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Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Owner loyalty

Biked up to Stan's Body Shop this morning to pick up our VW. Last month I backed into a parked Honda. I know. Don't say it. Mike called last night to say the crushed bumper was replaced. When I got to the shop the car was out front in the sunshine, the new bumper in place, so the vehicle looked good as new. To me. Mike wasn't satisfied. He asked me whether I'd be willing to wait for a few minutes `til the guy from NAPA auto parts showed up with the spectrometer. Spectrometer? "You're going to check the paint-match scientifically?" Yep, said Mike, it looks just a shade dark to me. If it is, I want to take it off and repaint. "How are you going to get paid for all that extra work," I protested. Hey, Mike said, look at all the years you've been bringing your cars here for me to repair, even bike frames to paint. I call that customer loyalty. So think of this as "owner loyalty." I could think of nothing to say to that except thanks. So I said it.

(The `39 woodie, incidentally, belongs to my friend Harry Linden in Santa Barbara.)

Monday, November 12, 2007


Miguel Cervantes, having lost his left arm at the age of 23, during the 1571 naval battle in the Gulf of Lepanto (Greece), went on to write Don Quixote in 1605, effectively creating the modern novel. Yet, to the end of his life, he prized above all his military experience above all. Engaging in combat, especially for young men in their `teens and twenties, seems undeniably to fulfill some elemental male need. (Women have performed military service for two generations now, but one never reads or hears of their cherishing the experience.) Oliver Wendell Holmes, twice severely wounded in the Civil War, maintained throughout his stellar judicial career that following military orders, even when you know them to be misguided or wrong, was the highest form of honor. And he had no illusions about courage in battle. So it would appear that war expresses human needs more than it serves political ends. Clearly the glorification of combat serves our need to bask vicariously in feelings of superiority. I say vicariously because those who glorify it haven't experienced it. Combat veterans evidently miss it, but they never glorify it. I suggest that the intensity created by the immediacy of death is what charges the experience. We all fear death, but suppress our fear. The harsh fact, however, is that death--in combat or not--cannot be made "meaningful." As soon as we're born, we're old enough to die. Death is the condition of being a living thing. Each death just ends a life. So talk about conferring meaning upon the sacrifices of all those already killed and wounded fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan by "winning" the wars is stupid and mendacious. Rudyard Kipling perfectly captured this point in a couplet he wrote after his son was killed in World War 1: If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Intellectual clarity

I've been debating a friend about meditation. He wants to maintain that intellect is limited and that there are forms of awareness that transcend thinking. I maintain that everything passes through intellect. As Pascal remarked, "thinking makes the whole dignity of the human." Here's my recent reply:

"Intellect" at root covers everything from perception & sensation through comprehension & analysis. In fact, however, we now use it primarily to mean the latter type of functions. Awareness covers more than consciousness, of course. But in order to argue for your claims, you must, like everyone, think about "awareness", etc. There's a tradition of attributing significance (another form of thinking) to the kinds of awareness which precede or underlie conscious thinking, i.e., the kind that takes place in words. What I want to stress is that this act of attribution is itself thinking, i.e., an intellectual action. I agree that restrictive kinds of thinking--e.g., analysis, classification--do not exhaust experience or encompass it.

But everything we actually do, including arguing for the importance of anything, is an instance of thinking. This includes evoking things like "context," which is itself a decision about classification ("What surrounds or contains this experience?"). So the whole history of dhyana is inevitably a history of thinking about it--including Buddha's original invocation of it as the ultimate stage of the path. Buddha makes this point himself and in general appeals to his audience to think, about what causes (an analytical term) dukha, and so on. Finally, I suggest what meditation achieves is the revelation of thinking, as a process, not the suspension of it. Remember that the other key claim Buddha makes is that there is no self--that is, the "I" we construct around our memories and desires is fictional. Strictly, then, any appeal to "my own experience" is a kind of illusion. Meditation reveals that thoughts just go on--localizable in the active brain, of course--but "mine" in only a temporary and fragile sense, sooner or later to be dissolved...jb

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Tin ear

NPR carried a piece today about the release in Baghdad of hundreds of Sunni prisoners held by the US. The reporter described the scene at the airbase: the men are seated, squinting against the harsh sunlight, dressed in "new white shirts" provided by the US Army, listening while "a military band plays." My attention was caught. The sound of the music was brought up. I wondered how an Arab song might sound played by an army band. It took about three notes for me to recognize the melody. "Onward Christian Soldiers!" What were they thinking? It's unlikely, of course, that any of the prisoners realized what they were hearing. The reporter didn't even comment on it. What an amazing insult, though...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


At our latitude--44deg59min N--the earth's tilt has by this time of year sent the sun well down in the southern sky, so that riding out on late afternoons my shadow, visible in my helmet mirror, captures in silhouette my riding position and pistoning legs. There's something irresistibly engaging about this image. Part of the attraction lies in the occasion seeing one's shadow provides to glimpse oneself from the standpoint of another. It offers the same secret thrill we get viewing photos or films of ourselves. Of course a shock accompanies the latter: is THAT the way I look? It's the same shock we'd get by looking in the mirror, if we could look at the image of ourselves without editing out the evidence of aging. But your shadow is not shocking. That silhouette edits the details, leaving only the action or the pose. So that must be part of the attraction, too, adding to the pleasure of riding my bike into the sun, along the river, and out into the countryside, with miles yet to go...

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Be the bunny...

It’s a bright, calm day again. On the way in from my run this morning I was thinking about the little rain so far this fall and the dim prospects for winter snow. My thoughts are reminiscent of the rather prescient “drought” premise of the Greg Kotis musical Urinetown we saw staged last night at the university. It was as dull as most musicals, though the song “Don’t be the Bunny,” was hilarious. The performance was enlivened by spirited dancing and a good cast, but the conceit is even more politically relevant than when it opened in 2001. The theme is the rapacious “privatization” of public services. It reminded me of this picture from a batch of California-fire photos my daughter Megan sent. Like this little rabbit, the American public is now rightly fleeing the corrupt and destructive distribution of public funds to "contractors" favored by Republicans, the administration, and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. It can't happen too fast...