May 212016


Today I happened to notice that I was carrying my usual small reusable shopping bag, and really looked at it for perhaps the first time in ten years. My first thought was, Wow, twenty four years old, and I’m still using this thing. The second thought was, How many shopping bags has it kept me from using, and the answer is perhaps five hundred. What a good investment, a free handout from a seminar weekend I never attended, one of the most green objects I have ever owned. So interesting how my value for this little bag opens into something much greater when I contemplate it, when I actually notice it.

The bag itself carries meaning, in the ineradicable stain patterns on the white canvas. There is a small green grass stain on the bottom, from the time I took it to a concert in Sigmund Stern Grove in San Francisco, to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band 20 years ago with high school friends and my dear first wife. I certainly had a wonderful time that day, or that little detail would never have stuck in my head.

It came to me because my wife worked for the California College of Pediatric Medicine at the time. She and I got married less than five months after this Super Seminar, and we used several bags like this to pack stuff away for the backyard ceremony that filled our home with guests and love. We separated a dozen years ago, and somehow this bag traveled with me. I remember I used it to carry some very immediate and personal items, like my wallet and glasses, cell phone and address book, as I packed and left our home. Perhaps that is why I carry this bag with me most of the time, even though I have a dozen other larger, newer, less graphic cloth shopping bags, still sparkling clean.

Oddly, nothing around this bag’s creation and transmittance to me exists any longer. The marriage that brought the bag to me is long gone, and so is the California College of Pediatric Medicine, which was absorbed by another organization in 2002. I am no longer in touch with most of the people I knew at the time, having moved through divorce, re-marriage, widowhood and new partnership, and moving into new living places five times since the bag came into my awareness. So many changes, yet my relationship with this bag endures and deepens.

The bag itself is sturdy, still as functional as the day it was new. The company that made it, Crestline Company Inc., 22 West 21st Street, New York, is still around. A good example of the nature of phenomena: there is the thing (whatever it is), and our personal world of experience, perception, meaning projected upon it. The thing endures, das ding an sich (thank you, Kant!), while all our projections come and go like ripples on a pond.

I find myself noticing the objects in my life today with fresh perspective and much more respect. My world is drenched in depth and meaning, I need only look with grateful eyes.

 Posted by at 4:48 pm
Mar 032016

After spontaneously singing to Jen at 3am recently, a song from the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, I’m noticing some of the layers that assemble me, specifically, how my memory works. I’m also in a several day sprint where the evil disc jockey inside my head is playing a random stream of Bonzo music throughout the day and night. As I result, I am smiling at strangers as I silently hear The King of Scurf for the twentieth time while shopping for potatoes.

For those of you too young, or perhaps too sane to have been exposed to the Bonzos in the late 60’s and early ’70’s, I urge you to go to iTunes, where there is a large selection of their material. Or watch the Vivian Stanshell documentary on YouTube (the entire sound track is Bonzo stuff). Imagine early Monte Python, with great musical skills and a wide variety of instruments. It’s like Tom Lehrer, a random selection of good studio musicians and FireSign Theatre got stuffed in a studio for a week. I discovered the Bonzes in college, when I found a cut-out (remember those?) album for something like $4. “The History of the Bonzos” is a double album, and I tortured several sets of roommates playing bits of it. They were a theater act as well: inside the album is a photo of a bearded young English gent, in suspenders and a t-shirt, wailing away on a sax in one hand, holding up a thought-bubble sign over his head saying, “Wow, I’m really expressing myself!” Sure wish I’d gotten to see them live. imgres-2016-03-3-18-52.jpg

But the topic is memory, and I ponder how I can remember huge tracts of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, every Tom Lehrer and Spike Jones lyric, and so many Bonzos songs that I have not even heard in 35 years. How does my brain do that? I can’t even remember the name of a new co-worker five minutes after I’m introduced, yet this stuff lingers like a deep kiss.

Of course, there is a whole theory of neural encoding. The axons and peptides and neurotransmitters and ganglia and dendrites and god knows what complex mechanisms create mRNA and whatever, so my brain is polluted by a combination of chemical storage and interconnection that permanently maps The Intro and The Outro (“And Adolph Hitler on vibes!”) in my overstuffed skull. My psychology classes with the glorious Hans-Lukas Teuber, who studied brain function by looking at brain injuries for 50 years, should have taught me how memory works. By the way, Dr. Teuber is embedded in here too, he had the bushiest gray eyebrows of any person I’ve ever met, which he wielded like scimitars as he punctuated his lectures with them. According to Teuber, that memory alone is frozen in a interconnected chemical morass involving millions of cells in my head.

Then new research is appearing to suggest that there is a hereditary mechanism for memory, that phobias may be passed down through DNA from one generation to the next. At the very least, this opens the topic that memory is not a simple thing, mere encoding in our brain.

I have a different experience of memory, since I had startling encounters with Nancy for weeks after she passed away — and believe me, she had her memory. My grandmother visited my dreams and communicated some things the night she passed away on the other side of the country. I could be deluded, perhaps these things never happened. But memory must be far more than neurochemistry…how does memory travel without a body?

Maybe memories just exist, out there like archetypes, waiting for one of us to catch them, tune them in. Our brain could be more like a radio than a storage device, we can certainly step into archetypes that are not our own. Maybe there is no memory, there is only karma. Maybe it’s just a miracle, here for our shared and private delight, all the lyrics ever sung by the Bonzos are on my radio station.

And I would really like to know who is doing the tuning. Urban Spaceman just came on, and *I* didn’t do it.

 Posted by at 6:52 pm
Feb 282016


Jen and I are just back from a two-week trip to New Zealand, with a couple of days in Hawaii on the way home. We met in Wellington, spent a day exploring, then took the ferry to the south island and drove for ten days. You can see lots of pictures in my Facebook album.

Basically, the whole place is beautiful. Mountains, coast line, waterfalls, rainbows, neat farms, fields of sheep and cattle, tidy towns with interesting shops, good restaurants…there is nothing about this country that sucks. We had great meals, found lovely wines and beers, met gracious and friendly people everywhere. After starting in Wellington on the north island, we took the ferry and our rental car down to the south island, and traveled to Nelson, Golden Bay, Greymouth, the glaciers, through Mount Aspiring National Park, the lakes at Wanaka, to Cardrona and Queenstown. There was a full day trip to Doubtful Sound in the huge Fiordland National Park, and a day of play on the mountain by Queenstown on six great zip lines.

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P1070343-2016-02-28-00-06.jpg P1070254-2016-02-28-00-06.jpgP1070431-2016-02-28-00-06.jpg PanamalunchinNelson-2016-02-28-00-06.jpgLakeManapourirainbow-2016-02-28-00-06.jpg  IMG_1473-2016-02-28-00-06.jpg

We drove out east to Dunedin, a rather classic town with Georgian architecture, stopped in Oamaru to see more cool buildings, an old seaport with stone warehouses, converted into a collection of nice shops including a steampunk museum, and one of the coolest book shops I’ve ever visited, then north to Christchurch. After flying back to Auckland, we heading home, goofing off for two days of tourist fun in Waikiki. Below are the old Savoy Hotel in Dunedin, the bookstore and shops in Oamaru, and the view from the top of Diamond Head in Waikiki (THAT was a serious hike in the heat!)

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So yes, it was a great vacation, one I’ve wanted to take for decades. And I find myself deeply changed by this little journey, I find my viewpoint on many things in America quite different. Some of my shift is due to presidential primary election drama, with the scary prospect of Donald Trump getting elected. (The Kiwis often asked us if our country was losing it’s collective mind.) But my internal change is really about New Zealand, what is so remarkable and different about life there.

  • There are no sirens, even in the bigger cities. It’s just quiet. Oh, the town of Takaka has a volunteer fire department, so something like a tidal wave siren goes off once or twice a day, to call the volunteers to a road accident or kitchen fire or something. But the ambience does not include police or fire sirens. Huge difference.
  • Gasoline prices were uniform throughout the country, NZ$1.73/liter, with diesel at NZ$0.98. All the diesel vehicles seemed clean; there were no clouds of smoke from buses or trucks that I saw.
  • 100 kph is the speed limit (62 mph) on most roads, which are almost all well-built 2-lane highways.
  • Drivers are good, respectful and safe. In 1200 miles of travel, we did not see one road accident, and only saw about five police cars.
  • There is no litter along the roads.
  • There are no billboards.
  • There are no pot holes.
  • There are no planes flying overhead, unless you happen to be near one of the three major airports.
  • The peak income tax rate is lower.

Really, a most delightful thing is that almost everyone is middle-class. We saw no one homeless, no one particularly rich — although there are some expensive homes here and there, and the occasional Jaguar or Audi on the road. Nearly everyone seemed cheerfully employed, with a positive outlook on life. There is very good public health care, great education, great roads and infrastructure. The top income tax rate is 33%, more than 6 points lower than federal income tax in the US. And there is no state income tax.

It’s not perfect, of course. For example, Queenstown is so flooded by tourists that there are almost no apartments or houses available for the folks that work in the shops there. We chatted with one of our zipline guides, who has to share a bedroom in a rented house because living space is so hard to find. Even though the food was very good and reasonably priced everywhere we went, we did notice a shortage of greenery with our meals, lots of meat (and great fish!), not much fruit. But that may be cultural preference.

It’s quite amazing how much healthier the society is when the government does not spend 54% of revenue on the military. I did not experience any class distinctions or prejudice — though I’m sure some exist — and there are Māori place names and protected sites everywhere. The Wellington Museum has a huge Māori exhibit, both very educational and respectful. Māori art and tattoos are everywhere. I chatted for an hour with a fellow who emigrated from Fiji when he was young, and now makes a fine living near Auckland, lives in a house near the coast with his wife and two daughters, and any way I can see it, is successful and happy. I talked with a restaurant owner from the Cook Islands, again, happily married with family, running a successful Indian restaurant in Dunedin. The Oamaru bookstore owner is from Texas, and has never looked back after becoming a Kiwi.

I’m deeply questioning my life in North America. New Zealand seems so civilized compared to life here. Work/life balance is just a given, kids are well-behaved and well-educated, different cultures intermingle freely, and people are just cheerful, dammit. The biggest current issue the country is confronting seems to be choosing a new flag.

I want to live more like they do. I want to live in a society that cares for their people, and spends government funds wisely. So much of the rest of the world, Canada, most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand and parts of South America, seem to do this better than we do; when do I give up on my native land and move?

 Posted by at 12:06 am
Nov 032015
penny is gone

We inevitably lose our parents, and perhaps it is fortunate when we lose them before they lose us. My father-in-law lost his daughter, my wife, before he passed away, and I think it really crushed him. So there is a blessing and an initiation when our parents pass. Our grief can bring us into adult, […]

 Posted by at 5:37 pm
Oct 072015
weapons and trust

Six days ago, a young idiot with multiple automatic weapons killed nine people in Roseburg, Oregon. As we are all reeling from the insanity and pain of this tragedy, it struck again a half-mile from my home. Steve Carter, a beloved teacher and counselor, was killed on a trail I’ve hiked many times, his dog […]

 Posted by at 6:29 pm
Sep 092015

Ah, That Thing In The Desert. I’ve been smiling and contemplating our seven days at Burning Man, wondering what can I say about such a well-photographed and commented event? It was my first time on the playa, and we had the good fortune to stay at VW Bus Camp, in Mz. Parker, the white Westfalia […]

 Posted by at 5:33 pm
Aug 092015
the cat nature of impact

I am fascinated by our impact on each other, partially because it is the only form of permanence that we have, and partially because it is so close to the heart of incarnation and karma. So I was moved to tears when I read (yet another amazing) obituary in The Economist…for a cat. Go to […]

 Posted by at 4:24 pm
Jul 142015
a day of preciousness

Today has been one of those beautiful, synchronistic days where I seem to have gotten all the pieces in place to feel precious human existence. We turn so easily away from death, thinking and worrying about all the mundane details, our mortgage, what our relatives or neighbors think of us…the honest truth is that death […]

 Posted by at 8:53 pm
Jun 072015
i contact

I’m learning some remarkable subtle lessons about how we all engage with each other, about our desire, and about karma. This is a happy coincidence of changes on the outside, a teaching I received yesterday, and my buddhist practice. I say coincidence, but really, is there any such thing in an existence where every thought […]

 Posted by at 10:33 am
May 292015
the story of a cap

Pigeons, horns, cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust, roaring construction generators. Knots of people walking quickly and determinedly, often gazing into a smart phone, or lost in a private world of sound from earbuds. A man yelling at the top of his lungs “TREAT BLACK VETERANS BETTER!” Trash jewelry and tacky artwork sold on sidewalk tables. Six […]

 Posted by at 1:38 pm