Monday, February 20, 2017

800 Words - Number One

800 is a number.  Eight-hundred is a word.  Words? Numbers?  What is that all about?  Have there always been words? Numbers? I think not.  There was a time when there were no numbers or words.  A time when we were just here… and not talking about it. 

During those times, we lived in small groups.  Everyone in each group knew what everyone else was thinking, knew where everyone had been, and had a good idea of where everyone was going.

Then, as small groups grew, it became difficult to know everyone, much less what they were thinking, or where they were at any given time, not to mention where they had come from or what they had done. 

Then there was the history issue.  I don’t mean the musty recording of who did what to whom.  I mean the know this or die kind of history: like where the bad animals lived, the location of tar pits and quick sand, and the ways of the humans who lived just over that ridge, the ones who seemed to delight in killing members of other bands.

Words became necessary if humans were to survive on earth.  They were essential for communicating our history, our ideas, our plans, everything.  And what of numbers?  They are required to add dimension to language by specifying time, magnitude and size.  For example, if you and I were having a conversation and I said, “Words,” that would be meaningless, until I added at least one number, say 800.

So, if I said 800 words, you’d know the exact number of words I was talking about, though, unless you’re a writer, you probably don’t know what 800 words looks like.  To give you a reference point, this is word number 305 in this post; or slightly over 38% of 800.  The piece still has a way to go to hit 800.

For me, 1,000 words has always been a benchmark of sorts.  It separates the recording of an idle thought from something more serious, even if the 1,000 is only the bare beginning of a string that will ultimately be 50,000 – 75,000 words; an acceptable novel length today. 

When I was searching for entertainment and saw 800 Words, the title of a Acorn series, I was interested.  I knew what it was about.  At least, I knew part of it.   I knew there would be a writer, charged with stringing together 800 words for a definite purpose.  That’s all I had to know to continue exploring the story line.   

This is the description of the show that I found on IMDb: A recently widowed father, quits his job as a popular 800-word columnist for a top selling Sydney newspaper. Over the internet, he buys a house on an impulse in a remote New Zealand seaside town. He then has to break the news to his two teenage kids who just lost their mum, and now face an even more uncertain future. But the colourful and inquisitive locals ensure his dream of a fresh start does not go to plan.

Another click and I discovered that last month (Jan 2017), the producers of the show announced that it had been renewed for a third season.  The description, the two-season run and the renewal were more than enough for us to take a chance.  That was four days and four episodes ago.  Yep, we’re hooked.  If this were simply a review of a TV show, this is the place where I would say, “Good writing, good characters, great acting, fantastic location, entertaining, etc. etc.” and I would end by saying, “Watch it, you’ll like it.”  I would include a link - Like this.

However, this is a bit more than a TV series review.  This is the story of an idea.  Unrelated to watching 800 Words, yesterday, Christina and I were talking about writing when she said, “I’ve learned, finally, that my writing skills are only improved by one thing – writing.”

Currently she is working on a collection short stories that are marvelous.  The key word in that sentence is working.  She labors over each word as a great artist focuses on every brush stroke.  The effort expended is evident in the results. 

Though I didn’t comment on her comment, it hit home.  I knew what she said was true, and I knew I’d been very lax with my writing – note, that comment translates: I’ve not written a word for a while.

So, my brain immediately connected the conversation with the show, 800 Words, and added this thought, I can write 800 words.  I can do that every day.  No matter how busy I am, or think I am, I can write 800 words.  And then I thought, I’ll do it. 

And I looked at the word counter.  It read 800

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Good Intentions of the Well Placed

In a recent comment to a blog post, Claude Forthomme, a friend, writer, economist, and expert on the United Nations, said:

"As a Vietnam veteran, I'm also sure you are well-placed, indeed, better placed than most, to know how important the US Constitution is, how vital it is for your democracy, and, ipso facto, for all democracies around the world where freedom still has meaning and is still valued - we are indeed stepping into dangerous times in which populist talk of "the rule of the people" seems to displace respect and regard for those who hold different points of views and needs."

I started several responses, but nothing I wrote came close to saying what I wanted to say.  I stared at the page for a while then emailed Claude directly and said I wanted to sleep on my response and would address her comment in a separate post.  This is that post.

I believe I know what you're getting at, Claude, when you said, "As a Vietnam veteran, I'm also sure you are well-placed, indeed, better placed than most, to know how important the US Constitution is... however, my being a Vietnam vet erased my blind belief in the magic of the much-bandied political document that begins "We the people..." In fact, my experience not only erased my belief in the power of the US Constitution but in the power of the written word, period - that includes all constitutions, all contracts, all sacred writings, all words - period.

Documents, political, sacred or not so, profound or whimsical are no more or less than the person or persons implementing them.  

Here's a better way to make my point.  Michael Connelly is one of best selling writers in the country, probably the world, and I'm one of his biggest fans.  I love his characters Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, and I've read all the books about them.  However, for years they were only characters in books - they were words: entertaining and often inspiring, but still, just words.  In that regard, those books are no different, for me, than the US Constitution.

Something magical happened to the US Constitution and the same thing happened to the Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller books.  Individuals came forward and brought the words to life.  With the US Constitution it was the men who wrote it, signed it, and sold the people of the United States on it.  It was John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and you know all the rest. With Harry Bosch, it was Titus Welliver and with Mickey Haller it was Matthew McConaughey.

When those people breathed life into the document in question and the books I mentioned, magic happened.  Now, as far as the US Constitution is concerned, the magic is gone.  Abused, manipulated, misrepresented, trampled.  It might stage a comeback but only when honest, powerful, dedicated individuals breathe new life into it.  I look forward to the day that happens.  

On the other hand, I've lived seventy-four years looking forward to the day when I'd see a United States without racism and prejudice and frankly, I don't believe we're any closer to that day than we have ever been.  

But I continue to wait for the revival of the constitution just as I wait for the next Lincoln Lawyer movie and Harry Bosch Season 3.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The New York Times and The Hotel California

Thirteen months ago, my friend Ralph sent a link to a great NY Times story about Veterans, PTSD, and Parrots.  After reading the story and blogging about it, I asked Ralph how he happened to find it.

He replied that he didn't 'happen to find it,' the NY Times Sunday Edition, along with the NY Times Magazine, appears in his driveway every Saturday night.

I figured if it could happen for Ralph it could happen for me, and I was right.  With Ralph's patient guidance, I navigated to The Times website, created an account, and signed up for home delivery of the Sunday paper.

Finding the paper in my drive every Sunday was a treat, for a while, but soon we noticed neither the paper or the NY Times Magazine is what it used to be: a gold mine of good writing.  I discovered that Charles Siebert, author of Veterans, PTSD, and Parrots, isn't the typical NY Times writer - he's good.  So I decided to cancel our subscription.

This morning (Monday, Feb 6), after searching in vain for the "cancel my subscription" link in my New York Times account folder, I emailed my cancellation request.  An auto response informed me that it might take 24 hours for them to answer.

I understood.  I'm only a subscriber, and they are the New York Times.  Now 48 hours have passed and there has been no further word from the throne room, so I sent another email, marking it 2nd request.  The auto response arrived within a minute:

Thank you for contacting The New York Times via email.

We’re sorry, but due to high demand our inbox is very full at the
moment and we won’t be able to respond right away.

While we are making our best efforts to respond in a timely manner, we
will be slower than usual in the coming days.

If you need an answer right away, please contact us by phone or chat –
Phone:  800-698-4637

You can always visit us online at – or use our automated
phone at 1-800-NYTimes (1-800-698-4637) at your convenience.

Thank you for your patience and understanding.

The New York Times Online Customer Service 

You can check-out but you can never leave
It's writing like this that prompted my decision to cancel.  It's service like this that confirms my decision.  I will continue my efforts to check out of New York's Hotel California and keep you posted on my progress, should there be any.

While you're waiting, check out Charles Siebert's book, The Wauchula Woods Accord.  I found it while I was gathering information for this post.  It has made the "check-out process" much more tolerable.

If you finish the book and still haven't heard from me, check out The Center for Great Apes, and don't miss the Welcome Video.

It was at the center that Charles Siebert met Roger.  While you're there, tell Patti and all her staff that the New York Times sent you.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

More Than "Thank You..."

This morning, more asleep than awake, I checked my email and found this message:

We are publishing your blog about West with the Night today on Venture Galleries.
Here is the link for your social media:
Bert, I have read and posted a lot of blogs during the past five years.
This one is the best I've read. Pure inspiration and pure genius.

Without thinking, I replied, "Much obliged..."

Before I hit send, I plugged in five words before the "Much obliged.."  What I added was, "as daddy used to say," because "much obliged" isn't something that I say.

A few minutes later, gazing out the window as Baker Street (as in Sherlock Holmes), the name I've given to the group of blue jays that wake me every morning with a reminder to scatter a handful of raw peanuts on the ground for them, I thought once again of the words, much obliged.

I fired up my laptop, something Daddy, gone for almost fifty years, never dreamed of, and Googled the phrase.  I found a number of definitions.  This one, from Collins English Dictionary, pretty much echoed all of them:

Much obliged - An expression used when one wants to indicate that one is very grateful for something.

That wasn't anything new to me, and I was about to leave the page when I noticed something that was new.  Just below the definition was a chart that showed the usage of the phrase over a selected number of years. I plugged in 100 years and this is what came up: 

Daddy lived in the peak usage years for the phrase, "much obliged."  After his death, in 1968, it was pretty much a forgotten term.  Understand, I don't think my daddy's passing spelled the end of the use of those two words.  

However, as Baker Street scooped up the last of the peanuts and flew away, without so much as a simple "thank you," much less a heartfelt "much obliged," I wondered, is this more than the demise of an old phrase.  I glanced at the charted trend again and got it, maybe we just aren't as grateful as we used to be.  Maybe we don't believe we have time to be very gratefulin our mad rush though time and space.  

Maybe we are only "much obliged" when we are half-asleep and do not pause to recall who we believe we are and how little time we think have....

Well, be that as it may or may not, I'm much obliged that you spent some of your time with me and Caleb and Baker Street.  You're always welcome here....

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Buddha - Jacob Needleman - Dhammapada

It is recorded that The Buddha taught for more than forty-five years.  It's evident that many of his teachings were recorded and have passed down to us.  The Dhammapada, is probably the best known of his teachings.  Translated nearly as often as the Bible, there is a version for every taste.

My favorite is Thomas Byrom's translation.  I have worn out few of the pocket sized volumes so I always have a spare or two nearby.

Of late I've spent about as much time with the Audible version of the work.  It is narrated by Jacob Needleman and there's a bonus included with that version - at the end of the book, Needleman reads his essay on Buddhism, which is far more than a definition of the religion.

There are two ways you can hear/read the essay.  Buy the Audible book, which you can do by clicking on cover and following the purchase directions or you can continue reading:

Buddhism was born in India. In its beginnings it conceived of itself not as a new religion but as a reconstitution of what is essential in the vastness of the Hindu tradition. Taken as a whole, the Hindu religion can be likened to an Olympian armed campaign with great generals dispersed abroad, their huge armies and infinitely variegated weaponry converging upon the enemy, the ego, under some divinely conceived master strategy. Compared to this, Buddhism appears upon the Indian scene as a direct hand-to-hand attack with no holds barred, striking instantly and mercilessly at the enemy’s weakest point. By and large, Buddhism has retained this quality of one-pointed practicality even amid the later flowering of a metaphysics and mythology which, in all of its aspects, rivals the entirety of Hinduism.

Put succinctly, the Buddha, who is understood to have lived and taught in the sixth century BC, taught that the principal cause of all human suffering and desolation is the deeply ingrained belief that there is such a thing as a self, or ego, that persists through time and change. Everything else in Buddhism, its art, philosophy, rituals, and techniques, originated as tools for the destruction of man’s illusion that he is a self. This doctrine of no-self or non-Atman is, as it is said, the diamond which cuts through all errors and confusions of humanity.

According to this teaching, everything in human nature is in flux, and a man is nothing but a serial bundle of sensations, thoughts, and feelings, one proceeding from another, with nothing to hold them together either in life or death. And not only man, but all things in the universe are without self, without a fixed nature that abides from moment to moment. In the endless and rigorously determined chain of cause and effect that constitutes the universe, we human beings fail by fixing our interest or desire upon one or another phenomenal aggregate, either within our self or external to our self. Therein is the root of all our sorrow. What can liberate us is the deep and thorough understanding of all things, including the personality, as causally determined processes of becoming.

Consciousness – meaning the totality of thought, feeling, perception, sensation, pleasure, and pain – is not a being but a passion, not an activity but only a sequence of reactions in which we, who have no power to be either as or when we will, are fatally involved. Individuality is motivated by and perpetuated by wanting; and the cause of all wanting is ignorance – for we ignore that the objects of our desire can never be possessed in any real sense of the word, ignore that even when we have got what we want, we still want to keep it and are still in the state of desire. The ignorance meant is of things as they really are, and the consequent attribution of substantiality to what is merely phenomenal; the seeing of self in what is not-self.

At first glance, this doctrine of no-self seems in direct opposition to the Hindu view. But if there is any general view with which the Buddhist doctrine conflicts, it is surely our own Western worldview as embodied not only in the popular understanding of Judeo-Christian doctrine but in the goals our whole civilization has set for itself.

The religions of the West have imbued us with the idea of an individual, eternal soul created by God – also, in his way, an individual – infinitely precious and irreducibly real. As our modern society drew away from religious doctrine, it substituted for the soul the idea of individual personality, not immortal perhaps, but for that very reason all the more our own and precious. The establishment of our identity, our role, has been the banner cry not only of scientific psychology but of all the major intellectual movements of modern times, including existentialism and humanism. We measure a person’s strength by what we take to be the distinctness and vividness of his individuality, and we all seek to make our mark, either as artists, scientists, or business people. To the Buddhist, all this striving is the pursuit of a phantom. The identity we seek to establish is nothing more than a thought, a picture in the mind of what we are or can be; it is in nowise based on fact. Our sense of persistence and sameness through change is a trick played upon us by the automatic functions of memory and buttressed by the fact that we are given a name and treated by others as though we were a self. Indeed, our whole society is but a vast collection of sleepwalkers each addressing the other and conceiving of himself within his own dream of selfhood. All our ideas of morality and obligation, blame and praise are based on this dream and serve only to strengthen the illusion of its reality.

Putting the Buddhist doctrine of no-self in the above way, its congruence with Hindu thought becomes clearer. We might say that for the Hindu or Brahmanic religion, human ignorance is the ignorance of who we are, of our ultimate divinity, where for Buddhism it is ignorance of what we are not. We are not this ego. It is in fact a cardinal trait of Buddhism that its teachings are in negative terms. Break down the illusion, the error, and the truth will appear by itself, for it is always there. It is only obscured and hidden by our ignorant beliefs about ourselves and the desires attached thereto.

Of all the great religious teachers of the world, none has incarnated and lived the idea that ultimate reality is beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind with more purity and concentration than the Buddha. This in part explains why the Buddha’s discourses say nothing about the existence of a Supreme Being, for example, or about immortality. Such questions “tend not to edification” since they are put by the deluded mind which is quite content to speculate endlessly about these matters while clinging to the very beliefs which perpetuate its suffering.

Its strategy of negation has misled many Westerners into thinking Buddhism is pessimistic and antilife. Some have even thought of nirvana, the ultimate goal of Buddhist discipline, as a sort of spiritual suicide. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact there is no religion which has a higher estimation of human possibility. It is only that it is not spoken of directly and positively. The exalted level of nirvana can be seen indirectly by attending to everything which the Buddhists say it is not. It is not love, consciousness, peace, freedom, happiness, or immortality in any sense that we understand. We are given no words for it because we have no experience of it; and in the absence of a corresponding experience, names merely purchase further illusions. The Gospels, we may recall, also speak of the “peace that passeth understanding.”

We come to the conclusion that just as the great mystics and saints of our own traditions could describe the Supreme Reality only by negation and analogy, so the Buddhist tells us of nirvana. Since, however, nirvana also designates the whole of reality, then we see why Buddhism also refuses to admit that our ordinary thinking and language can accurately be applied to anything that is real. Thus, reality is also named the void or emptiness.

A final note – especially important when we come to inquire if a genuine Buddhist way can take root on our own soil. Buddhist moral rules are never ends in themselves. It is essential to realize that ethical commandments in the Dhammapada are understood as necessary preliminaries to any greater spiritual development.

What is especially valuable about the Dhammapada is that it shows us there is no real separation between true human morality and the process of inner development. The admonitions and insights in this great text resonate on all levels of our search for our authentic humanity. At one stroke they bring inspiration to our halting everyday efforts to care for our neighbor and guidance in our efforts to look into ourselves for the radiant energy that is traditionally termed the Buddha nature.

The Dhammapada presents itself as the actual sayings of Gautama Buddha and was originally compiled for the growing community of Buddhist monks. It was apparently in existence by the time of the emperor Ashoka in 250 BC, and quickly became popular with all schools of Buddhist thought and practice. It is now no doubt time for it to speak more universally to the whole of our morally and spiritually hungry modern world.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

More Than Writing

The Beginning

"How is it possible to bring order out of memory?  I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, 'This is the place to start; there can be no other.'

But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names - Mwanza, Serengetti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru.  There are easily a hundred names, and I can begin best by choosing one of them - not because it is first of of any importance in a wildly adventurous sense, but because here it happens to be, turned uppermost in my logbook.  After all, I am on weaver.  Weavers create.  This is remembrance - re-visitation; and names are keys that open corridors no longer fresh in the mind, but nonetheless familiar in the heart."

The Ending

"All this had happened, and if some of it was hard for me to believe, I had my logbooks and my pound of scraps and papers to prove it to myself - memory in ink.  It was only need that someone should say, 'You ought to write about it, you know.  You really ought!'

And so the little freighter sat upon the sea, and, though Africa came closer day by day, the freighter never moved.  She was old and weather-worn, and she had learned to let the world come to her."

Somewhere between the beginning and the ending, I was captured by West with the Night.  Captured as surely as if a net had dropped from a tree quickly snaring and jerking me off the surface of the Earth which had been boring and solid only a moment before.

Of West with the Night, Ernest Hemingway said, "A bloody wonderful book."  However, that was just part of what he said, the last sentence to be exact.  His entire statement was:

"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night?  ...She has written so well and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.  I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen.  But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers really is a bloody wonderful book."

Beryl's masterpiece was published in 1942 when she was 40 years old.  , It remained an obscure adventure story until George Gutekunst, a California businessman, read Hemingway's remark in a volume of the writer's letters.  He found a copy of West with the Night, read it, and convinced a publisher, North Point Press, to re-release it in 1983.

Beryl was 80 years old, living in poverty while training horses at Nairobi race track when she was "re-discovered."  Her final three years were lived as a renown author with an international fan base.

And now, finally, my point.  This story isn't about a "high-grade bitch" or a poor, 80-year-old horse trainer, who died thirty-one years ago in Africa.  This story is about a book, West with the Night, and what, for me, makes it stand out from the tens of thousands of book I've read in the last seventy years.  A list that ranges from the Dick and Jane Series, which I endured to learn to read the Phantom on my own - and it includes my all time favorite - Round the Bend - and, though I'm hesitant to give it any more publicity, The Whistler, which is the worst novel I've ever started (so bad I couldn't finish it).

Now, I'm pondering, what makes West with the Night singularly memorable on my reading list?  Not the genre.  I've read hundreds of adventure books, many of them about flying.  Not that it is a memoir. I've read at least a hundred of those, most written by men and women whose lives left a more lasting mark on the trail of history than Beryl's did.  

"What then?" I ask myself, and the answer drifts down as soft as a single feather whose flight began in a place I know not - because "She has written so well, so marvelously well..." 

I have no better words than the ones Hemingway used to describe the book, but I do have something else, Beryl's eloquent and memorable recollections, captured first on paper and then in my mind... words strung together to form phrases like:

"A life has to move or it stagnates.  Even this life, I think.  Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday."

"A lovely horse is always an experience... It is an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words."

"I have lifted my plane... for perhaps a thousand flights and I have never felt her wheels glide from the Earth into the air with knowing the uncertainty and the exhilaration of first-born adventure."

"For all professional pilots there exists a kind of guild, without charter and without by-laws.  It demands no requirements for inclusion save an understanding of the wind, the compass, the rudder, and fair fellowship."

"After that, work and hope.  But never hope more than you work."

And then there's the one I always think of when I think of Beryl Markham:  "Life is life and fun is fun, but it's all so quiet when the goldfish die."

And I remember that it is never about the storyteller, or even the story.  It's always about the way the story is told...


Friday, January 20, 2017

Life After Inauguration Day

Ralph & Julie
After reading And Then It Was 2017, my friend, Ralph Miller, commented, "I hope you'll blog something about how to live in the post... world that's coming..."

So I will.

In a few minutes, Donald Trump was just sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.  From this day, Jan 20, 2017, and for the next 1,459 days, he will serve in that position.  It's that time period that Ralph was referring to when he said, "I hope you'll blog something about how to live in the post... world that's coming.

I told Ralph that I would, however a handbook for that has already been written.  Actually, it's a short pamphlet, 19 pages to be exact.  But don't let the brevity fool you.  It has everything we need to know about living in "the post... world that's coming."

It begins:

This moment is it.
There is no "better" moment
than this one. 

And continues:

... You may observe
some emotional tones
to this particular moment...
in which case it is already seen
from another moment
and is not this
but that moment.

A few verses later the author instructs:

Can you describe this moment?
Be careful?
The slightest distance
from this immediate experience
will move you off center.

And on page 17 the author speaks directly to the question:

Whatever has been
is gone.
Whatever will be
does not yet exist.
In this space
we reside.

Those who would distract you
with notions of speed, growth
and decay are merely nervous.

Remain steady in the Stillness.

"Remain steady in the Stillness," That's how to live in this moment... and this one... and this one... and this one....