicon, ruled only by the imperative and ideology of a cancer cell: growth for the sake of growth.

What’s frustrating is that I believe we are wrong to consider the challenge of global warming as one asking us to retrench; one requiring a drastic degradation of our way of life. Quite the contrary. I believe that the country with the courage to lead the effort towards a sustainable economy, planet and future will not only reap great material rewards but will be looked upon with great respect and admiration by the rest of the world. Were it to resuscitate its fighting spirit and lead the way, the United States could then rightfully claim its cherished exceptionalism.

Wishful thinking…

I say this not only because of this country’s feckless leadership, ruling corporate special interests, and our collective silence, but out of guilt. For what have I really done to contribute to the solution? Not enough, I’m afraid. True, I don’t own a house or car, and my possessions could fit in two boxes. But this choice is selfish, motivated by my desire to live a simpler, unencumbered life. Much as I love this place, Earth did not weigh in my decision.

All this makes me want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, limb-locked with a swarthy native girl, wait for Armageddon while I enjoy what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet…the only inhabitable one we know of.

By the way, my 87-year-old father can’t afford to repair the A/C because he lost most of his savings in the stock market crash and Great Recession of 2008. That’s progress for you.

 

My Apology to Thomas Jefferson

A month ago, I wrote a flippant remark about Jefferson in support of an argument.

I consider myself intellectually rigorous which is why I only post every other week or so. On that occasion I was plain lazy and picked between the two versions of Jefferson prevalent in the national discourse. Being an inveterate iconoclast, I chose ‘Slave-owning Hypocrite,’ over the one portraying him as an untouchable ‘Godlike Founding Father.’

Already in my mid-fifties, it is troubling to realize that I can still slide at times into the comfortable embrace of confirmation bias and agree with E.F. Schumacher who said that there is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought.

What’s worse, I wasn’t even thinking of giving Jefferson a break until persuaded by a favorite writer of mine to check out Ken Burns’ documentary of the man. Far more egregious was the fact that I hemmed and hawed for days before watching it. I didn’t want my bias to be challenged. It’s the reason many stick to either Fox News or MSNBC.

While deeply moved by Jefferson’s great suffering and stoicism, the documentary’s greatest impact was that for the first time, I was presented with an image of him as an ordinary human being: flawed, failed, irresponsible, epicurean, contradictory, conflicted, and moved by irrational desire, on the one hand, while industrious, humble, wise, generous, and triumphant on the other.

For the first time, he was brought down from the pedestal to walk among us imperfect mortals. Jefferson became accessible in all his flesh-and-blood. I could finally relate, which now makes it possible to emulate.

Same thing with Jesus.

In my book, Querencia, I recount this fulminating soliloquy I had with Christ Crucified on a beach in Mexico:

Where is yours by the way? Your shadow, I mean. Where is it? Why is it that you are presented to us scrubbed and sanitized of all impurity, imperfections, conflicts, and appetites? No light, no shadow… How are we, creatures of desire, ever to attain the perfection you commanded us to seek? I prefer you as the flesh and blood, angry man, who entered the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers. I can identify with that fury…with that Jesus! Or with the one whose carnal body battled with his spirit as he lusted after Mary Magdalene…the one that forgave the adulteress…the man who was full of doubt. Him I can follow and strive to emulate, because he’s one of us.

I wish the Catholic Church would replace the Crucifix with Rodin’s sculpture of Christ and the Magdalene.

Christ and the Magdalene

For I would feel less guilt – unshakable and ultimately useless guilt – and more emboldened and inspired to learn about his ministry and adopt his radical gospel of love and forgiveness.

“Where the myth fails, human love begins.” – Anaïs Nin

The Western mind, laments Barry Spector in Madness at the Gates of the City, divided the primal unity of the indigenous soul into irreconcilable opposites: mind/body, male/female, white/black, culture/nature, and ultimately, Christ and the Devil. Gone was the memory that in the great cycle of existence, darkness or chaos is the necessary precondition of rebirth.

My self-righteous remark on Jefferson was the result of that split, and my hubris and faulty memory. In a slick move, I ignored my deep flaws and inner-demons which often lead to despicable behavior.

We will continue to despise people, Martin Luther King Jr. said, until we have recognized, loved, and accepted what is despicable in ourselves.

Until we confront our shadows and arrive at a cease-fire between the angel in ourselves and the devil in ourselves, will we never fully understand nor learn from the struggles and triumphs of exemplary individuals. This task, warned Portuguese writer Pessoa, might take a lifetime. I only have, at best, three decades left.

I was wrong about you Mr. Jefferson, and for that, please accept this as my humbled apology.

Fire and Stories

Fire sparks our imaginations and brings us closer together.

Two weeks ago (now an annual tradition), our family descended on my father’s property in rural New England.

The year before, one of my nephews built a firepit on the lawn facing a grand view of the tall trees lining its edge and sloping down to the meadow and further below to the roaring river gorged with snowmelt and April storms.

The reunion was like a short lived but dazzling meteorite shower striking the property for a few days, leaving in its wake a small crater with half-burned Tiki-torches and cigar stubs, and globs of molten glass from the bottles we shattered against the firepit’s stone rim. Absolute cathartic madness!

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A merry band of revelers, joined by love, lore, and myth, and aided by dangerous levels of alcohol, we let loose our wild spirits, giving uninhibited wind to our singing voices (in convincing Mariachi), howled to the moon, hurled burning torches at the star-studded sky, dug sharp canines into sizzling meat and freshly-caught trout, and pretty much made total fools of ourselves. It was a veritable reenactment of the Greek festival of Anthesteira, celebrated at the beginning of spring, honoring Dionysus, the God of Ecstasy.

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But besides the mischief and fire, there were stories.

In our frenzied modern-day lives, enamored as we are with our technological prowess and gadgetry, we forget that for 99% of human history our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Sometime around 400,000 years ago, we learned to fully control fire which not only changed our diet – fueling rapid brain growth – but also sparked our imagination.

A study of evening campfire conversations by the !Kung people of Namibia and Botswana suggests that by extending the day, fire allowed people to unleash their imaginations.

Back in the 1970s, anthropologist Polly Wiessner took detailed notes on the !Kung day and nighttime conversations. She reported that whereas daytime talk was focused almost entirely on economic issues (money), land rights (real estate), and complaints about other people (gossip), 81% of the firelight conversation was devoted to telling stories.

Tales told by firelight puts listeners on the same emotional wavelength, Wiessner writes in her paper, eliciting understanding, trust, and sympathy.

On one of those nights by the flames, my brothers and I finally lifted the veil over the false legend by which our mother lived during her entire life. But rather than disappointment, my heart grew in understanding and sympathy for her tragic childhood.

The ancient Greeks understood the importance of telling stories which were recounted through their many comedic and tragic plays. Stories which dealt with the follies and dramas of human existence.

The word ‘Entertainment’, at root, means to ‘hold together.’ It is a ritual renewal of the community through shared suffering, or joy, or both, wrote author Barry Spector. Athenian audiences, he added, viewed the clash of unbearable human contradictions and conflict, held that tension, and laughed, or wept together.

Had I, for instance, read Sophocles’ play Philoctetes before temporarily moving to my ailing father’s house to help care for him, I would have been armed with greater empathy.

Had I been told or read Diodorus’ myth of Icarus as a young boy, I would have probably avoided plunging into the abyss at age 36 for having soared too close to the sun on waxed wings of hubris, envy, and greed.

And we could all learn to satisfy our soul’s longing with something more satisfying and durable than our relentless consumption by reading the story of Tantalus who the Greek Gods condemned to the Underworld where he must lie below a tree bearing delicious fruit. When he reaches up, the branches also rise, then fall back, almost within reach, ‘tantalizing’ him forever.

Fire also brings us closer together.

Past the mayhem and revelry, after the enchantment of fire, wine and music, the banter and stories, wisdom and folly, the tears and laughter, after all that much-needed zaniness died down and our family dispersed, the few days us savages shared left behind an indelible mark: a reminder of the invisible strands that bind us together and the comforting feeling that the strength of those bonds – irrespective of wealth, faith, or fame – are the only links which we can rely upon in times of need or solace.

So, go build yourself a firepit, gather firewood and your loved ones, turn off your cellphones, and share your stories.

Just go a little easier on the wine.

 

Stop Rocking the Boat!

Or move back to your country.

Someone just called me bitter for writing about this country’s failings.

“Why don’t you just move back to your country?!” Has been another knee-in-the-groin. And my favorite: “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat!”

It seems I’ve been rocking it too hard, making some passengers quite uncomfortable.

Truth does seem to hurt. But it chiefly ruffles the feathers of those standing on shaky ground and not firmly on convictions examined over-and-over again with honesty, humility, and the impassive light of intellectual courage. If you lived in a brick house you wouldn’t worry about the wolf huffing and puffing.

Certitudes are comforting, but one only learns and grows by doubting and questioning. Otherwise, as Alan Watts warned, you go from having a conviction to being a conviction.

There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought.E.F. Schumacher

I’m not rowing because the boat smells of fish-rot, is full of holes and sinking, many are seasick with paranoia, anxiety, or depression, the rest are yelling at, or fighting one another with righteous anger, and no one seems able to tell me where we are going but insist we must get there with ever greater speed.

In any case, I’m a writer, not a galley slave.

And writers must go on though Rome burns, wrote Somerset Maugham. “Others may despise us because we do not lend a hand with a bucket of water; we cannot help it; we do not know how to handle a bucket. Besides, the conflagration charges our minds with phrases.”

I recently wrote some phrases on the Mueller-Russia-Trump mudsling hoping to steer the focus away from what is common practice among powerful nations (election meddling), to what I believe is more crucial: the failings of our antiquated and ultimately useless primary and secondary public education system, arguing that what was alarming was not that a foreign power tried to influence our electoral process with false propaganda but that many voters were so easily duped. I said it was urgent to develop critical thinking skills in America’s youth to protect the Republic from future attempts to usurp it, both from without and within.

My views had nothing to do with partisan politics and everything to do with the affairs of the polis or people.

One member of the polis responded that I was just part of:

“Uuuuhhh marxist morons preaching hate and fascism for the last few decades have resulted in armies of self absorbed little morons that tear up cities when they don’t get what the plantation wants. Thats you. Thats your education system dum dum. Good thing we have GEOTUS here to clean up THAT liberal cesspool as well. SJW = Ugly, weak, pathetic, dumbass, brainwashed burnouts.”

Pogo

In case you didn’t know, GEOTUS stands for “God Emperor of the United States,” referring to this country’s current President.

SJW stands for “Social Justice Warrior” which I assume was meant as an insult. I’m still trying to decipher what he meant by “plantation.”

Pathetic little moron, indeed.

A few weeks before, spurred by the mass-shooting at Parkland, Florida, I took the time to understand what causes these young men to break and go on a killing spree, hoping to come up with common-sense solutions. I suggested that the problem was not necessarily guns or the failings of background checks but one of shattered illusions and despair.

Within a few hours, my post was flooded with charts and statistics contrasting mass killings in the U.S. with those in other countries, suggesting that on a per-capita basis things here weren’t really that bad. I guess they were telling me to cheer up.

Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable.Breyten Breytenbach

Writers, by nature, are dissatisfied. We focus on things-as-they-should-be, instead of things-as-they-are. We stretch our imaginations to conjure better worlds, greener, more sustainable worlds, harmonious and more just worlds. We are not comforted by the notion that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

“Without the person of outspoken opinion, without the non-conformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay,” said Lithuanian-born American artist Ben Shahn. “Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen. Nonconformity is the basic precondition of art, as it is the precondition of good thinking, and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present – and tolerated – in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.”

In other words, we need people to slap us on the face now and then to wake us up and keep us sane. Your mother for example. Or think Buddha, Jesus, Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., Clair Cameron Patterson, and Rachel Carson. Or that ugly, old philosopher who twenty-four hundred years ago was condemned to death for being a royal pain in the ass. The charges brought against this gadfly were impiety and corrupting the youth of his city when all he was trying to do was urge everyone to question their biases and presumptions.

“High on the list of presumptions that Socrates had aimed to unsettle was his fellow citizens’ certainty that their city-state brooked no comparison when it came to outstanding virtue,” wrote Rebecca Goldstein in ‘Making Athens Great Again.’ “To be an Athenian, ran a core credo of the polis, was to partake in its aura of moral superiority. Determined to interrogate what being exceptional means, Socrates dedicated his life to challenging a confidence that he felt had become overweening.”

But Athenians were in no mood to be told their shit also stank, so they killed him (actually, he poisoned himself).

Seventy years later, the Athenian Empire collapsed.

Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.Book of Proverbs 16:18

American exceptionalism began its career, not as a boast, but as a question, said David Frum.

As a young boy my mother used to tell me I was a genius. Never once did I question why that was. I just basked in the Golden Child aura of my unearned, thus unwarranted preeminence.

When I turned thirty, my father tried to shake my haughty spirit with the best piece of advice I never listened to. He warned me that if I did not wake up, I’d be “going straight into the abyss” by age thirty-five.

He missed the mark by only twelve months.

Maybe that’s why I rock boats and can’t cheer up.

Two years before his death at age 85, Kurt Vonnegut wrote this in ‘A Man Without a Country’:

“The biggest truth to face now – what is probably making me unfunny now for the remainder of my life – is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as member of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.”

Perhaps I am still young and naive enough to remain a little hopeful, and, increasingly, do feel uneasy about the muck and wreck we’re leaving behind to future generations.

I want my grandchildren to regard me with admiration, not contempt, which seems a pretty good reason to keep huffing and puffing.

PostScript: A few hours after I finished this post, news broke of yet another young man who killed ten of his classmates in Santa Fe, Texas.

I’m not bitter.

I’m sad and outraged. Outraged by our spineless political class, and disgusted with the NRA and those who demonized, terrorized, intimidated, and ultimately silenced the brave students who rocked the boat by speaking out after the massacre at Parkland.

That’s 200 people killed so far this year.

Who cares.

Harry and Meghan are getting married today so I’ll just bake myself some crumpets, brew some tea, and watch the royal event wearing a tiara on my head.

From hereon, just leave all flags at half-mast.

Age with Grace

I am midway through the autumn of my life.

Morbid thought?

Depends on how you orient yourself to the moment.

Having rushed, leaped, and tumbled down the peaks of my life’s spring and summer, my river – more serene now – flows across its valley towards its inexorable embrace with the ocean where I will lose my name.

My eyesight is failing, my eyebrows thinning, and I wear a permanent flesh skull-cap on my head. My toes turn black-and-blue in the cold, and my left fingers tingle at night. Occasionally, I am thrown off the bed by Charley Horses. My skin has the rugosity of the bark of an old tree or alligator, and the backs of my hands are splotched like a Jaguar’s pelt and wrinkled and rough as the inside of a Starbucks cup holder. If I had to date again, I’d need to first become an expert in Photoshop.

Aging is a privilege denied to many so I’m not complaining but attempting to discover what the point is.

I figure I have three options:

  1. I could try, with the desperation of a drowning man, to cling to what little remains of my youth.
  2. I could turn despondent, bitter, ornery, nostalgic, cynical, and niggardly.
  3. I could learn how to be old.

When I was young I knew what I hoped to become; but I have become what I do not know how to be: old. – Phillip Wylie

Having totaled several cars, dabbled in drugs, lived in three countries, proposed to three women, married one, divorced, fulfilled my procreative imperative (two wonderful girls), helped raise them, and made and lost fortunes, is there a purpose to this final run?

Modern-day American culture doesn’t seem to think so. Youth-enthralled, centomaniac (obsessed with the new), and thanatophobic (afraid of death), it insulates itself by either confining the elderly in retirement homes, or by ignoring, shunting, or disdaining their doddering presence and advice.

Which, in my mind, is tantamount to either locking-up or burning all history books.

Faced with such rejection, many of our elders are increasingly turning to option 1.

The United States is the country with the highest number of cosmetic procedures, growing from around 1.6 million in 1997 to almost 13.7 million in 2016. Those aged 35 to 50 account for 39 percent of all procedures on which Americans spend more than 15 billion dollars every year.

It does not surprise me that the practice gained popularity in the 1970’s in the wake of the youth revolt of the previous decade. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was one of the favorite slogans.

While granting that the senior leaders at the time were making a huge mess of things (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam War, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident), fast-forward thirty years and those once young, rebellious whippersnappers – by then at the helm and all over 30 – were leaving behind their own impressive wrecks: the Savings and Loans crisis (1986-1995), the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash (1987), the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (1989), the Dot-Com Bubble and Bust (2000), and a much warmer climate, to name just a few fuckups. Groovy dudes, thanks!

Although I engage in regular exercise (for strength, energy, clarity, and calm), I have chosen to opt out of effacing the proof of time’s passing on my body. The word ‘Character,’ I’ve learned, is derived from the Greek kharassein: to sharpen, cut, engrave. Character is the etching of life’s trials and tribulations into our faces, bodies, and souls. Think of it: if you needed serious advice, would you ask a wizened man, or one whose face was as smooth and unblemished as porcelain?

The way-station of old age, said the Persian poet Hafez, is one that must be passed cleanly. “Don’t let the urgencies of youth stain the whiteness of your hair,” he urged.

In traditional Japanese aesthetics, ‘Wabi-Sabi’ is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

‘Sabi’ is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

An old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears as feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it. In many cases, it is a question of the selfsame childish greediness, the same fear, the same defiance and willfulness, in the one as in the other. – Carl Jung

What about Option 2?

Not really an option, but a direct result of our unwillingness to accept the conditions laid out at the moment of our birth. After all, aging and death are terminal illnesses that strike each one of us the moment we’re conceived.

I believe the reasons for the bitterness, cynicism, anger, and pessimism evinced by so many elders are twofold: they feel devalued by society, and they need the outside world to reflect what they believe is their decaying, dark reality. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” said Desiderius Erasmus.

Again, Jung:

“After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself. Instead of doing likewise, many old people prefer to be hypochondriacs, niggards, pedants, applauders of the past or else, eternal adolescents – all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the Self, but inevitable consequences of the delusion that the second half of life must be governed by the principles of the Self.”

I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism. And to alter now, cleanly and sanely, I want to shuffle off this loose living randomness: people; reviews; fame; all the glittering scales; and be withdrawn, and concentrated. – Virginia Woolf

Which brings me to the matter of purpose – Option 3: Learning to Age with Grace.

I am not talking here about dignity or refinement; I am using the term ‘grace’ as it refers to the bestowal of blessings.

I agree with Jung and philosopher Hermann von Keyserling who said:

“Past are the times in which the mere acquisition of material enriched me inwardly. At one time or another, everyone reaches a critical stage, at which he can go no further in the former (material) sense, and the question presents itself: whether he is to stagnate entirely or transfer his development into a new dimension. And since life, whenever it is not exhausted, is incapable of stagnation, the necessary change of dimension takes place automatically at a certain age. Every individual, as he becomes mature, strives after greater depth and involution.”

But I believe that to stop there, basking in the glow of our increased self-awareness and hoarding the treasures obtained in our quest for greater depth, not only fortifies the dividing wall between young and old, but denies future generations the accumulated wisdom that could avoid a future crisis. It deprives the world of blessings.

When the seed is ripe, its hold upon its surroundings is loosened, its pulp attains fragrance, sweetness and detachment, and is dedicated to all who need it. Birds peck at it and it is not hurt, the storm plucks and flings it to the dust and it is not destroyed. It proves its immortality by its renunciation. – Rabindranath Tagore.

A few years ago I wrote this to my daughters as they entered adulthood:

“I know the world for you right now seems chaotic, ruthless, unjust, and fraught with danger. Imagine you’re dropped into the depth of a jungle. What would you do? How would you feed yourself? How would you know which plants to eat and which to avoid? How would you protect yourself from the elements? Now imagine that the only thing you can take with you are either tools (knife, waterjug, flint) or a survival manual written by a hunter-gatherer who lived in that same jungle years ago. Which would you choose?”

Weeks later, driving one of them home from work (berating her for something she had done – or not done) I asked her why it was that kids refused to learn from the wisdom of their parents. If we had already traversed the jungle, been battered and wounded, fought and slain tigers, and crossed victorious over to the other side, why insist on going through the same suffering? Isn’t that the value of adaptation in the process of natural selection?

In her characteristic wisdom, she responded:

“Because they wouldn’t be nor feel like our own victories. We want to have our own scars suffered in honorable combat with our own tigers.”

I was stumped…

Later reflected…

And then wrote her my response:

“There are wounds you do not want, trust me.

I am not proposing to be your North Star or compass, but simply your lighthouse, because:

An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never. – Philip Larkin

My intention is to spare you from the deadliest tigers.

In primitive, oral cultures, the young find their orientation in their world through stories and songs. They learn about their origins, how the world was created, how the human emerged, and – to my point – how to survive.

In the mythology of Aboriginal Australia there is something called ‘Dreamtime’: the dawn when the totem Ancestors first emerged from their slumber and began to sing their way across the land in search for food, shelter, and companionship. These meandering trails, or ‘Dreaming Tracks,’ are auditory as well as visible and tactile phenomena. The Ancestors were singing the names of things and places into the land as they wandered through it. The song is thus a kind of auditory road map through the wilderness. To make its way through the land, an Aboriginal person has only to chant the local stanzas of the appropriate Dreaming.

In Aboriginal belief an unsung land is a dead land. If the songs are forgotten the land itself will die.

I propose that an unsung story awakens the Tiger.”

The slumber of the ancestors is the involution Keyserling wrote about; it is Jung’s withdrawal of the sun in order to illuminate itself, it is Woolf’s withdrawal and concentration.

But the purpose, to me, is not to remain in slumber, but to emerge and sing our map to the young helping them find their way through the land.

Given my track record, there is not much I can say about what the right thing to do is, but I certainly have enough scars and wounds to which I can point so they’ll know what not to do. These are the only blessings I can bestow.

My period of involution is near its end and I’ve begun to write down my ‘Dreaming Track’: the chronicle of my tribulations, my joys and sorrows, loves and disappointments, victories and defeats, and of my most exalted as well as most ignominious moments.

Writing a Memoir is not the only way. Although they don’t say it, young people (especially men) are longing to be initiated into adulthood by the elders of the tribe; they hunger for the ripened fruit of their wisdom. The bestowal of blessings can come from mentoring a young boy or girl at a school or community, reading to children in a public library, or being more present in the lives of nephews and grandchildren.

At best, we might prevent a looming calamity, or at least, have the satisfaction of saying “I told you so” as we watch them getting mauled by a tiger.

“Old age, calm, expanded,

broad with the haughty

breadth of the universe.

Old age flowing free with the

delicious near-by freedom of death.

I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly

as it pours in the great sea.” – Walt Whitman


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The Human Shadow at War

I’m in Spain dropping off my daughter at a Masters’ Program.

Before arriving, I wanted to learn about the country, especially, the moments in its history that shaped its national psyche or soul – those events people can’t stop talking about no matter how much time has passed. If a foreigner asked me what he should learn before visiting the U.S., I would point him toward the Civil and the Vietnam wars.

When I study history, I choose to focus not so much on the what-and-when but on the why-and-who. I prefer to focus on the protagonists, rather than on specific events.

One of the moments that shaped Spain’s psyche was its three-year civil war that ended in 1939. Its principal protagonist was General Francisco Franco.

I watched several documentaries, and in one reenactment, was struck by the tenor of the voice used by the actor playing the role of Franco. Girlish and high pitched, I found it incongruent with the man who was ultimately responsible for the death of 500,000 of his countrymen. I suspected that I was in the presence of a wounded child, so switched from the documentaries, to dig into Franco’s childhood.

How to Build a Monster

The day Franco was born, his violent and alcoholic father was in a whorehouse. Franco Senior picked on his son’s feeble figure and high-pitched voice, calling him names like “Paquita” (female/diminutive version of Francisco), and “Marica” (slang for homo). When drunk, his father would entertain himself by pinching his younger son’s penis and asking his older brother if he could see anything between his legs. His brother would top-off the humiliation by calling his brother dumb and “little match” because of his large head and sticklike body. Franco’s mother would rescue him, and he would rush behind her sucking his thumb. As a result, young Francisco idolized his mother, even going as far as asking her to marry him when his father left the family for another woman. While Franco served in the military he lost a testicle which may have been the beginning of his prolonged sexual shortcomings. When Pilar Eyre, author of a biography on Franco, interviewed his Doctor about the incident and possible repercussions, he said: “My experience in this field leads me to believe his sexual life was nonexistent. He wasn’t interested in sex, he silenced his desires with his hunger for power and was therefore able to remain celibate almost all his life. Ambition replaced orgasms in his particular case.”

Before leaving for Spain, I had written two articles on mass shootings in America, linking several of the tragic events to the absence or abuse of fathers, the troubled childhoods of its perpetrators, and the absence of positive male role models or mentors in their lives. After reading-up on Franco, I wanted to continue my exploration by learning about the young lives of other infamous figures in world history.

Adolf Hitler was 14 when his father died. He had a poor record at school and failed to secure the usual certificate. He then spent two idle years in Linz, where he indulged in grandiose dreams of becoming an artist while not taking any steps to earn a living. His mother was overindulgent to her willful son and even after her death, he continued to draw a small allowance with which he maintained himself for a time. His plan to become an art student was foiled when he failed twice to secure entry to the Academy of Fine Arts.  He earned a precarious livelihood by painting postcards and advertisements, and drifting from one municipal boardinghouse to another. During this period, he led a lonely and isolated life. In these early years, Hitler showed traits that characterized his later life: inability to establish ordinary human relationships; intolerance and hatred both of the established bourgeois world and of non-German peoples, especially the Jews; a tendency to passionate, denunciatory outbursts; and a readiness to live in a world of fantasy to escape from his poverty and failure. In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich. Temporarily recalled to Austria to be examined for military service, he was rejected as unfit; too weak to bear arms. Hitler greeted the war with enthusiasm, as a great relief from the frustration and aimlessness of his civilian life. He found comradeship, discipline, and participation in conflict intensely satisfying, and was confirmed in his belief in authoritarianism, inequity, and the heroic virtues of war.

The Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was a frail child born into a dysfunctional family in a poor village in Georgia. Permanently scarred from a childhood bout with smallpox and having a mildly deformed arm, Stalin always felt unfairly treated by life, and thus developed a strong, romanticized desire for greatness and respect, combined with a shrewd streak of calculating cold-heartedness towards those who had maligned him. He always felt a sense of inferiority before educated intellectuals, and particularly distrusted them.

Italian strongman Benito Mussolini was born into a poor family and lived in two crowded rooms on the second floor of a small, decrepit palazzo. Because Mussolini’s father spent much of his time in taverns and most of his money on his mistress, the meals that his three children ate were often meagre. A restless child, Mussolini was disobedient, unruly, and aggressive. He was a bully at school and moody at home. Because the teachers at the village school could not control him, he was sent to board with the strict Salesian order at Faenza, where he proved himself more troublesome than ever, stabbing a fellow pupil with a penknife and attacking one of the Salesians who had attempted to beat him. At rallies—surrounded by supporters wearing black shirts—Mussolini caught the imagination of the crowds. His physique was impressive, and his style of oratory, staccato and repetitive, was superb. His mannerisms were theatrical, his opinions contradictory, his facts often wrong, and his attacks frequently malicious and misdirected.

These four characters – Franco, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini – were directly and indirectly responsible for the death of close to 100 million people.

In a nutshell, war and suffering is the price humans pay for unresolved boyhood traumas.

Lessons of History

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana

For me, there are two lessons to be learned – and never forgotten – in studying the lives of these villains: one political and one personal.

The political, is never to choose a leader without first learning about his/her past. In fact, I propose that along with medical checkups and tax returns, we should require every candidate for high office to undergo – and make public – a thorough psychoanalytic examination.

On the personal side, much is to be learned about working with our shadow.

“The Shadow” is a concept first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung that describes those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject and repress. Aggressive impulses, taboo mental images, shameful experiences, fears, irrational wishes, unacceptable sexual desires— things we all contain but do not admit to ourselves that we contain. (Source: ‘Carl Jung and the Shadow: The Ultimate Guide to the Human Dark Side’).

Once we repress, we project, seeing in others what we are unaware, or won’t admit, lies within us. Although our conscious mind is avoiding its own flaws, it still wants to deal with them on a deeper level, so we magnify those flaws in others.

For example:

HITLER: “If the Jews were alone in this world, they would stifle in filth and offal; they would try to get ahead of one another in hate-filled struggle and exterminate one another.” (Chapter XI of ‘Mein Kampf’)

ANDREW JACKSON, 7th President of the United States: “[Indians]…have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.” (At fourteen, Jackson was a tall, skinny, freckle-faced youngster with red hair and steel-blue eyes. He drooled when he talked, especially when excited. Because of this failing he was the butt of many cruel jokes, against which he could retaliate only with his fists. At sixteen, Andrew inherited three to four hundred pounds sterling from his wealthy Irish grandfather. This sum he wasted on high living, gambling, and horses).

DONALD TRUMP: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

In his ‘Little Book on the Human Shadow,’ Robert Bly says that as children we are living globes of energy, but one day we notice that our parents, our teachers, and our culture, do not approve of certain parts of that energy, so we carry an invisible bag behind us where we put all that unwelcome stuff. We spend much of our life, Bly says, deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. The bigger the bag, the less the energy. If we identify ourselves as uncreative, for example, it means we took our creativity and put it into the bag.

Eating our Shadow

How do we empty the bag and eat our shadow?

When I was in my early teens, my parents’ relationship had hit the skids, but no one dared talk about it. Among my siblings, I must have been the one who tiptoed to our parents’ bedroom door and pressed my ear against it to hear them moan to make sure everything was all right. When those reassuring noises went silent, one night, while we were watching an episode of Bonanza (a western) and eating dinner, I had the temerity to ask my father why he no longer made love to my mother.

His eyes narrowed and lit up with rage.

What did you say?”

I remember wanting to shrink and disappear within the folds of the reclining chair on which I sat, or that little Joe Cartwright (my favorite character in the show) would get shot dead right then and fly off his horse. Anything to deflect my father’s burning stare. Without a word, he got up and walked out of the room. Unintentionally, I had lifted the veil covering the romantic sham of my parents’ relationship. I must’ve been scared from seeing my fantasy of a happy family dissolving. My question had been an honest one, one desperate for an answer, but I got none.

I placed that moment into my bag and can’t tell you what specific hurt I caused for putting it there, but I’m sure I did.

Several years ago, I decided to look into the bag of my unconscious and bring out its content. I did it slowly, having learned that eating one’s shadow in one bite causes mayhem.

Guided by a modern-day shaman, I relived the episode with my father. As the therapist guided me back and deep into that fateful moment, the scene morphed in stages. The first descent did not do much to change the stage, scripts, actors, or feelings; I was still a frightened child cowering under my father’s enraged glare. But by the second and third descent, I began to see him, not as an overpowering, forbidding presence, but as another child who had simply been caught telling a white lie. With my eyes closed, I saw him weeping, and heard him tell me about his own childhood wounds. Bound by a common heritage, we embraced and became friends. I took his hand and we walked away through an open field conspiring for a world without adults.

I then told my wounded child the words he wanted to hear that night: that while true that his parents did no longer love each other, he had nothing to do with it and nothing to be be afraid of since their love for him would forever remain intact.

The Wounded Child

In ‘The Dance of Wounded Souls,’ Robert Burney writes that the inner child we need to heal is actually our “inner children” who have been running our lives because we have been unconsciously reacting to life out of the emotional wounds and attitudes (the old tapes) of our childhoods. We can do that by working on developing a relationship with those wounded parts in us. So long as we are judging and shaming ourselves we are giving power to the disease. We are feeding the monster that is devouring us.

The first step is to open a dialog. The adult must become a kind of wizard or mentor to the wounded child. Its own Yoda.

“Our lives are determined less by our childhood than by the traumatic way we have learned to remember our childhoods.” – James Hillman, Archetypal Psychologist

Shadow work is the process of making the unconscious conscious, gaining awareness of our impulses and then choosing whether and how to act on them. We begin this process taking a step back from our normal patterns of behavior and observing what is happening within us.

The next step is to question, “What does this outburst of anger or sadness want from me?” When we observe ourselves reacting to psychological triggers, we must learn to pause and ask, “Why am I reacting this way?” This teaches us to backtrack through our emotions to our memories, which hold the origins of our emotional programming. As we work to understand and accept our shadows we can then seek to unlock the wisdom they contain. Fear becomes an opportunity for courage. Pain is a catalyst for strength and resilience. Aggression is transmuted into warrior-like passion. This wisdom informs our actions, our decisions, and our interactions with others. We understand how others feel and respond to them with compassion, knowing that they are being triggered themselves. (Source: ‘Carl Jung and the Shadow: The Ultimate Guide to the Human Dark Side’).

Ordinarily in Western culture we have only two ideas: either we express, or we repress. Either one expresses anger or one represses it. Zen practice points to a third possibility: in meditation one might allow the anger to come in, so that the whole body burns with anger. The anger is not repressed; your whole body is anger. When the meditation ends, one has the choice of expressing it or not, but expressing it might not involve the lashing scene in which you scream at someone and wear tracks on your mind; it does not contribute to the disintegration of your own psyche. (Robert Bly, Little Book on the Human Shadow).

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”  – Gospel of Thomas.

As I’ve continued emptying the bag, not only have I found repressed emotions, but distinct personalities, much like the famous case of Sybil Dorsett.

Beating Sybil by two, I have thus far discovered and catalogued eighteen such fragmented soul parts, which, when repressed or denied, have made me say (or not) and do (or not) things I’ve regretted. I call them ‘My Bestiary’ and have given each a proper name. Next to their name, I have listed the negative expressions of their energy and identified compensating qualities that I work to strengthen to keep them from running amok.

This reintegration amounts to re-establishing a conscious relationship between these fragmented soul-parts, or splinter personalities. One can’t be rid of them and shouldn’t. Our wounds, after all, parent our destinies and keep us in the body, and in the world. This re-centering does not obliterate conflict or multiplicity of soul but allows for the coexistence of a more central and detached vantage point from where an untouchable core of the personality serenely views the conflict.

Properly channeled and synthesized, these unconscious psychic energies enrich our lives, make us recover our polytheistic souls, or wholeness, and resurrect the incandescence hiding inside our hurting, dull, and rigid clay statues.

Franco, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini carried enormous, heavy bags behind them. Unemptied, 100 million people died as a result.

What’s in your bag?


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