Nothing Planned

09/17/2021

I have no idea what I will be doing tomorrow. In very general terms, I know that I will caring for our nine month old grandson, Asher, for most of the day. My wife and I watch over Asher 24/7. However, there is nothing specific set up on tomorrow’s schedule. Actually, there isn’t anything on the schedule at all, other than whatever Asher decides to put on it.

There are things that I would like to do, but they all take a back seat to the needs of our grandson. My wife and I give him what he needs when he needs it. If he’s hungry, we feed him, If he’s tired, we take him to bed for a nap. If he’s bored, we play with him. If he’s dirty, we wash him. Asher does not follow any kind of plan. Neither do we.

I have been trying to write on my blog for almost two weeks now, and this has been the first opportunity to get at it. Asher is asleep at the moment, and perhaps for only this moment. I may complete this essay, or I may have to stop and check on the boy before I finish typing this sentence. There is no way to predict what will happen next.

Karin and I try to meet up with friends when we can. That does not happen often. It’s not that people don’t want to hang out with us. It’s more the fact that Karin and I cannot know in advance what our situation will be the next week, or the next day, or the next hour. Our friends, understandably, want to set up a time and place for any kind of meeting. Karin and I can agree to join them at the specified time and location, but we always have to add the disclaimer: “If Asher is okay.” It has happened several times in the past that we have set up something with a friend, and then we needed to back out at the last minute. This has been frustrating for everybody involved, except maybe for Asher.

It has worked out best when our friends have come to our house to visit. Some people we know don’t like that idea, due to COVID and whatnot. We understand how they feel, and we respect their desires. On the other hand, if they can’t or won’t come here, then we are not going to see each other. That’s the bottom line.

I know I’m bitching, but I really don’t want to do that. A lot of people have situations similar to us. Some have it far worse. There are whole nations that can’t plan ahead. Look at Afghanistan. The forty million citizens of that country have no idea what tomorrow will bring. They all suffer from a sort of communal PTSD. They haven’t had any kind of steady lifestyle since the Soviets invaded their land in 1979. They have had generations of unrelieved chaos, and that condition is unlikely to change. Our lives are pretty stable in comparison to theirs.

I think about what Zen has to say about all this. Zen does not tell people not to plan. Zen tells them not to attach to the outcomes of those plans. Suffering comes with attachment to the results. Not having a plan can sometimes be liberating. If I have no schedule, then I am not constantly looking at the clock or the calendar. I can be in the present moment, which is where I should be anyway. I don’t have to worry about what I will be doing. I just give my full attention to whatever I am already doing.

Years ago, when I was in the Army, I was assigned as the operations officer for a helicopter company at Fort Ord, CA. All I did all day, every day, was plan and organize. I was good at it. Eventually, I learned the limitations of my skills.

There was a joke in the Army about making plans. We used to spend endless hours writing detailed operation orders (OPORDs) for military exercises. The joke was that once the exercise actually started, you just threw away the entire plan. Often we did.

One time we had to organize a very complicated joint operation with the Navy. The Navy was supposed take Army infantrymen on to their ships, and land these soldiers on the beach at Big Sur. Then my unit was supposed to fly them in our helicopters from the beach and then over the coastal mountains to Fort Hunter Liggett in the Salinas Valley. It required us to make three round trip flights to transport all the troops. Everything had to synchronized. We planned and practiced these maneuvers for months.

The big day came. We made the first flight with no problems. The execution was flawless. Then we got an emergency call over the radio saying that the fuel was contaminated. They had found water in the jet fuel that was in all the helicopters.

Game over.

We all landed immediately. Each pilot found a horizontal surface and planted his or her aircraft there. As it turned out later, the fuel test was inaccurate. There was no contamination. We could have done the entire mission with no problem. All the planning was for naught.

Asher is up. He’s smiling at me.

I’m done here.

Taking People for Granted

September 6th, 2021

“Once Khidr went to the king’s palace and made his way right up to the throne. Such was the strangeness of his appearance that none dared to stop him.

The king, who was Ibrahim ben Adam, asked him what he was looking for.

The visitor said, ‘I am looking for a sleeping place in caravanserai.’

Ibrahim answered, ‘This is no caravanserai, this is my palace.’

The stranger said, ‘Whose was it before you?’

‘My father’s,’ said Ibrahim.

‘And before that?’

‘My grandfather’s.’

‘And this place, where people come and go, staying and moving on, you call other than a caravanserai?’ “

from The Way of the Sufi

Father Michael gave the homily at Mass on Sunday. The topic of his sermon was how we often taking others for granted. We assume (I know I do) that a person we love and need will be always be there for us, even when experience proves that assumption to be false at times. Our relationships with other people are fragile and transient, and therefore precious. Individuals enter our lives unexpectedly, and then leave in the same way.

Our grandson, Asher, came into our lives quite suddenly nine months ago. He was born two months premature, and his arrival took us a bit by surprise. After four weeks in the NICU, the little boy came into our home, and he has been part of our family ever since. We love this baby, and we are amazed at how quickly he is growing and developing. The fact is that every morning we meet a new child when we first see Asher. He is not the person he was last month, or last week, or even yesterday. He is constantly with us, but he is already in the process of leaving us.

Over the years, many people have entered my life, stayed a while, and then left again. Some of them I failed to appreciate until they were gone. I have tried to maintain contact with a number of them, with middling success. Sometimes our relationship can continue in a different fashion than before. Sometimes that is not possible, and with great reluctance I have had to let them go.

People leave our lives for various reasons. Sometimes they move far away. Geographical distance does not always doom a friendship, but it can make it difficult to keep alive. Often people change. Their attitudes and values shift, and the things that we held in common no longer exist. Without continuous interaction, a friend can quickly become a stranger. Life events split friends apart. The arrival of Asher into our family has forced me to curtail many outside activities. This in turn has weakened or ended the connections I had with those who shared my interests.

People die. Two of my friends have died during the last year. They are irretrievably gone. There is no chance of us reuniting in this world. As I grow older, this very permanent separation happens more often.

I thought about my wife and myself, as I listened to the priest’s sermon on Sunday.

My wife and I take pains to appreciate each other. Since we have to care for Asher full time, we need to do that as a team. It is impossible for one of us to raise Asher alone. Karin and I are very aware of our mortality. We are both in our 60’s, and neither of us knows how much more time we have on earth.

We do not take each other for granted.

Spiritual Guides

August 30th, 2021

I got an email from a religious sister I know. A guy had contacted her to ask for help with a course he was taking at a local retreat center. The class was called the “Spiritual Guide Training Program”. He told Sister that he needed two “seekers”, people whom he could guide at no cost themselves, in order to complete this one-year program. Sister told me to contact him if I was interested .

I did.

I emailed the man, and we set up an appointment for a Zoom meeting to talk about the process. He needs a person (actually two people) to meet with him in person or virtually once a month for several months. That is a requirement he needs to meet in order to get certified by the retreat center as a spiritual guide.

The Zoom meeting lasted a bit less than an hour, and I found it extremely frustrating. I suspect he did too.

I have previous experience with “spiritual guides”. Some of it was wonderful. Some of it not so much. I have had the most trouble with persons who advertise themselves as “spiritual guides or spiritual directors”. I have no issue with people who have extensive training in the field. I regularly consult with two rabbis I know, and a with couple Catholic deacons. I know several Buddhist dharma teachers who are willing to give me guidance. Being trained in spiritual matters is often helpful, but it is not always a guarantee of competence. I have known priests and other religious professionals who were incapable of providing useful advice. A title or a diploma may or may not mean anything.

My wife, Karin, spoke to me about my meeting with this new spiritual guide. She said,

“With this sort of thing, the two people have to ‘click’. You are hard to ‘click’ with.”

Oh, so true. I am a difficult person to read, especially at the beginning. I seldom make good first impressions. I tend to alienate people rather quickly. It takes a while for somebody to get past my gruff exterior and find out that there is a gruff interior too. Sometimes, they find something worthwhile once they get to know me, but few people last that long.

This guy didn’t.

I asked the man straight out, “What makes you competent to be a spiritual guide?”

He was a bit taken aback. He replied,

“I’m not an expert, but I’ve been doing this as both a seeker and a guide for fourteen years.”

“Doing what?”

The prospective spiritual guide told me about the process we would use, and it made little sense to me. I told him,

“That’s rather vague and amorphous.”

He attempted to explain, “Well, there is no curriculum to this. It’s not like there are books to read, and homework. A person comes to me, and tells me what is bothering him or her, and I respond to what they say. Most of my job is to listen.”

“Are you a good listener?”

He nodded.

“And people actually tell you this?”

He nodded again.

I thought for a while and I asked him, “What do plan on getting out of all this? Are you expecting to help me somehow? Are you going to learn something?”

He replied, “My main goal is to complete this course I am taking. I need to work with seekers for some months in order to finish the class and get ‘official’ approval from the retreat center.”

“So, you’re telling me that you are using me to get this official oky-doky from the retreat center to be a spiritual guide?”

He shrugged, “Well, that’s true to a certain extent, but there is more to it than that. You see…”

I stopped listening for a while. He finally finished talking. I admired his candor, but I was angry at the notion of being a means to an end.

I asked him, “Why should I trust you?”

That stopped him dead. “Well, at this point, you shouldn’t trust me.”

“Yesterday, I talked and drank beer with my friend from the synagogue. We had a heart to heart, and solved no problems. I have other people I can talk to. Why should I talk to you?”

That bothered him. “Well, this process isn’t for everyone. If a person thinks that their lives are good already, and they don’t want to do any personal reflection, then this won’t work.”

All during this conversation, the man had asked almost nothing about me. Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seemed like he didn’t give a damn about my life.

He went on, “What a seeker gets out of this is what they bring to the table. Have I answered your questions about the process?”

“Yeah, I know now that when we meet, I will do all the work, and you’ll sit there.”

“That’s not completely true.”

I had had enough.

“Okay, let’s do this. Right now you know nearly nothing about me. I’m a writer. I will send you some links to what I have written. That is how you can know me. Read some of it, and decide if you want to deal with me.”

He responded quickly, “I can see you got it all handled already. This won’t work.”

“Agreed.”

I left the meeting.

I’ve been thinking about who have been my best spiritual guides. They have been the veterans who were patients in the VA psych ward. They have been homeless people I have met on the street. They have Native American elders who walked with me for miles and miles. They have Buddhist monks who gave me food, shelter, and love. One has been an old Jew who fed me beers while telling stories about the Baal Shem Tov. One was an elderly Black man who gave me moonshine and told me about growing up on Chicago’s Southside. None of them ever called themselves spiritual guides.

My very best guide has been my nine month old grandson, Asher. He has taught more about myself than any other person on earth.

The man taking the spiritual guide class may in fact do excellent work. I don’t know. I won’t know.

Maybe he would be better off going to bartending school.

Background Noise

August 24th, 2021

“The white noise of an industrial and commercial society drowns out our ability to think.”
― Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls

“War is peace.” – George Orwell, 1984

How many people gave any thought to Afghanistan before August 15th, the day that Kabul fell to the the Taliban? Let’s see a show of hands.

Hmmm…I thought so. Damn near nobody.

The truth is that I wasn’t thinking about that place much either.

The almost universal lack of interest in Afghanistan prior to the complete collapse of the nation’s government is no surprise. After the initial invasion of that country twenty years ago, we slowly forgot that there was a war being fought there. If we didn’t forget about the war, we simply ignored it.

We were encouraged by our government to ignore the war. George W. told us to go shopping after 9/11, apparently because it was our patriotic duty to keep the consumer economy humming. The Bush administration wanted to avoid at all costs the domestic nastiness of the Vietnam War. Afghanistan was going to be fought by a volunteer army half way around the world. Somebody else’s kid would fight and die in that place. There would be no pictures of coffins or body bags coming home to be buried. Nobody would bother to report on the Afghani civilians being killed by drones or bombs. The billions upon billions of dollars spent to fight the Taliban would all go on the national credit card to be paid by future generations. The following administrations in Washington went along with that program. Spend the blood and the money, and keep it all quiet.

For twenty years that plan worked. We fought a war that almost felt like peace. There were no Victory gardens, no instances of gasoline rationing, no sacrifices of any kind for the vast majority of people. A few malcontents, like me, would occasionally bitch about this endless war, but very few Americans cared. We all slapped “Support the Troops!” stickers on our car bumpers, and we were more than willing to shake the hand of any person in uniform, telling them earnestly,

“Thank you for your service!”

Occasionally, the truth slipped in through the cracks. I remember meeting a few Afghanistan vets in the psych ward of the local VA hospital. They were hurting, and they are just the beginning of a flood of patients that will eventually overwhelm the mental health services of the VA. I remember my son, Hans, talking about his old Army buddies who were in Afghanistan, either as soldiers or as contractors. I used to get emails from Voices for Creative Non-violence about the suffering of the Afghan civilian population. For all those years, the only people who cared about Afghanistan were the folks who personally knew somebody who was there

Now, somehow, everybody seems to care.

Why?

Americans care now because we can all see the the emperor has no clothes. The ugly truth about the war is all out in the open, and we are embarrassed. We still don’t care about the Afghani people. Most of us never did. We really don’t care about the troops, unless we have a son or daughter who fought in the war (my kid fought in Iraq). We care about Afghanistan now because we look bad. We look weak.

In a few days the evacuation will be complete.

In a few months, maybe weeks, we won’t care any more.

It Don’t Mean Nothin’

August 20th, 2021

Hans called me yesterday. He’s called me a few times recently, especially since Kabul fell to the Taliban. Hans was never deployed to Afghanistan. He went to Iraq instead. He was in Iraq in the latter part of 2011, when U.S. forces were supposed to leave that country permanently. Of course, when ISIS started rampaging through Iraq, American troops returned. Now I guess we’re leaving Iraq again. It seems like we don’t know if we’re coming or going, literally.

Hans told me on the phone,

“I haven’t heard anything yet from my buddy in Afghanistan.”

I asked him, “He’s the contractor?”

“Yeah. I’m going with idea that he made it to some other country, and then he turned off his phone and got drunk.”

I said, “You could be right.”

Hans replied, “Well, there’s nothing else I can do.”

That’s true. A lot of people, Americans and allies of Americans, are stuck in Afghanistan, and it is iffy that they will all make it out of the country. I knew a guy, Scott, who quit his job as a truck driver here to go to Iraq to transport fuel. I think he was working for Halliburton in Iraq. They paid him a ridiculous amount of money to drive a tanker truck over there, but then they never guaranteed that he would live long enough to spend it. Scott made back to the U.S. He was lucky. Hans’ old Army buddy might not make it back home. The guy took a calculated risk, and maybe he bet wrong.

I know a woman who is a long time peace activist. She has been working for years with young people, especially young women, in Kabul. Her friends in Afghanistan are now in limbo. This woman and other people, like me, would like to help get these folks to safety. But how? We don’t know yet.

While we still on the phone, Hans told me,

“I saw this picture, or cartoon, or whatever, about Afghanistan. It shows an Afghanistan vet sitting with his head in his hands, and this old Vietnam vet puts his hand on the young guy’s shoulder and tells him, ‘Just tell yourself it don’t mean nothin’…that worked for us’. I mean there’s two negatives in the sentence, but I get what the Vietnam vet is trying to say. We felt that way in Iraq too.”

vets

All this suffering, and “it don’t mean nothin'”?

The Long Haul

August 15th, 2021

“War is a poor chisel to carve out tomorrow.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Elusive dreams and vague desires fanned to fiery needs by deadly deeds of falling empires.” -Joni Mitchell

A reasonable argument can be made that the United States is more of an empire than a republic. We don’t possess vast tracts of land throughout the world like the British did (“The sun never sets on the Union Jack”). However, we do have economic, political, and military interests all over the planet. The difference between being and “empire” and a “superpower” is probably semantic. In any case, we have our fingers everywhere.

One of our fingers just got burned.

Kabul is falling even as I write this essay. Our twenty year occupation of Afghanistan is coming to an ignominious end. Thousands of lives (both American and Afghani), hundreds of billions of dollars, and two decades of time have been wasted on trying to turn Afghanistan from a tribal society into a functioning, Western-style democracy. Was this venture doomed to fail?

Probably.

I am certain that thousands of articles will be written about this period in our history. I am sure that any number of people will be blamed for this debacle. It is guaranteed that our nation’s efforts to transform Afghanistan will be analyzed and over-analyzed for years to come.

I might as well get started. I am only going to pick one aspect of the war in Afghanistan. I just want to look at how long we have been there.

Twenty years to an American is forever. Our country is like a teenager with ADHD. We simply cannot remain focused. We are completely unable to take the long view on anything. What amazes me is that we stayed even that long in Afghanistan. However, it wasn’t long enough.

Successful empires stay in place for long time. The Roman Empire lasted from 27 BC to 476 AD (or until 1453 AD, if you count Byzantium as being a vestige of the empire). The Romans put an indelible stamp on the peoples they ruled. Consider how many countries speak languages based on Latin. The British were no slouches either. They ruled areas of India from 1757 to 1947. That is almost two hundred years. How many countries in the world have more English speakers than India?

I read once that the reason the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years was so that no one would remain alive who remembered the bad old days in Egypt. God apparently wanted no nostalgia for the bread and fleshpots of Goshen. The people who entered the Promised Land were a fresh generation, ready to start something new.

If we had really wanted to change Afghanistan, we would have committed to stay there for forty years, or maybe one hundred years. We would have remained until nobody remembered the Taliban. We would have occupied the country until the culture there was so different that nobody would have wanted to return to the old ways of doing things.

We never made that kind of commitment. Maybe we, as a people, were just unable to hang in there for the long haul. If we couldn’t go all the way, then we shouldn’t have gone there at all.

On the Receiving End

August 11th, 2021

“God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving.”

– Pope Francis

Jim came over to our house on Tuesday evening. He comes here almost every Tuesday around 6:00. Jim is an older gentleman who goes to our church. He is a member of the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic organization which serves the poverty-stricken in our community. On Tuesdays Jim helps out at the meal program in Racine. The people at the meal program feed the poor and the homeless. At the end of the program, Jim packs up a couple meals, drives to our home, and brings us supper.

In a way it’s strange that Jim would bring food to us. Karin and I are not, by any objective standard, poor. We have a house, two cars, and every material thing we need in order to live comfortably. We do not lack money.

We lack time.

Karin and I are full time caregivers for our grandson, Asher. Asher is eight months old. He is a wonderful little boy, and we love him dearly. However, he is high maintenance. Babies are like that. We almost never have time to cook ourselves a meal. It just doesn’t happen. Jim knows that, so he brings us food.

On Tuesday Jim pulled up into our driveway while we were on our front porch. Karin was sitting in her rocking chair, holding Asher on her lap. I was standing next to her. Jim brought us two plastic grocery bags with Styrofoam containers in them. Jim smiled and handed me the bags. He looked happily at Asher and said,

“Asher always has a smile for me! I really get a kick out of that boy!”

Asher did have a wide grin on his round face. he often smiles at people.

Jim asked us how we were doing. Then he turned to leave. He shouted,

“God bless you all!”

We yelled back, “God bless you too!”

Jim got into his car and said,

“See you at church!”

The food in the Styrofoam containers was good: hot dogs, potato salad, and baked beans. It occurred to me that what Karin and I ate was exactly what a homeless person was eating that day. It made me think and remember.

Several years ago, Karin and I volunteered at a meal program, which was also run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. This particular soup kitchen was on the south side of Milwaukee in a building that was once a library. Food was provided each evening by a variety of churches and civic organizations. At that time, Karin and I belonged to a church that served a meal on one Tuesday every month. Our church always, without fail, brought spaghetti with a meat sauce. We also brought along bread, salad, fruit, and dessert. We made sure that we had a big plastic bucket of parmesan cheese. We had to have cheese.

The folks at St. Vincent de Paul set up the serving line for us. Those of us who were from our church took positions on the line. One person served the spaghetti, one person served a salad, one person gave each guest a dessert, etc. I usually wound up serving the parmesan cheese. Once we were all at our posts, the St. Vincent de Paul people let the guests into the dining facility. It was like opening the flood gates.

It was impossible to predict how many people would come for a free meal. Sometimes only one hundred people showed up. Other nights we had almost four hundred hungry customers. We made sure that we had more than enough food, just in case traffic was heavy. But somehow, we never had enough parmesan cheese. I always had to ration that. I had to use a tiny ladle, and it never seemed like I could give out enough cheese to satisfy our guests.

The population that wanders into a meal site is eclectic. Some guests look clean and sober. Some look rough, really rough. People come to the soup kitchen for a variety of reasons, not just for the food. In winter they come in simply to have a warm place to sit for a while. Some come inside just so they don’t have to be alone. Some really like spaghetti.

When people would come to me for their dollop of parmesan, I would first ask them if they wanted any. Some didn’t. Some would say, “No, my doctor tells me that I shouldn’t eat that.” Some would just shake their heads in my direction. Some would give me a blank stare like I didn’t exist.

Most of the guests wanted the parmesan. They would say, “Hey, just spread it over the sauce. There, that’s good.” Or they would ask, “Could I get another scoop of the cheese? I really like that.”

It was hard for me to decide if I should give a guest extra cheese, because there might be a couple hundred people behind him or her. I usually ladled out a bit more to them, and then they moved on to the next station. Sometimes they got irritated and asked, “Is that all? Are you paying for it with your own money?” I tried to explain that I had to make the cheese last so that everyone would get some. Often, that reasoning made no impression on the cheese aficionado.

For a long time I wondered at how much importance these people put on a spoonful of grated cheese. It was always a big deal to them. I hard trouble understanding that.

Finally, I realized that they really didn’t give a damn about the cheese. They just wanted somebody, anybody, to care about their desires and needs. These folks had probably spent the whole day wandering the streets, where other people were doing the best to ignore their existence. Some of the guests were invisible to the rest of the world until they got into the serving line. Then somebody (me) actually saw them and heard them. For a brief moment, I cared about them, even though they were total strangers to me. These people were definitely hungry. They came into the meal site starving for respect and love.

The people at the meal site in Racine don’t know Karin and me. They feed us anyway. For a long time Karin and I gave. Now we receive.

An Inside Joke

August 2nd, 2021

Karin and I were watching a movie on Netflix. I had to get up to make Asher, our baby grandson, a bottle. As I was warming it, Karin called to me and said,

“Hey! When you come back here, you have to see this scene in the movie! This is really funny!”

Karin and I (and Asher) were viewing “The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch”, a Swiss film about an young Orthodox Jew who, well, expands his horizons. In the movie Motti gets a schickse, a non-Jewish girlfriend. This leads to awkward moments with his overprotective mother.

The story takes place in Zürich, and the dialogue is mostly in German, with some Yiddish and Hebrew mixed into it. Karin and I watched the show in German, since we both speak the language (Karin is from Germany). Yiddish is similar to German, so we could understand most of that. The Hebrew was too much for me, even though I know a few words of it. It helps me to watch a film in the original language. Too many small things get lost in translation.

The part of the movie that Karin mentioned to me really was quite funny. In that scene, Motti imagines bringing his schickse to meet his mother. His mom is cooking in the kitchen when Motti introduces his gentile Liebling. Motti visualizes his mother flying into a rage and threatening to kill them both with a carving knife. Motti reacts by telling his mother,

“Mama! No! Don’t use that knife! It’s for cutting cheese! Use the knife for cutting meat!”

Motti’s mother pauses in shock. She puts down the cheese knife, grabs a meat carving blade, and proceeds with her attempt to murder her son and his main squeeze.

If a person is Jewish, or has been hanging around with Jewish friends for a while, they will know that many Orthodox Jews essentially have two separate kitchens; one for meat and one for dairy. Each section of the kitchen has its own cooking utensils, dishes, pots and pans. These things are never, EVER, mixed or used together. That is strictly verboten under the rules of kashrut.

So, on one level the movie scene is funny for pretty much everybody, but it is hilarious to somebody who knows even a little about Jewish culture. It is an inside joke.

I have been an unofficial member of an Orthodox synagogue for about a dozen years. Does that mean I understand Jewish culture? No, not really. I do have a vague sense of it, but I would be lying to say that I completely comprehend all the subtleties. I understand enough that I can get the jokes.

I think that a person has a good feel for a particular culture if they can understand the humor. Some people watch shows from the BBC, and say that they can’t understand British humor. The implication is that they don’t understand the British culture overall.

This reminds me of when I was wandering around the United States three years ago with some Native Americans from AIM. I traveled with a ragtag group for a couple months, going from reservation to reservation. For me it was like a very intensive immersion program. Two of the younger members of the group, Tony and Suzi, turned me on to YouTube videos from a Native American comedy team, the “1491s”. The videos were hysterical (I especially liked the video entitled “The Slapping Medicine Man”). What struck me was that they were funny to me partly because I had been hanging out with the Indians, and I could recognize some of the inside jokes. I don’t pretend to understand the Native Americans. I only got a brief taste of their culture, but I got enough that I could get their humor. That felt good.

There was time, many years ago, when I was first learning about Buddhism, that I attended a dharma talk. A dharma talk is a lecture about Buddhist meditation practice. Andy, one of the teachers, gave a short presentation. He was remarkably serious during his talk, and he made it clear to everyone present in the Zen Center that meditation was extremely important. At the end of his monologue he paused and said,

“I want you all to know that everything I just said was meaningless bullshit.”

Then he placed his palms together in gassho and bowed to us.

I laughed, and I was completely sold on Zen at that moment. At one level, Zen is an extremely earnest effort to find enlightenment. On another level, it is theatre of the absurd. Zen has an underlying foundation of paradox, and somebody is always trying to fuck with your mind. If a person takes Zen too seriously, then they don’t get the joke.

I am by ancestry a Slav (a Slovenian to be exact). Slavs have a decidedly dry (and occasionally morbid) sense of humor. It is, like anchovies, an acquired taste. Years ago, my brother bought me a t-shirt with a picture of Joseph Stalin on it. The shirt had the following quote from the Soviet dictator:

“Dark humor is like food. Not everyone gets it.”

That’s totally twisted, but funny in Slavic sort of way.

I have found these sorts of peculiar humor to be true with other people I have encountered. I have a friend from Tunisia, Mohamed. He is a devout Muslim. I was helping him to deliver some furniture to some Rohingya refugees when he made a comment to me about how Muslims often qualify future actions by saying “insha’allah” (if God wills).

Mohamed laughed and told me, “When we say ‘insha’allah’, it means we will never get around to it.”

Do you get the joke?

Through a Glass Darkly

July 27th, 2021

 “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:12

“The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.” – Thales

“Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.” – Alan Watts

I got a text a couple days ago from my sister-in-law, Shawn. She wrote:

“You were in the Eagle yesterday.” (“The Eagle” is the local newspaper in College Station, Texas. That is where Shawn resides.)

She continued in her next text:

“A much edited version of what I had written on my blog.”

I wrote back to her, “That’s disturbing.”

I got a “LOL” back from her.

I did not know what she was talking about, so I asked her to send me a link to the article. Shawn writes a regular column in “The Eagle”. She generally writes about religion.

Shawn wrote about my interactions with members of various faith traditions. Everything she wrote was positive. However, reading the article made me uneasy. I kept thinking,

“Did I actually say that? Did I do that? Is this what I am like?”

It was like the feeling I get when I hear a recording of my own voice. It takes a moment for me to realize, “Oh yeah, that’s me.”

There is nothing in Shawn’s essay that struck me as being incorrect. I am certain that she was as accurate as she could be. It just felt weird to see myself through someone else’s eyes. I write about other people all the time (I’m doing it right now), and I assume that I am being objective.

Maybe I’m not.

I don’t really know other people very well. The fact is that I don’t myself very well either. As the Apostle Paul said, “We see through a glass darkly.” Maybe God knows me, but He doesn’t like to pass on that information.

The Buddhists insist that there is no “me” to know. The “I” that I think I know is simply an illusion, a mirage. Maybe they’re right.

Maybe my goal in life is discover who I really am.

I haven’t figured that out yet.

Here is her article. Read it if you want.

“Journey through other beliefs leads to better understanding of personal faith”

Sitting on cushions at a low table, enjoying shisha from a shared hookah, I have set out to interview Frank, my first late husband’s oldest brother, about his experiences of inter-religious dialogue.

Shawn Chapman

I have been reflecting on Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on the relationship of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions. It seems to me that Frank is a living example of what respectful friendship between the faiths could look like if taken seriously and personally, lived out in individual relationships and respectful, curious overtures, even shared prayer.

Francis K. Pauc is a West Point graduate, Army veteran, father and volunteer. He is a recently retired dock foreman of a shipping company, a devout Catholic who is active in his parish, and he agreed to talk about his journey.

He is also the token Catholic at the Buddhist Sangha at Milwaukee Zen Center, frequent attendee of the Orthodox Jewish synagogue in his area, and he now and then hangs out at his local mosque. He is a regular visitor at the Sikh temple in his neighborhood.

Fortunately, his journey learning about other faiths is among his favorite subjects.

When did he first learn about other religions, I ask.

Frank says his first real look at another religion was learning about Islam in the Army, since he had to learn Arabic. Then he took a refresher course in Arabic, years later, at a Muslim culture center. He made friends there. They didn’t talk about faith all the time. They moved from learning Arabic to talking about their kids, their wives, their work, their daily lives.

After 9/11, Frank wanted to do something personal to cross the widening divide in our country between non-Muslim Americans and Muslim Americans. He ended up going by the mosque. He found the front locked so he went around back to the kitchen. “I thought you guys might need friends.”

“Are you Muslim?”

“No. I am a Catholic.”

Frank is the only person I know who would show up to an unfamiliar place of worship and ask, “Anybody want to talk about God?”

Years ago, Frank says, he became curious about the Sikh temple in his neighborhood. He smiles when he remembers his visits there. “They always feed you. You never leave without eating.”

The desire for contemplative prayer was what got Frank to visit the Zen Center in the first place. He had tried to find a place to learn forms of Christian contemplative prayer and practice in a group and had not found one. So he went and sat with the Buddhists. Frank became part of the life of the Sangha, even though there are some things that as a Catholic he can’t do.

He decided to learn more, and he loved hanging around. They appreciated his thoughts as a Christian. He liked sitting in silence with them.

Going to “Zen practice” regularly brought visible changes to Frank. He became more open, peaceful, even playful, less grumpy.

He says getting to know his friends at the Zen Center helped him delve into his own faith and prayer traditions all the more.

“It’s made me a better Catholic.”

He says learning about how other people love and understand God is an act of love.

I asked him what drew him to visit the Orthodox synagogue in particular. He said it was because that was the closest synagogue to his house. “What made you want to learn more about Judaism?” One of his more rare expressions crosses his face; an innocent, child-like look. “Because I wanted to understand.”

He says he became close with the rabbi there and began to take Hebrew lessons. He was often invited to dinner at the rabbi’s house, and even to Passover. He says he doesn’t think anyone can have the fullest appreciation for their Christianity if they don’t get to know Judaism. He said attending their liturgies changed him as a lector at his parish. He grew in his appreciation of the Scripture and reading the Old Testament at Mass was a more profound experience after seeing the solemn and reverent way it is read in the synagogue.

He still likes going to the synagogue regularly.

Frank says Jesus was a good Jew, and that he thinks of Jesus as his older brother. I smile, remembering that is what John Paul II said about the Jewish people. They are our older brother.

I say that it strikes me that his inter-religious ministry and journey seem to be about making personal connections, about being a friend. He agrees with that, though he says he is less conscious of that than just wanting to understand others and share with them. He feels compelled about this.

He says he is most impressed by the people who are deeply and “completely sold” on their religion. He respects those who have “their faith woven into the fabric of their everyday life. When it’s just who they are.” Those are the people it’s easiest to talk to, and who return the interest he gives to them about their faith.

At times he has wondered if he should stop hanging around Buddhists and the Orthodox Jews. They were quick to say they needed him around and enjoyed what he had to say. They felt spiritually uplifted by him.

At one time in his life, following a series of crises, he struggled with his faith. It was his friends at the Zen Center and the synagogue who said, “Whatever you do, don’t leave the Catholic church.” They cared more than anyone else, he said.

(Bryan resident Shawn Manning Chapman, a twice-widowed mom of two daughters, is a Secular Discalced)

An Open Book

July 24th, 2021

“Privacy is dead. We live in a world of instantaneous, globalized gossip. The idea that there is a ‘private’ sphere and a ‘public’ sphere for world leaders, politicians or anyone in the public eye is slowly disintegrating. The death of privacy will have a profound effect on who our leaders will be in the future.”

Gavin Esler

“Yeah, I’m an open book.” – Amy Winehouse

Are the Internet and social media destroying the whole idea of privacy? Maybe. Maybe not. They did not begin the process. The erosion of privacy started long before these things existed. The forces of our digital age have simply accelerated the trend. It requires very little effort to learn something about almost any person living on this planet. A few well placed clicks can tell you whatever you want to know about someone. People could be anonymous a generation ago, if they wanted to be. No more.

There is no place to hide.

In 1975 I applied to go to West Point. The U.S Army put together a rather extensive file about me before the military ever agreed to let me join up. This was back in the days of rotary phones, typewriters, and filing cabinets. God only knows what the government can do now.

Is there any information about a person that is sacrosanct? Is there anything that is still considered personal and private?

I’m not sure. I doubt it.

I taught a citizenship class for several years. Immigrants came to me to study for the interview with USCIS. They usually had already filled out their application for U.S. citizenship, the N-400. The N-400 was (and is) a tremendously complicated document. The U.S. government wants to know everything about the prospective citizen: arrests and convictions, work history, names and status of any children, travel to foreign countries, etc. The government even wants to know personal information about the applicant’s ex-spouse(s). Who keeps track of their ex-spouse’s current address? If you want to become a U.S. citizen, you do.

Does the government really need all of this data? Who knows? The Department of Homeland Security can justify asking damn near any question in the name of national security. In any case, the Feds already know most of this information, because the applicant had to supply it when he or she got their green card to live in this country as a permanent resident.

When immigrants would ask me for advice about what to put on the application (if they had not already completed it), I would just suggest to them to tell the truth and to omit nothing. I encouraged them to assume the government already knows the facts, or can easily find them. The Feds look for fraud on the applications. If an applicant lies on the N-400, they’re done. Game over.

The applicant for U.S. citizenship has no privacy, and has no alternatives. The person seeking to become an American has to tell the bureaucrats in the U.S. government everything they want to know, no matter how intrusive. If the applicant balks at this requirement, they do not become a citizen. It’s that simple.

I have a similar situation with the State of Wisconsin. I am applying for certification as a foster parent. The state wants this more than I do, but I understand that I need to be certified in order to care for a small child. The state’s vetting process is at least as thorough as that of the Feds. I had to fill out two “safety surveys”, forms which ask intimate questions about my life from my earliest childhood until the present moment. Then I had to participate in an interview to go over my answers in more depth. The interview was like a warm and fuzzy interrogation. I talked to the licensing specialist for over two and a half hours about things in my past that I didn’t even want to remember, much less discuss with a stranger. The session was extremely stressful for me. I felt emotionally naked by the end of it.

In applying for the foster parent certification, I gave my entire life story to the State of Wisconsin. There are now people working for the government who know as much about me as my wife does. I am not happy with this situation, but I did what I had to do. Like the immigrant seeking citizenship, I had no privacy and no alternatives.

I have been railing against the government here, but it is not the only institution invading our privacy. Corporations do it all the time. I saw that every time I applied for a job.

I give up.

I am an open book.