Digging the Present Moment


eastern-earth-space-nasa

 

 

The trick is to learn to value this moment and not waste a second comparing it to another, completely hypothetical, “better” moment.  All this lusting after peak experiences is the source of much chronic sorrow. It’s like a low-grade fever. You’re not actually sick or in pain, but you don’t feel that hot, either.

 

We don’t need to wait for permission, certification, the box from Amazon to arrive, someone to value us, the day we win a contest, for an unexpected bonus to jog us from our torpor. This is it! It already arrived. It’s here right now. Come and get it!

 

 

 

Then and Now


Image     THE MIDWEST THEN, THAILAND NOW

 

Chiang Mai reminds me of the Midwestern college towns I lived in back in the late sixties and seventies. Back then, I was a student living in a student ghetto.  Here I am a foreigner, a retired expat, living in a tourist ghetto with my peers.

 

Just as before, my days are filled with selfishness and seeking after pleasure.  My only responsibilities are to myself.  Back then I debated cutting class or bothering to go. Should I change my major?  Today I wonder where will eat.  Which of the many massage parlors will I grace with my presence today?   In the spring of 1970, student riots spread across our country, mostly in reaction to the Viet Nam War.  For some, it was merely an excuse to flaunt authority and get a first taste of tear gas. The president of the University of Missouri announced that groups of three or more people were not permitted on campus, and that a curfew would be enforced by campus police.

 

Two days ago, in the spring of 2014, the Thai military staged a coup d’etat, arrested all the political leaders of all parties, deployed soldiers to enforce a strict curfew, and declared groups of five or more to be subject to arrest. All television broadcasting ceased, save for the army channel, which featured a graphic reading “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council,” with patriotic music in the background.  This display was punctuated at unexpected intervals by a short clip of a Thai army general reading a pronouncement along the lines of “The constitution has been suspended,” or “all internet communication is being closely monitored.”

 

Back in our Midwestern college town we celebrated the fact that we could now forego attending class with the best excuse of all, there was no class.  Final exams were cancelled.  Some universities gave everyone a grade and course credit anyway, others declared the whole spring semester as washout.   Here in Thailand, the number of tourists dwindled steadily over the months of unrest, and has now hit a new low.  When I arrived at the airport in Bangkok two weeks ago, it was strangely empty.  Usually I have to wait up to an hour to get through immigration, but in this case, there was no one ahead of me in line. This is turning into the lowest low season ever, and businesses that cater to tourism are hurting mightily.

 

Except for the four dead in Ohio and a few academic buildings burned down, the student unrest of 1970 left little permanent damage. At least in this country, many of the changes ended up being beneficial. Confidence in government and authority took a nosedive, but that might not have been such a bad thing. Aside from a few hillbilly college presidents blaming outside agitators for the student riots, most Americans learned something beneficial from the experience.   I don’t know what’s going to happen here in Thailand. Will anybody learn anything new, or is this just a replay of the 18 other coups that have happened in recent memory?

 

In 1970 I carried a draft card and was required to display it on demand by any officer of the law.  On a spring break trip to Juarez, Mexico, we were stopped by the highway patrol of every state between Missouri and Texas and obliged to show our draft cards. Sometimes we were frisked and our car searched by police looking for marijuana. At that time, at least in Texas, a possible penalty for possession was death. Fortunately, we didn’t have any.   A few years later, I was happy to learn that Nixon was forced to resign mid-term, and the year I graduated from Iowa, the North Vietnamese finally won the war they had been fighting first with the French and then with America.

 

My graduate assistantship had been to program entertainment for the student coffeehouse on campus, but when I approved a Viet Nam Victory rally sponsored by a legitimate student group,  the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, my employers at the Student Union bowed to public outrage and fired me.   Here, nothing has happened to make me feel like I am really part of the problem or the solution. Foreigners here are simply walking wallets. These political troubles concern only Thais. The man who runs my guesthouse is apologetic and slightly embarrassed that the television and Internet no longer function, but there’s nothing either of us can do about it. It’s a fact of nature, like the intense heat we’re now enduring, or the monsoon rains that are sure to come any day now.

My First Coup


Image

 

 

My First Coup d’etat

 

The military declared martial law a couple of days ago, but nobody thought too seriously of that.  Happens all the time here in Thaiiland. Sure, there was a modest show of force with a few tanks and trucks full of soldiers appearing at prominent intersections, but the soldiers seemed content to merely watch girls walk by. No shouting, no arrests. I found myself laughing at the concern expressed in the international press and from friends e-mails asking if everything was OK. This is a Buddhist country, and people place great importance on maintaining their cool.

 

On the other hand, Thais bring the same passion to politics that they bring to sporting events.

 

Thais love uniforms. Boy Scout uniforms, nurses uniforms, school uniforms, even uniforms at the University level.  They enjoy being a member of a big group where everyone dresses alike. But such conformity allows for other passions that simmer beneath the surface and which seem unfavorable for dispassionate discourse and compromise, the processes that make democracy work. So there’s doesn’t work very well, but they all seem to enjoy the many rally’s they get to go to, with endless speeches and colored banner waving.

 

Last night, while I was watching TV, a BBC show explaining the ramifications of martial law in Thailand, the screen suddenly went dark.  I flipped to other channels, and they were all dark, as well. Then a banner appeared on some channels, a statement written in Thai and then in English, The National Peace and Order Maintaining Council.  Military music played, which here sounds like operettas from the 1930’s. Every once a while the graphic would be replaced by a medium long-shot of an officer reading something. Then back to the graphic and the patriotic tunes.

 

Turns out there has been a coup d’etat.  The military is now in control of everything.  TV and radio, Internet. Freedom of speech and the Constitution suspended. There is a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. No groups of larger than 5 persons can meet. The leaders of various political parties have been arrested.

 

Wow, I’m suddenly living in a Graham Greene novel. I wanted to see what it was like on the streets and stock up on food and drink in case I would find myself trapped in my room for a while. A lot of people were milling about, all giddy with excitement.  People were buying things impulsively, crazy things, liked donuts.  I bought a 2 liter of Coke and some yogurt.  What does one buy for a coup d’etat?

 

 

Image

I have a book of essays for sale on Amazon Kindle


It’s called Pickers on the Loveboat.  I would be delighted to see one purchased.  $5

http://www.amazon.com/Pickers-Love-Boat-Dan-Coffey-ebook/dp/B00J0ZXOFO/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1400809011&sr=1-1&keywords=pickers+on+the+love+boat

I would also be willing to refund the book’s cost to you via pay pal if you promise to write a review of the book. It’s hard to sell a book that hasn’t been reviewed.  Let me know.

The Scam That Keeps on Scamming


Image

 

\

Portion of US factory workers who have a college degree:  ¼

Portion of University teaching positions that are led by graduate students or adjunct faculty : ¾

Percentage of college professors teaching online classes who do not believe that students should receive credit for them:  72

 

These three facts tell of a world of trouble with the U.S. higher education, yet nobody dare pull the plug on it, because how else are we going to induce compliance with and bolster confidence in the absurd and completely artificial construct that sells internationally transferrable credit hours and certifications? What if the people who owe the over trillion dollars in student loans suddenly decide they were tricked and have no intention of repaying?

 

Higher education is our gatekeeper to jobs that let you sit in an air-conditioned office and play with your computer. If we let just anybody compete for cushy jobs without first enduring this systemized hazing, why would anyone first endure years of superfluous schooling?

 

To keep the barbarians at the gate, we must all believe in the importance of education. In Iowa, it’s practically the state religion. We might not have much in the way of scenery, but darn it, we have good schools. Or we think we do.

 

If I had to do it all over again, I would have skipped college and gone on to some sort of self-employment, learning valuable skills along the way. Having always harbored an aversion to hard work of any kind, I’m not sure what that might have entailed, but since it’s all moot at this point, I’ll encourage the reader to imagine me with grease on my hands, lying on my back underneath a leaking truck engine. Anyone who actually knows me might have a hard time picturing such a scene. Because, like most of us, I hoped that the university would be my ticket to Easy Street.

 

Fortunately, I didn’t incur debt as I learned to drink coffee mornings in the student union, and beer at night, while developing  an appreciation for the Firesign Theater. So my lost years weren’t really lost, just a sort of prolonged adolescence. Instead of drinking too much beer at night in a blue collar tavern after a hard day in the shop, I drank too much beer in grungy student apartment after a long day of goofing off. I thought reading Kurt Vonnegut was my job, not something one did for leisure and relaxation, after work.

 

But even though I didn’t emerge from six years of higher education any poorer, I did become a certified softie. After graduation, when I travelled in Mexico, people assumed I was a priest. They could tell these hands had never gripped a machete or a hammer.

 

Now that I’m older, I’m often mistaken for a psychiatrist. Again, no one has ever assumed I knew how to fix a car or an air-conditioner, for I wear my artificial sense of entitlement easily.

 

Unlike their South American counterparts, the real upper class in this country has learned to amass most of the wealth by simply playing by the rules. The bank bailout after the 2008 mortgage collapse resulted in this largest heist in recorded history, the greatest transfer of wealth ever recorded. And none of that money is ever going to flow back down to the middle class, at least in our lifetimes.

 

So what advice would I offer my eighteen-year old self if I could go back in time and meet me? Learn a skill that rich people need, and then hang around with rich people until you get some of their money. And remember, most learning is not accomplished in an institutional setting. Anything else is an uphill battle, with the slope getting steadily steeper over time.

 

Why do you think there are so many more plastic surgeons than pediatricians or geriatric specialists? Would you rather be an investment advisor or a Wal-Mart greeter? I don’t know how many Wal-Mart greeters have college diplomas, but I imagine over time the number will equal the percentages of investment advisors on whose office walls hang framed diplomas. 

IS PERSEVERANCE OVERRATED?


Image

Either you exist or you don’t; either you’re alive or dead.  People who are alive tend to repeat the same behaviors over and over again. If eventually such behaviors result in success, we applaud their“perseverance.”

But isn’t the reward of this label, like the Oscar’s Lifetime Achievement Award, really just a tautology? Even the worst shot will eventually hit the target. Do we really need a special marksmanship award for this? Isn’t all success at long last the result of perseverance, or simply not giving up? Maybe we’d all be better off if certain people had given up sooner and then went on to do something to which they were better suited.

Far more deserving of nurture are those who enjoyed early success and none afterward. Think of the rock stars who became celebrities in their early twenties and were never heard from again. What are they up to right now? Are they sitting in a rooming house lobby or an AA meeting and droning on about the time in the early seventies when they drank or did drugs with this or that celebrity, and slept with this that man’s wife?

These are the men and women who need to be brought back to the limelight before it’s too late. What’s Gloria Gaynor doing right now? Her anthem “I Will Survive” literally changed the lives of tens of thousands of women, and a few homosexual men, as well.

No, I don’t want to even search for her on the Internet. For all I know, she died of an overdose in 2001, or was beaten to death by an angry anti-disco mob in Islamabad last year, but instead of letting the facts invade my solace, I would like to believe that she’s a happy grandmother in good health, living near her family, volunteering to teach music at a nearby orphanage.

OK, so Gloria doesn’t need our help, but what about Gilbert O’Sullivan?  Leo Sayer? The lead singer of Heart, you know the pretty one with the weight problem.  Are they discouraged, resentful, in need of just a fraction of the praise they once so freely received?  Have they found meaning and delight in an entirely unrelated line of work? Usually, former TV actors either go into real estate or become oil painters. Sometimes they do both.

When Mexican TV cowboys Pancho and Cisco saw the handwriting on the fifties television wall, they stepped out of their colorful gaucho clothes and went into real estate, doing quite well. It was hard not to do well in Los Angeles real estate in the decade after the war.

Often, maintaining your original course isn’t a sign of virtue, on the contrary it’s sometimes the result of having no apparent better option. I’ve been steadily if slowly learning to play the piano for more than fifty years. I’m still not very good at it. Is that virtue or vice? Success or failure? Do I deserve admiration or pity, an award or pubic castigation?

Yet someone could easily say that I’ve shown perseverance, and that’s a virtue, right? Obviously we could stretch this argument to its breaking point. John Wayne Gacy displayed remarkable perseverance in killing boys and burying them under his house. Against great odds, he remained undetected for years. Likewise, Hitler and Stalin stayed in power for decades, foiling plots against their lives and at least in Hitler’s case, the near total destruction of his country. Still, he was able to slip away to South America, where he lived to a ripe old age. If anybody  could stick with a problem, it was ‘Dolf.

I suppose perseverance is a subset of constancy, the ability to stay on task or on course no matter what happens. There are some people who get married and stay married for the rest of their lives, immune to temptation or the desire to make a better deal down the line. Others are always second-guessing their initial choice, imagining that they sold themselves short and will do better the next time.

Perseverance seems dramatic and courageous, while constancy sounds like a Victorian virtue for women who are housebound. In a world of wardrobe malfunctions and viral Youtube fame, constancy sounds very tame indeed. Wouldn’t it be interesting if it made a comeback, and if our new heroes will show determination and constancy, against all odds?

Imagine a love song about a woman who can be depended on, rather than about someone who is hot.

“Ooh baby, you’re totally predictable, and I dig it!”

IN ON THE JOKE


01-photographing-love

 

SO BAD IT’S GOOD

An ironic stance gives its subjects feelings of intellectual and even moral superiority. It can feel good to delight in the misfortune of others. In a way, it’s an expression of gratitude that we were spared that humiliation. So when we share and mull lists of the worst album covers ever, or listen to The Shags, or cluck our tongues at Elvis imitators, we are silently whispering “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Most bad art is recognized as such. Much of it in intended for children or the underclass. Most of the fans of professional wrestling are not well-educated. Did anybody over the age of 10 ever think the Monkees were comparable to the Beatles?

Surely art made for children was always a bit obvious the strokes overly broad, the colors too bright, the point belabored in case little Timmy couldn’t catch the meaning.

Pop music, intended for young teens features cloying, repetitive melodies. Likewise, bubble gum is packaged in bright containers and comes in excessively fruity flavors.

But what of bad art that doesn’t know it’s bad? Some people who ought to know better simply can’t get enough of it.

Our fascination with kitsch isn’t just about demarcating a line between bad and better, or infantile and sophisticated, but is an expression of a genuine puzzlement as to why anybody deemed this worth sharing in the first place.

Some artists are merely frauds and poseurs who hope to attain the status of artiste, but then there are loads of perfectly sincere people who simply have no talent at all and this lack of talent and discernment blind them to that fact.

Most of them have no ironic distance on what they are doing. Their tongue is not in their cheek. They are sincerely bad at what they are trying to do, but they do it anyway.

Camp art became popular in the 1960’s about the same time the hippies emerged. It was deliberately created by people who should have known better, as a way of thumbing their noses at the Establishment, and to provide an in-joke in order to amplify the cohesion of their in-group.

Naïve art has always been with us, and is valued for its authenticity and lack of pretension. But now, thanks to the Internet, everyone is searching for the next epic fail, the newest work that is so bad it’s great.

No longer the domain of the over-educated and snobbish, camp is no longer restricted to a certain class. Everybody, even the participants, know that Reality TV shows are meant to be appreciated ironically.

Whole-heartedness and authenticity might be in decline, as Youtube succeeds in minting millions of new painfully self-conscious producers who use irony as a cloak to hide behind.

Elvis and Bing had no ironic distance on what they were doing. They did their best to entertain. And for that they were rewarded with more than a few minutes of fleeting fame. From about 1935 to 1955, every minute of every day Bing Crosby’s voice could be heard somewhere on this planet. Today, there are more than eighty thousand full-time Elvis impersonators working in over a hundred different countries, and every year since his death in 1977, Elvis Presley enterprises makes more money than the year before.

A few actors have worn irony well. Early in his career, Vincent Price was first serious, then by the sixties he became camp. He seemed in on the joke, while the interior decorating pretensions of Liberace or the noveau riche are often seen funny and sad at the same time. We like to look down and laugh at trailer trash.

Some of the hundred hours of videos posted every minute on Youtube go viral, making some people famous overnight. Think Gangnam Style. What is it like to be famous for massive incompetence? How does it feel to laughed at, not with, yet still enjoy celebrity?

What’s it like to be the only one not in on the joke?

When I was a boy, I read Superman comics, and remember clearly the moment I realized I was sophisticated enough to get the whole concept of Bizarro World. In that crude approximation of our reality, values were inverted. Bad was good. “Bizarro Lois, this food tastes terrible!” “Thank you, Bizarro Clark.”

When we share and laugh at bad art, we are asserting our sophistication. Ed Wood movies are incomprehensibly bad. That’s why Tim Burton made the eponymous movie. This century has its own Ed Wood, a guy named Tommy Wiseau, and his deservingly mocked feature The Room. I remember cringing through quite a few Henry Jaglom movies, a seventies/eighties ersatz Woody Allen who seemed to lack a sense of humor.

Seems like today the entire nation of North Korea qualifies as not being in on the joke. You can nudge and wink at Kim Jong Un all you want, but when you’re done he’ll still stand you in front of a firing squad.

The Downside of Being Wired


 

 

japan

 

 

HOW MUCH CELEBRITY GOSSIP DO I NEED?

 

Do I need to sign up for e-mail alerts so I can be notified the moment Lindsay Lohan goes back into rehab? What happens if a major Hollywood scandal breaks while I’m asleep? If I am to believe the Internet promotions I routinely receive, I might suffer the greatest humiliation of all, being outside the loop at exactly the time when everyone else in inside.

 

No, there’s simply too much at risk to let my need for celeb news flap in the winds of chance. If I’m going to be a fully-functioning member of society, I have to know what everyone’s talking about and be plugged in 24/7. Thank God for the many Internet “news” services.

 

The last guy who serviced my computer arranged for the MSN home page to pop up whenever I go online.  I haven’t figured out how to change that setting, so I always get my first dose of what doesn’t matter the moment I flip open my laptop.

 

The things we pay attention to matter, at least to us, in that they determine our growth.  We become good at whatever we practice. If I spend more time focused on the sex lives of younger, better looking people than me, my own sex life will suffer, not just in comparison, but in absolute terms.  Only so many of my brain cells can be pre-occupied with sex, and if they’re all given over to the hearsay happenings of people I don’t personally know, then my own sex life is going to be bleak indeed.

 

Entertainment News makes death seem like a aberrant event, and as an entertainment option it is worthy of note for at it’s hard to top death as a story element. So imagine the power of a celebrity death! Taken too young, at the height of his or her beauty! I just googled “celebrity death” and up popped autopsy photos of Heath Ledger and Whitney Houston. Fearing my psyche and sanity were in danger, I closed the page as soon as I realized what I was looking at.

 

I recently toured Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, and ran into a group of American tourists. When I asked them what they were looking for, they confessed they were only interested in finding Eva Peron’s grave. Hers was the only celebrity grave they knew about. Having been of the same mindset on my first visit, I remembered being surprised how relatively humble her crypt was, at least compared to some of her neighbors in the city of death, who were resting underneath a prodigious mountain of marble angels frozen in Victorian gestures of mourning.

 

So it takes the collaboration of historians to separate the merely rich from the famous. I mean, how many of the rich bankers buried there have had musicals written about them, much less a movie starring Madonna?

 

The whole idea behind celebrating only a few important personages has to do with cutting to the chase.  We simply don’t have enough time in any one day to investigate all the people we might encounter, so it’s easier to just keep tabs on a representative few. There, individuals can stand in for whole categories, and we can free ourselves to concentrate on…to notice….to focus on…what’s really important, which is…er, what was I saying?

 

The other great problem with celebrity watching involves the fact that it’s a form of voyeurism.  Watching others from a hidden or secret place is not only creepy, it’s exhausting because there are many more of them than there are you. How do you decide when you’ve spied enough?

 

The few times I’ve been in the presence of a real celebrity, I’ve noticed that they’re pretty much like the rest of us, and that there’s nothing besides the over-familiarity brought by too much photography to explain their specialness. That’s not to say that they’re not perfectly nice, hard-working people who take care of their families and try to do the best they can.

 

Whoever is making a profession of snapping sneaky morgue photos of newly dead celebrities must have moments when he wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders what he’s really accomplishing with the gift of life

 

Being mortal is just one aspect of having feet of clay, and it’s the clay feet that is probably the most important trait besides beauty and talent for someone to qualify for the role of Modern Celebrity.

 

 

Independence, Missouri or Yaguaron, Paraguay?


 

 

 

THE REAL MC COY

We were driving back to Encarnacion from Asuncion when the bus broke down.  There are few paved roads in Paraguay, but we happened to be stopped on one at a pretty-nice-for-these-parts restaurant when the driver informed us that a coolant hose had sprung a leak and we would have to wait for another bus to make the three-hour journey to pick us up.  We would arrive home six hours late. It had already been a long day with the temperature hovering around 100 degrees, and even now past midnight the night was correspondingly warm and muggy.

 

This happened in Yaguaron, a town the local Guarani Indigenous people believe is the Garden of Eden, the home of the original man and woman. As I dozed on a torturously uncomfortable bench, trying to ignore the giant trucks roaring by only a few yards away, I strained to imagine this as the first Paradise. It was impossible to imagine Adam and Eve running around naked here. In fact, I found it hard to imagine life existed here before air-conditioning.

 

But then I remembered when I was in Peru, we visited an island in Lake Titicaca, a giant body of clear, freezing water that stretches from Peru to Bolivia.  The indigenous people who live in the middle of it on the island of Taquile believe that their little island was the home to original man and woman, who sprang from behind two hills on the island, one called Mama hill and the other, Papa hill. Since the lake is at 12,000 feet and the hill rises another 1,000 I was gasping when I reached the top. I couldn’t see any signs of Adam and Eve, but since the setting sun was beaming directly into my eyes, and I was still mostly concerned about catching my breath, they might have been darting about, or hiding behind goats.

 

But why venture so far for our origins? Closer to home, near Independence, Missouri, seventy miles north of Kansas City to be exact, is a site the Mormons believe to be the Garden of Eden. Like Paraguay, Northern Missouri is soybean country, and it strains credulity to think that our first earthly paradise lost is now Roundup Ready. Here, in Jackson County, Missouri, proto-uber father Adam called all his sons together and gave them his blessing just before he died at the age of 930. All this was revealed to Mormon founder and Prophet Joseph Smith, who saw the scene in his mind’s eye before the arrival of the fast food restaurants and motels which now celebrate what the Mormons celebrate as the birthplace of mankind. 

 

Maybe somebody could organize a colloquium so the Guarani and Quechua speaking indigenous peoples of Paraguay and Peru, as well as Mormons of America could argue why their claim to the birthplace of all mankind should be honored and the others discounted. It seems only logical that there can be only one Garden of Eden, right?

 

We treat matters of religious belief as harmless individual preferences, the equivalent of preferring one brand of cola to another, but not a week goes by when I don’t read in the newspapers about someone dying from religion, usually a child in an exorcism gone wrong, or a sick person who won’t take the medicine that has been scientifically proven to be helpful because he already asked Santo Expedito for help, and to try to hedge his bet would be an insult to the patron saint of urgent causes. Religion can be deadly, no doubt about it.

 

Turns out that molecular biologists are now able to synthesize cloned life forms from their DNA.  You can send someone an email with the DNA code as an attachment, and using those instructions, create a clone at a distant location. And this is just the first step in what promises to be a real eye opener for anyone who cares about the difference between science and “Creation Science.” What took natural selection a billion years of hit or miss can now be done precisely and to order in a few days. 

 

So a Mars Rover could scoop up some dried Martian algae, analyze its genetic spectrum and then beam that information back to earth in less than five minutes. That same piece of algae could be recreated here on earth. 

 

I hope I’m alive when this sort of thing comes to pass. The Bible tells us that Adam lived to be 930, but if we can get cracking with stem cells and start replacing worn out body parts, who knows how long a non-smoking bicyclist and swimmer like me could last?

 

 

HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT WE KNOW AND DOES SCHOOLING HELP?


WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW?

 

Newton used a prism to discover that light is composed of colors, first noticing five familiar colors, then upon closer inspection, seven. He wanted there to be seven colors to correspond to the seven notes of a well-tempered musical scale. Like most scientists, he was pleased by elegant solutions and unified theories.

 

But there really is no strict declination of colors, for light is a gradient, a spectrum of frequencies. He just felt like naming seven. He could have decided sunlight is composed of three colors, or three thousand. We create categories to simplify our observations, and sometimes we forget that our simplifications are also reductions. We end up believing our own bullshit.

 

The distinctions we draw and the categories we create probably say more about us than they do about the outside world.

 

In Russian, there are two words for the color blue. Goluboy corresponds to what we call “light blue” and siniy describes “dark blue.” Why they have chosen to delineate the color blue in this way is anybody’s guess. When asked, Russians will often say that the color represented by the word “goluboy” is more closely related to what we call green than it is to the color represented by their word “siniy.” What are we to make of that?

 

Borges talked about a highly idiosyncratic Chinese text, The Celestial Encyclopdia of Beneficial Knowledge in which animals were grouped in the following manner : those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained, suckling pigs, mermaids, fabulous ones, stray dogs, those included in the present classification, those that tremble as if they were mad, innumerable ones, those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, others, those that have just broken a flower vase, those that from a long way off look like flies.

 

We are all familiar with the story about Eskimos having many different words to describe ice and snow, for frozen water forms the majority of their environment, but that doesn’t mean that Eskimos really think about or understand water any differently than the rest of us.

 

The act of writing, of putting thoughts on paper or the Internet, of public discourse and discussion is related to, but fundamentally different from, just thinking about stuff. Great writers tell us what we already know, but in the process they codify it succinctly, so it´s not just floating around all nebulous inside our heads.

 

The codification process often involves categorization, but making categories stands in the way of digging what Buddhists call the “suchness” of things, or what Thoreau called “the bloom of present moment.” The process of dissection kills the patient. 

 

There is an indigenous language in Patagonia that contains a word which describes the moment when two people who are attracted to each other don´t know what to do or say next. In effect, it describes the moment before the kiss. We only have a word for the kiss itself, but they’re just as interested in the build-up.

 

So how do we know what we know and how do we talk about it with others? If you’re psychic, you’ve come across the difficulty many times before. When someone asks you “how do you know that?” you pause and then reply “I just do, that’s all.”

 

In academia, precious new is revealed, but there are still people writing their dissertations on the writings of Shakespeare and Jane Austin. Academia fails to reward brash creativity as much as it honors windy discourse. There are precious few full-time academic positions in the Humanities, and the downfall of many a practicing creative writer has been to leap at the offer of one only to lose his or her soul in the process.

 

Originality is not held in the same regard in all parts of the world.  In Asia, being a cohesive member of society is valued more than being a daring rebel. Tribal people don’t think of themselves as individuals in the same way Americans do.  They probably have no word for “rugged individualism.” When Guatemalan indigenous writer Rigoberta Manchu won the Nobel Prize in literature for her memoir of the government massacres of her tribe, a Western academic later found that parts of narrative described events that had not actually happened to her, but rather to another member of her tribe.  She readily admitted the license she took, saying “In my people, we don’t make such distinctions.” For a while there was talk of withdrawing the prize, but then the sticklers decided to let it ride.

 

Writers actually make terrible writing teachers because if they knew exactly what they were doing when they were writing, the process of writing wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. This probably holds true for painters, dancers and composers, as well. There are a million ways to make enough money to survive, and most of them aren’t as lethal to inspiration as sitting in a little room with the title of “professor” written on the door, grading papers and unmasking plagiarism.

 

But getting back to the way we see and talk about the world…there’s much more out there than we give the world credit for. You can troll the Internet looking for the unusual and bizarre, or scan websites looking for celebrity news and scandals, but that process doesn’t lead to an appreciation of the complexity and majesty of human experience. In fact, it’s counterproductive to that cause. Surf the web too long and you begin to get a bad taste in your mouth. Chronic disappointment.

 

There are seven billion people on this planet, and each one of them shares the same hopes and fears. What a maze of possibilities! Add to that the absolute certainty that we’re all going to die and we haven’t the faintest idea when…what a crucible within which to meld the elements of Drama!

 

Habituation is the enemy of discovery, and a lot of the products or forums we have created to celebrate life have developed the strange ability to demean it while pretending to do just the opposite. Beware of institutions and the second-hand access to what is important and real that they peddle.  They have stolen your birthright and now want to peddle it back to you with their certifications and branding attached.

 

Most real learning occurs outside of an institutional setting.Image