No Bucket for My List

Fate smashed it two decades ago.

Bucket on Beach.jpg
Photo by Gregory Culmer on Unsplash

I used to have a big bucket. So big in fact, I never bothered making lists. I just did anything I wanted.

I scuba-dived, trekked across rainforests and jungles, climbed Mayan temples, honeymooned in paradise, sailed yachts, piloted airplanes, wore gold watches, built financial empires, cavorted with prostitutes, powdered my nose with blow, briefly retired at age 36… that kind of big.

Fate smashed my bucket two decades ago.

I now have neither bucket nor pot to piss in, but I’m happier than ever… how’s that possible?

Because my bucket, you see, was riddled with holes, that no list — no matter how long or exotic— could plug. It took me years to figure out I was scratching the wrong itch. My thirst for adventure was masking a yearning to reconnect with my wild side. The bling and blow were desperate cries for attention and acceptance. Wealth, for respect and validation. Prostitutes, for intimacy.

They were, and are, the misty hidden yearnings manipulated by the sly persuaders of unruly capitalism to keep us in a perpetual state of unsatisfied desire… always scratching the wrong itch, always pouring more stuff into our buckets.

Where affluence is the rule, the chief threat is the loss of desire. With wants so quickly sated, the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of ever more exotic vices. What is new is not that prosperity depends on stimulating demand. It is that it cannot continue without inventing new vices. The health of the economy has thus come to depend on the manufacture of transgression. New vices are prophylactics against the loss of desire. — Alan Watts

The loss mourned by Watts is Eros, which, at root, means the passionate and intense desire considered by ancient Greek philosophers as the prime mover, the motivating principle in all things human and non-human. There is no suggestion that this desire is specifically sexual. Eros is an impulse or energy that links us to the whole web of life. Thus, in the original vision that gave birth to the word, erotic potency was not confined to sexual power but included the moving force that propels life from a state of mere potentiality to actuality.

Wasting my potential climbing ladders leaning against wrong walls, running the rat-race wearing ill-fitting masks, concealing my mute despair with glitz and glamor, and seeking safe harbor in the arms of lust, my life-well ran dry of erotic energy. I burned out without ever having been on fire.

Man builds on the ruins of his former selves. When we are reduced to nothingness, we come alive again. — Henry Miller

Adrift for twenty years in the wasteland strewn with the ruins of my life, I finally got it. Unless I made peace with who I was, I would never be content no matter what I had. I needed to shift from a state of having, to a state of being.

My bucket had been filled to the brim with useless stuff, and I’m now certain that it wasn’t fate that smashed it but I the one who gave it the heave in unconscious revolt against the paradoxical emptiness of my life to finally wake up from a forty-year lie.

Once stripped of all the falsehood, I also thought that what would remain would be my authentic core — dreamer, poet, lover… a metaphysical gypsy encircled by a placid sea of inner truth. But even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of personhood, as cautioned Maria Popova. “They are but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self.”

We change, and must. Only a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living. What we desire today will change over time… just like a river, as said poet David Whyte, with a particular abiding character, but showing radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.

For many years after the crash, I dreamt of pulling my stakes and moving to Greece. The idea had long beguiled me. Ever since reading British author Lawrence Durrell describe its landscape as pure nude chastity, and its light like coming off the heart of some Buddhist blue stone or flower. Or perhaps it was when I came across his alluring account of the women of the Mediterranean whom he said burn inwardly like altar candles and are the landscape wishes of the earth whose overpowering sensuality drive great poets to slash their veins.

Had I the money at the time, I probably would have checked the item off my bucket list and be now married to a Greek peasant girl wondering why the hell she wasn’t burning inwardly like an altar candle and, instead, nagging me for not having milked the goats. Luckily, I didn’t. Instead, I had to examine the fantasy to find the true nature of the itch. I discovered I was simply yearning to recover my erotic power.

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a white man disillusioned. — Jack Kerouac

I’ve since understood that Eros is not to be found on Greek isles nor in the arms of young girls. Neither can the ecstasy Kerouac pined for be found by assuming a different persona. The real voyage of discovery, said Marcel Proust, consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. It is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned, echoed Henry Miller. “If there are flaws in your paradise, open more windows!”

Which brings to mind the summer day I took my young daughters to the beach.

I had no money to pay for camps or trips abroad and had just traded my new, luxury SUV for a drab-brown Altima sedan to lower the monthly payments. To lend magic to an otherwise boring Wednesday, I had to open the windows of our imaginations.

“Let’s pretend,” I said, as we walked out of the house, “let’s imagine we lived in a small, whitewashed stone house perched on a craggy hill in the island of Corfu… chalk-white, with electric blue window shutters and the Ionian sea only minutes away. “Pretend we’d usually trundle down the rutted road in a red wagon pulled by goats, but today — in our only compromise with the trappings of the affluent life we’ve left behind — we will have to take the Altima.”

With nothing more than our bathing suits under our clothes, a pair of borrowed boogie boards, and a yellow, cracked surfboard I had fished-out of a dumpster just days before, we headed out.

We didn’t need to see flocks of sheep grazing under olive groves or drive past the nude chastity of rocky hills dotted with asphodel flowers as we made our way down the winding asphalt of Highway 1. Didn’t matter. Instead, we feasted our eyes on towering emerald thickets of Eucalyptus to our left, and wind-and-fog swept hills to our right. To heighten my girls’ thirst for the ocean’s chill embrace (which I suspected would be no warmer than 65 degrees) and to recreate the imagined summer temperature in Corfu, I closed the windows and turned on the heat. Within seconds, sweat drops bloomed on our skin, making the shimmering steel blue surface of the Pacific Ocean, by then in view, even more alluring.

As soon as parked, doors flew open. The glistening sweat on our foreheads and forearms was blown dry by the chill air as we made our heat-maddened dash to the waves. And then the plunge! All care and fret washed off our backs by the welcoming ablution of the Pacific!

Like trays of delicate pastries, the swells carried our boards aloft, out and back to shore, as we raced one another. My yellow cast-off board with its cracked paint and chipped nose always the winner.

Let’s go!” I yelled, as we completed the final wake run and hurried up the soft sand chased by spindrift, all ashiver and dripping wet. “Pretend our caique has drifted away. We’re stranded and must overnight here. Help me find driftwood to start a fire. It’ll get very cold soon. Let’s move!” I commanded, ignoring the Pringles and Power Bars nestled inside my backpack.“Go look for crabs, mussels, and octopi in the tide pools. Quick! We’re having grilled seafood for dinner!”

A half hour later, crestfallen and empty-handed but for a few pieces of driftwood and a fistfull of seashells, my daughters came back. By luck, a group of jolly Latinos had invited me to sit by their bonfire and partake of their food and steaming pot of Mexican hot chocolate.

Sitting in circle by the roaring flames, the wind gathered strength and blew my eldest’s sun-and-honey laced hair in a straight horizontal. My youngest shielded herself from the smoke that seemed bewitched by her Byzantine eyes. Very few words were exchanged or necessary as we fixed our gaze on the darkening horizon and basked in the comforting embrace of fellowship linked to the whole web of life. Pelicans took advantage of the last flush of golden light for one final dive-bomb into the ocean. A sea lion arched its silvery back and vanished. Tiny crabs scurried into their holes. The first star glittered in the western sky.

As we drove back home — hair and skin satin soft and salty — I recalled these words from the poet Rumi: “And you, if you have no feet to leave your country, go into yourself, become a ruby mine, open to the gifts of the sun.”

That magical summer day, we traveled to Greece without having to postpone our wish for that hoped-for day that often never arrives. No feet, no bucket, no list… simply open to the gifts of the present.

That day, I learned to squeeze delight from the fruits of the here-and-now and vowed to never again use the phrase ‘just as soon as’ I experienced the truth of Miller’s assertion that it is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned, and realized that the key is in understanding what makes us tick which is discovered by removing ourselves from the distractions and needling noise of the modern world to listen to the true longings of our hearts.

Now, far removed, I know that no Caribbean cruise, no matter how luxurious, can make anyone escape a meaningless job or humdrum existence.

That no gold watch can make up for the lost time we should invest on what truly matters.

That lust is no road to intimacy nor rugged adventure the way back to our wildness.

That neither wealth nor power can ever recharge our erotic potency.

That true joy is found in being, not in having.

Which is why I’m not surprised to learn that the country with the most buckets is one of the world’s unhappiest.

We don’t need buckets or lists. All we need is to open more windows.


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Please, Save us from our Addictions!

Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.

addicted
Cartoon by Nate Beeler

WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS MAN! — Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Incapable of tempering his auto-destructive impulses despite the growing fury of tempests, fires and floods wrought by his own hand, he acts like a dimwitted teenager who throws a secret party at his house yet hopes his parents walk in, turn on the lights, and put an end to the mayhem.

Please, please make me stop!

What a piece of work, indeed.

Either demanding his government step-in to regulate the sources of his addictions, or cravenly cheering for a 16 year-old autistic activist hoping she’s the one! who will save the world from the scourge of his untrammeled appetites.

When told his lifestyle must radically change, he proudly points at his Tesla, his recycling and LED lights as solid proof of his green, goody two-shoes, much like a deluded and bleary-eyed alcoholic announcing he’s down to only one drink per day.

What part of “radical” don’t you get?

It’s too disruptive, he nervously says. We must slowly wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Take it easy. Step-by-step.

Confronted with the consensus of the world’s scientific community that we’re running out of time, he shrugs his shoulders, scoffs, and takes another drink while tracking his Cyber Monday orders on Amazon.

Why are we so incapable of imagining how much better our lives would be if we went cold-turkey?

True, the onset of delirium tremens would be a bitch, but the withdrawal pains would not last forever. Earth would continue spinning as it has for over 4 Billion years.

The great source of the misery and disorders of human life, said Adam Smith, — “The Father of Capitalism” — arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice, for example, overrates the difference between poverty and riches. Ambition, that between a private and a public station. Vainglory, between obscurity and fame.

“The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions,” Smith warned, “is not only miserable in his actual situation, but often disposed to disturb the peace of society in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. This slightest observation, however, might satisfy him: That in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of temperance or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds.”

I am speaking as one who has skirted near the extremes of affluence and poverty and now live in the in-between. I have dined at the world’s most expensive restaurants and dumpster-dived for scallops and Jimmy Dean sausage. I assure you I don’t miss the extremes. In fact, I’ve pulled the veil and uncovered the wily subterfuge by which the great persuaders of unruly capitalism seek to control us through the levers of mass manipulation which I think would make Mr. Smith very proud.

The enemy, however, is not capitalism. It’s us!

“The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. The man who restrains himself within the bounds set by nature will not notice poverty; the man who exceeds these bounds will be pursued by poverty however rich he is. It is the mind that creates our wealth.” — Seneca

The virtue of temperance, to which Seneca and Smith refer, is one of the 10 essential life forces featured in my book for boys. It is the ‘Golden Mean’ first posited by Greek philosopher Aristotle and one of the principal maxims inscribed on the pediment of the Temple to Apollo at Delphi — “Nothing in Excess.”

The writing has been on the wall for centuries, and repeated ad-nauseum by the greatest sages of humankind:

Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Socrates: “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

Chuang-Tzu: “Desires unsettle the heart.”

Henry David Thoreau: “I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we will live simply and wisely.”

Or Buddha’s second truth: Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.

Fuck that shit! Right? As long as there’s a chill-pill that can ease our unsettled hearts and enough stuff online to fill the gaping holes in our empty, meaningless lives, who cares?

Perhaps, our children?

“Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”- Groucho Marx

As is stands, they are trapped inside our modern-day bullet train racing at breakneck speed to a destination fuzzily defined by its conductors as “progress” while gazing with terror in their innocent eyes sensing the solid wall awaiting the train in the not-too-distant future knowing they can’t get out.

“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” said historian Arnold Toynbee.

I confess there are days when I lose heart. Days when I just want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, lulled by the waves’ whispers, wait for Armageddon while enjoying what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet while the locusts finish it off.

Today is obviously one of those days.

When the smashup comes — which is starting to seem inevitable — I’ll be here, fingers at the ready, to chronicle man’s denouement in a final missive from the printing house of hell.


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Beer of Belonging?

Our misty hidden yearnings.

Beer commercial

Is it the beer you crave, or are you thirsting for the warm camaraderie and belonging hinted at by the affectionate smiles of the actors?

Are you hoping for the one-carat diamond around your finger, or for the true covenant of love that can only be expressed in honest words and meaningful deeds?

Is it the Caribbean cruise, or a yearning to break free from your meaningless job and humdrum life?

Philosopher Theodor Adorno said our longings are craftily repackaged by capitalist industry so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our wellbeing.

So is it the gold watch, or more time to spend on what truly matters?

Faster food, or slower pace?

Might the diet program you just signed up for be a desperate cry for attention from your malnourished spirit rather than from your expanding waistline?

Though we think we live in a world of plenty, Adorno said, what we really require to thrive — tenderness, belonging, calm, insight, friendship, love — is in painfully short supply and utterly disconnected from the economy. The tools of mass manipulation exploit our genuine longings to sell us items which leave us poorer and psychologically depleted.

The hidden persuaders of capitalism, observed social critic Vance Packard, see us as bundles of daydreams, misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, and irrational emotional blockages. We are image lovers given to impulsive and compulsive acts. We annoy them with our senseless quirks but please them with our growing docility in responding to their manipulation of symbols that stir us to action.

How did we end up here and how do we break free from the spell?

During the Great Depression of 1929, worried that the production lines would halt, industrialists turned to the hidden persuaders — the psychologists and marketers — for help. Whereas before, we bought stuff for its utilitarian value, e.g., durable shoes, the drive of the consumer had to be radically shifted to gobble-up the excess merchandise.

Enter human desire.

“We must shift America from a needs-to a desires-culture,” suggested Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker of the time. “People must be trained to desire… to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

So successful were the hidden persuaders that it earned them this gushing praise from President Herbert Hoover: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines.”

So we went from this…

To this:

Desires unsettle the heart, said Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu around the 4th Century BC.

His contemporary, Lao Tzu, put in these words:

The five colors

blinds our eyes.

The five notes

deafen our ears.

The five flavors

dull our taste.

Racing, chasing, hunting,

drives people crazy.

Trying to get rich

ties people in knots.

So the wise soul

watches with the inner eye

not the outward,

letting that go,

keeping this.

The inner eye is the wise arbiter of your desires. It is the keen sword that cuts through the veil of delusion to reveal what your true needs are, keeping those, and spitting out the snake oil peddled by the hidden persuaders.

“The body’s needs are few,” said Roman philosopher Seneca. “It wants to be free from cold and banish hunger with nourishment. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.” Two thousand years later, in ‘Fight Club,’ actor Brad Pitt echoed this sentiment more bluntly: “We’re working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” You can see why writer Erica Jong said the American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.

A cruise ship can’t whisk you away from your dull life and inauthentic self.

A diamond’s glitter pales in comparison to the one in your fiancé’s eyes when affirming his commitment.

No amount of food, however fast, will nourish your starved soul.

And no amount of beer will quench your thirst for belonging.

To break the spell, all you must do is step away from screens and ask this simple question: What do I truly need?

After all, as writer Mary Ellen Edmunds once said, “You can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place.”

 


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“Oh, the Good Old Days”

Aching for slow beauty to save us from our quick-quick life!

Tired of hearing old people pine for the good old days; frustrated really, from sensing that I have somehow missed the boat, I decided to ask my eighty-seven year old father and his wife what they meant.

Aside from the predictable nostalgia for their carefree days of childhood, one answer topped the list:

SIMPLICITY: The good old days of civility, tight-knit communities, only 3-TV channels and 2-cylinder cars, the 30-minute newscast, rotary phones, human operators, physical maps, doctor house calls, limited choices of mates and breakfast cereal, little regulation and much self-reliance and self-responsibility.

Attempting to make our lives more convenient, free-up time, and expand our choices, it seemed from their leading answer and clarifying definitions that us “young ones” have made matters worse by transforming our world into a kind of giant, impersonal Rube Goldberg contraption, performing simple tasks (calling a friend, getting from point A-to-B, remedying a cold, choosing a partner or cereal) in convoluted, impersonal, and dizzying ways, often riddled with frustrating redundancies, and, in many cases (dating, entertainment), with so much to choose from, we end up tied up in a knot, unable to choose.

Rube Goldberg

I had to admit they had a point.

But what about all the free time we’ve gained thanks to our technological advances?

If that is so, why are most of you, “young ones,” so overwhelmed, harried, stressed and burnt out? Why, for instance, has the number of vacation days taken by the average American worker declined from twenty to sixteen in the last forty years? And if, in fact, you’ve gained free time through all your techno wizardry, it appears it’s been claimed by new and meaningless distractions…a tossing welter of irrelevance.

Ok…but! I pressed on, in valiant defense of our times…technology helps bring families, friends, and communities closer together.

(Phlegmy scoffs followed by huge eye rolls behind thick, smudged eyeglasses held together with duct tape).

Ok, not that then. But what about regulation? You can’t deny it helps curb abuse and blatant irresponsibility from others.

Aha…but the excess to which regulation has been taken has come at the steep price of self-reliance and self-responsibility…the loss of agency.

I can have a meal or book delivered in less time than it takes you to rinse your octogenarian dentures!

And you’ll eat your meal and read your book – if at all – in less time, and soon forget what you ate and most of what you read while suffering from heartburn.

I never get lost thanks to Google Maps!

Some of the most memorable adventures in our lives have occurred precisely because we got lost.

We have so much to choose from now.

And you never settle for anything.

We have gut-cleansing Kombucha, Mushroom Coffee, and Colored Toast! I bet you never had that in the “good-old-days,” huh? (mocking voice…finger doing air quotes).

What’s Kombucha?

By then, I felt like Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times,’ struggling to repair the Giant Machine.

Charlie Chaplin

It does feel that our world is evolving, not from simplicity to complexity, but to chaos, or entropy.

As explained by James Clear, entropy is the natural tendency of things to lose order. Sand castles get washed away. Weeds overtake gardens. Ancient ruins crumble. Cars begin to rust. People gradually age. The inevitable trend is for things to become less organized and more so over time. This is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the fundamental laws of our universe.

I decided to pose the same question to someone a bit ‘younger,’ my sixty-year-old brother:

“When you hear the phrase ‘Good Old Days,’ what comes immediately to mind?”

Before I reveal his answer, let me say that my brother’s nickname is ‘Turtle,’ not only because of his weathered countenance, but, especially, for his calm and plodding approach to life.

Here’s what he said after ruminating for a long time while sipping his signature Crown Royal whisky and puffing a fat cigar:

“Hmm…the good old days…

I’d say right now, this moment!

Ask me tomorrow and I’ll say the same thing.”

When in doubt, always ask a turtle.

wise turtle

My brother’s simple wisdom immediately brought to mind one of my favorite poems:

“MY HERO” by Billy Collins

Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,

the tortoise has stopped once again

by the roadside,

this time to stick out his neck

and nibble a bit of sweet grass,

unlike the previous time

when he was distracted

by a bee humming in the heart of a wildflower.

Faced with the invincible force of entropy, I am starting to sense that a growing number of us are aching for slow beauty to save us from our quickquick life! as poet Kapka Kassabova said – for that simple, soft fascination I’ve told you about before.

I guess it all boils down to how we spend our days and choose to live our lives.

While we cannot stop our sandcastles from being washed away, we can certainly dial down the chaos in our own private universe.

We have the agency to come between our madly distracted minds and our distractions, to get lost, and nibble on a bit of sweet grass.


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